The Grammarphobia Blog

He’s, like, you know, a hunk!

Q: Any idea when teenagers starting using “like” and “you know” in place of “um”? I’m an author working on a story set in 1978 and I’m trying to get it right.

A: You’re safe putting “you know” into the mouths of 1970s characters. It’s been a common verbal tic for centuries. (We’ve written several items on the blog about the empty expressions  that litter our speech, including a posting last year.)

As for “like,” there are two colloquial usages of the word, and one of them may be too recent for your purposes.

(1) The first (and earlier) usage has been a part of American slang since the 1950s. Here, “like” is used as an interjection, either for emphasis or to hedge a statement. Examples: “He’s, like, a hunk!” … or … “This weighs, like, a ton” … or … “You’re, like, the best.”

(2) In the second usage, the verbal phrase “be like” introduces quotations (real or approximate), as in “She’s like, ‘Who’s that?’ ” … or … “I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding!’ ”

This “quotative like,” as it’s sometimes called, is the one that was popularized in the 1980s in Valley Girl speech.

So your characters might be expected to use “like” No. 1, but not “like” No. 2.

We’ve written about “like” in our book Origins of the Specious, and Pat has done an On Language column on the subject for the New York Times Magazine.

In case you’d like to know more, read on.

“Like” No. 1, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was first recorded in 1950. The quote, from Neurotica magazine: “Like how much can you lay on me?”

This use of “like,” according to Random House, was originally associated “with jazz musicians, later with beatniks, hippies, and teenagers.”

Interestingly, some usages very similar to “like” No. 1 (if not indistinguishable from it) have a history dating back nearly 500 years, according to entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In these cases, “like” is used parenthetically to qualify a preceding statement, or before an adjective. Its meaning is roughly “in a way,” “so to speak,” “as it were,” or “in the manner of one who is” (with adjective following), the OED says.

The dictionary cites scores of examples. We’ll give just a few here, along with their dates.

1513: “Yon man is lyke out of his mynd,” from a poem by William Dunbar. (We love this one!)

1596: “All looking on, and like astonisht staring,” from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

1778: “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offense,” from Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina.

1801: “Of a sudden like,” from the novel Mysterious Husband by Gabrielli (the pseudonym of Mary Meeke).

1815: “In honour of the twelve apostles like,” from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering.

1838: “If your Honour were more amongst us, there might be more discipline like,” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Alice.

1840: “Why like, it’s gaily nigh like to four mile like,” from an essay on style by Thomas De Quincey in which he ridicules the overuse of “like.”

1911: “He hasn’t passed his examinations like. … He has that Mr. Karkeek to cover him like,” from Arnold Bennett’s novel Hilda Lessways.

Perhaps the most common pairing of “like + adjective” is “like mad,” which has been going strong since the 17th century.

The earliest citation is from Henry More’s An Antidote Against Atheism (1655): “For she was then seen … in her fetters, running about like mad.”

Samuel Pepys, in his famous Diary, used the expression in 1663: “Thence by coach with a mad coachman that drove like mad.”

And Samuel Richardson used it in his novel Pamela (1741): “Several Harlequins, and other ludicrous Forms, that jump’d and ran about like mad.”

Here we’ll stop, lest we drive you, like, mad.

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