As you “like” it

A Reading Note

A brilliant analysis of the evolution of “like” in American English, from the beatnik-hippie usage where “like” conveyed a sense of awe or wonder too big to be put into words, to its now ubiquitous and performative use by teenage girls:

Adeptly employed, “like” acts as a kind of quotation mark in conversations that no longer work discursively, but work more like TV commercials or movie trailers. The word introduces a tiny performance, rather than a description, a “clip” displaying a message in highly condensed gestural and intonational form…as in this girl’s report on an encounter with an ex-friend:

“She was, like, ‘I’m so happy for you…? But she didn’t know that, like, I already knew what she said to him…? So I just played it, like, we are the sync sisters…? Because I wanted her to find out that she, like, had this booger hanging out of her nose the whole time…?”

Each “like” is followed by a fleeting pose, held for just an instant—the whole performance is a string of “takes”—and the ends of key phrases curl up into questions, seeking audience indications that the visuals have been received…the interrogatory incantation takes on a tentative tone, a tone that reaches perpetually for reassurance and permission to go on.

de Zengotita, Mediated, page 84

The need for reassurance reminded me of this, from John Berger:

To be born a woman is to be born, within an allotted and defined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space.…A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

She has to survey everything she is and ultimately everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial important for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 46

Taken in that context, the use of “like” among adolescent girls is mere practice—a means to invite criticism from her peers about the identity she is trying on. It is at once a perverse and skilfull means of acquiring power within a society reluctant to give it.

Related books


Thomas de Zengotita

de Zengotita investigates the ways in which our experience of the world is mediated through traditional media (television, newspapers) as well as the ways in which we self-mediate.

Ways of Seeing

John Berger

Based on the BBC documentary, Berger begins with a retelling of Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and concludes with a brilliant analysis of modern day advertising and its roots in Renaissance-era oil painting.