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Like It or Not, a Discourse Marker Making Its Mark on a Wider Stage

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on Wordmaster: a report from NBC News that caught our attention.

RS: It's about a word that is spreading like no other.


FEMALE: "Like, I saw these guys who, like, were really cute."

MALE: "And he was, like, 'Yeah' and I was, like, 'What do you mean?"

FEMALE: "Because, like ... "

MALE: "Are you listening to me? Like, you are not listening to me."

AL ROKER: "It's, like, everywhere."

MALE: "You got, like, three feet of air that time."

AL ROKER: "It's used in commercials."

FIRST ACTOR: "Just gives you the feeling, like, she's not, like, listening to me."

SECOND ACTOR: "Have you tried not saying 'like' every other word?"


AL ROKER: "It's used by celebrities."

ROSEANNE BARR: "Like, if it was, like, a psychic thing and he was, like, 'OK Roseanne ... '"

AL ROKER: "It's even, like, used by our president."

PRESIDENT BUSH: "And, like, citizens, you know, I don't like that at all"/"If I think the story is, like, not a fair appraisal, I'll move on."

MALE: "It gets out of control. It's like a like crisis."

FEMALE: "Like totally, dude!"

AL ROKER: "The word like has gone from California slang to worldwide phenomenon."

CARMEN FOUGHT: "Like is what we call a discourse marker, which means, like 'um' or 'uh,' it takes the place of a little section where you're thinking."

ACTRESS: "He went from, like, totally chic to totally geek."

AL ROKER: "So, like, when did it all begin? Experts say the 1983 movie 'Valley Girl' put the term on the map."

MOVIE: "Man, he's just like trippindicular, you know"/"It's like I'm totally not in love with you anymore, Tommy."

AL ROKER: "But it was the movie 'Clueless' that really launched like into our everyday vocabulary."

MOVIE: "People came that, like, did not RSVP, so I was like totally buggin'."

CARMEN FOUGHT: "After that movie came out, I do think we saw a spread of like into new areas."

AL ROKER: "Do you use the word like a lot?"

FEMALE: "Yes."

AL ROKER: "Like how?"

FEMALE: "Like that."

AL ROKER: "Like what?"

FEMALE: "Like how?"

AL ROKER: "Like how?"

FEMALE: "Like yeah."

FEMALES: "Like totally!"

AL ROKER: "OK, give me a little Valley Girl."

FEMALE: "Like totally!"

AL ROKER: "I like this."

FEMALES: "Like totally!"

AL ROKER: "I like it a lot. When you're talking, do you ever use the word like?"

MALE: "Like what?"

AL ROKER: "Do you like like?"

FEMALE: "I like like."

AL ROKER: "Do you like like? So what's the word like in German?"

GROUP: "Wie [pronounced vee]."

AL ROKER: "Do you ever use the word like?"

MALE: "Yeah."

AL ROKER: "How do you use it?"

MALE: "Like, I don't know."

AL ROKER: "Like you're not sure?"

MALE: "Yeah."

AL ROKER: "Do you ever hear how the young people use the word like?"

MALE: "Most of them are idiots."

AL ROKER: "But like it or not, one thing is for sure: You're loving like."

GROUP: "I love like."

AL ROKER: "They love like! Well, Carmen Fought is, like, expert on the word like. She's a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in California. Like, welcome, Carmen!"

CARMEN FOUGHT: "Like, thank you so much."

AL ROKER: "How did this make the jump?"

CARMEN FOUGHT: "You mean to other countries?"

AL ROKER: "Right."

CARMEN FOUGHT: "Well, basically what happened is that they were interviewing celebrities like Brittany Spears or ... [laughter, crosstalk] SUCH AS Britney Spears. There you go. And since these celebrities were using like in their quotes in newspapers and so forth, you began to see that a lot in places like Australia, South Africa.

"Then Australian pop stars and people would begin to say -- in the media, would begin to use like that way. And then eventually it passed to just the common person on the street in Australia or South Africa saying, 'There was this, like, shark biting my leg.' [laughter]

KATIE COURIC: "And you called it, what did you call it in the piece, a language interrupter? Or what did you call it?"

CARMEN FOUGHT: "A discourse marker?"

KATIE COURIC: "Yeah. So what does that mean, a discourse marker?"

CARMEN FOUGHT: "Well, we all need a little space to think sometimes about what we're going to say. And this occurs in all languages. In Spanish they say 'este.' In French they use this weird sound that I can't pronounce."

ANN CURRY: "But how we talk and how we think can somehow be related sometimes, and so is there any evidence that this may slow our thinking or mean that we're getting lazy in our thinking when we use something that's a discourse marker?"

CARMEN FOUGHT: "Well, I don't think so. I think everyone uses them."

KATIE COURIC: "I was thinking that it's almost because we talk so rapidly and try to get so in on the high pace of the world that you don't have time to really articulate and have sort of brain-mouth coordination, you know. You know, you know -- that's what I do. [crosstalk]"

MATT LAUER: "Is like just [a phenomenon] today? I mean, are we going to be seeing this die out and fizzle out in the coming years and we'll have another word we'll all be griping about?"

CARMEN FOUGHT: "Are you going to be sad if I say no? [laughter] I think it's here to stay, because it's spreading."

AA: Linguist Carmen Fought, talking with Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry on NBC's "Today" show.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.