Word Matters Podcast

In Defense of 'Like'

Word Matters, Episode 9

word matters podcast logo

'Like' is a wildly versatile, fascinating word and we're here with guest editor Serenity Carr to give it its due. Seriously. Like, there's nothing wrong with it. Later we'll tackle the story of 'mean', which was a perfectly nice word for centuries before it developed a bit of an attitude.

Download the episode here.


AMMON SHEA, HOST: There's a wide range of ostensible problems with language, which only seem to come up when women do them, even though they're obviously every bit as common among male speakers.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI, HOST: Mean is complicated. We have to get through the hard part, which is, there are three means, three etymological words that are spelled M-E-A-N, that have nothing to do with each other.

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on Word Matters, the annoying like and what we mean when we say mean. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, produced in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. There are, like, words that annoy people and then there are words that, like, really annoy people. Love it or hate it, the word like performs some interesting feats in the language. In this segment, we are joined by Merriam-Webster editor Serenity Carr. Ammon Shea is like, "Hey, Serenity. Tell us more about like."

AMMON: We love to talk about people's linguistic peeves. One of the reasons that these are so entertaining is that they tend to engender considerable passion on the part of people who care about language. And the most notable examples for this, certainly of late, is the humble little word like. A word that people truly love to hate. Serenity, you've done considerable work and research into like. What is it that gets people so het up?

SERENITY CARR, GUEST: So there are some modern uses that are objected to in use, and they actually have quite a lot of function, but people like to say, "Oh, this is a useless word, and you need to stop saying it. It's just a filler word and it doesn't mean anything," but it does have a lot of meaning.

AMMON: Filler words tend to carry some sort of meaning, right? I mean, they're performing a function at least, right?

SERENITY: Oh, sure.

AMMON: Right. And so what-

EMILY: What are some other examples of filler words, just for people who aren't familiar with that term?


EMILY: Um. Yeah.

AMMON: Well, look.

NEIL SERVEN, HOST: So is a word that I use a lot.

AMMON: Right.

NEIL: Before and after sentences.

AMMON: Sure initial so is a big one lately. New kid on the block.

EMILY: So what is like as a filler?

SERENITY: Well, it has a few different uses. I think the most common one is the quotative like, and that one's a little bit older than the rest. And a lot of older generations are saying, "Oh, the kids are saying this and we don't like it," but it's different than a regular quotative. If someone says, "I said 'Hi' to John," then you know that the word he said was hi. But if someone says, "I was like, 'Hey man'," then maybe he didn't actually say the exact words "Hey man," he just aimed a greeting at someone.

AMMON: So the quotative is paraphrasing what you've said, right?

SERENITY: Right, and it can carry some emotion with it, too. Some people might say, "And I was like, ....," and not even follow it with words.

AMMON: Uh-huh (affirmative). Okay, so it's either paraphrasing or it's expressing sentiment, rather than a direct quote.


AMMON: That seems like it could be distinctly useful.

SERENITY: Yes. So there's one use of like that's used to minimize the impact of a statement. Let's say someone wants to borrow 50 bucks from a friend, but they feel uncertain about asking for this favor. They might say, "Hey, can I, like, borrow 50 bucks?" So they're sort of reducing the impact of that, they're not just coming right out and saying, "Can I borrow 50 bucks?"

AMMON: So it's a buffer word.


AMMON: Huh. It has a lot of adverbial uses, I know. And one of the ones that seems to come up a lot is approximate of use, like giving an approximation of something, right?


AMMON: "I must've given you like 50 bucks in the last week."


AMMON: I mean, it could be 50, it could be 60, it could be 40.

SERENITY: Right, exactly. Yep. That's for an approximate amount, if you don't know.

AMMON: Right. So even though we can use this word in almost the same exact space, it's actually performing a very different function, and it's subtle until you pay attention to it, but it's definitely carrying real weight in the sentence. It's doing work.


AMMON: It's not lazy and shiftless the way people have always said.

SERENITY: No. Not at all.

EMILY: No, it's subtle and it's super efficient. You think about what like does in communicating, "Can I, like, borrow $50?" The semantic content there is significant and it's very efficiently done. It makes me think of an emoji, thinking of text messages. It's a verbal cue that packs a lot of wallop.


AMMON: Is it performing any other function?

SERENITY: Oh, yeah. I was doing my research and I thought, "Well, I'm not finding very much on this one, so let me just go out and talk to people." I was in college, so I had access to a whole bunch of 18 to 22 year olds, and I would listen to them talk, and I'd say, "Okay, what did you mean by that?" Or, "Would this have been the same if you said it without like?" And what I found was there's this sort of emphatic use where they're saying, "I was, like, so angry," and it's adding to that so. If they say, "I was so angry," that's one level of anger, but if they say, "I was, like, so angry," there's the like and there's the pause, and there's really this, "I want you to pay attention to how angry I am."

AMMON: Right, so it's functioning almost like an intensifier in some senses.


AMMON: Wow. This is great. Why do you think that this word occasions so much umbrage?

SERENITY: Oh, because young girls use it.

AMMON: That seems like it's the most likely explanation, I think.

EMILY: Such an easy target for the ire.


EMILY: Linguistic ire.

NEIL: And unfair, too, because I grew up using it all the time. I don't recall distinctly being criticized for it unless very specific contexts in a classroom, perhaps when I was just not as assertive enough for the teachers liking.

AMMON: It is a wide range of ostensible problems with language, which only seem to come up when women do them, even though they're, obviously, every bit as common among male speakers. The up-talking at the end of a sentence is one. Vocal fry, I mean-

EMILY: Vocal fry.

AMMON: ... I mean, that's got to be, I think, one of the most idiotic things to criticize somebody for. That's just my personal feeling on the matter, which is, of course, subjective. But the idea that women are subject to vocal fry, but men are not, is just absurd.

NEIL: And the uptalk, I think, is associated with Valley Girl speech. We don't think about surfer culture or anything like that, that we would attribute to boys. We label it with labels, like Valley girl and things like that. It creates this trope that we then look for, and then want to criticize when we see it.

EMILY: I will say that any of these kinds of like, when they are used a lot by a speaker in a limited amount of time, that they stick out, I think they're noticeable. So I think that, also, is something that's going on here, that it is something that people notice just the same way that we notice uhs. I mean, if a public speaker uses a lot of uhs, it can be distracting to an audience. And I think that there are some cases where like is also really noticeable and sticks out among some speakers in some situations.

AMMON: How far back would you say the adverbial like, the quotative like, go?

SERENITY: Oh, a ways.

AMMON: It's mainly found in spoken use rather than written use, right?

SERENITY: Right, it is.

AMMON: Which is, obviously, much harder to track.


AMMON: One of the things that I thought was so interesting about like is that it's a peeve that shifted ground, and now, it's this word that everybody, as I said, loves to hate. But in the 1950s, there was the great imbroglio over the Winston cigarettes when they used like as a conjunction, "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should." Again, using like as a conjunction rather than using as. And people were really quite upset about that. Huge numbers of newspaper articles were written about it. People would publicly scold Winston. Winston was utterly delighted by this as a company, because they got just gobs of free publicity. And they even came up with a variant on this. They changed their slogan in some ads: "What do you want? Good grammar or good taste?" And it was a rousing success for them. And, today, I feel like if you asked most people under the age of 40 about the scandal with Winston and like, they have no idea what you're talking about.

EMILY: Nobody knows about that anymore, or nobody cares about it anymore. People remember it still.

AMMON: Right. If you're listening to this and you, A, know about it and, B, care about it, it means, officially, you are old.

EMILY: Even if you're not numerically, you are spiritually.

AMMON: This qualifies as a 100% embossed seal certificate of age.

EMILY: I just had this flashback to the first time I ever heard Kelis' song "Milkshake," I was so excited. The line is, "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they're like, it's better than yours." Do you guys know this song? It's a really great song actually.

NEIL: I don't know.

EMILY: But I was so excited because it had the quotative like in it. And I have never heard quotative like in a sentence like that, in a song, I mean. Do you guys... I'm alone in this?

SERENITY: I know that-

EMILY: You know the song?

AMMON: You and your quotative milkshake are all alone.

EMILY: Can you think of other songs that have the quotative like?

SERENITY: I don't think so.

EMILY: I don't... Yeah, that's why Kelis is absolutely brilliant.

(music break)

EMILY: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after this break with what we mean when we say mean. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

PETER: I'm Peter Sokolowski joined me every day for the, Word of the Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

NEIL: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us wordmatters@m-w.com.

(music Break)

EMILY: If you hear someone described as mean, what mental picture do you get? Are they stingy humble, cruel? Are they trying to make fetch happen? Next, Peter Sokolowski on the surprisingly rapid evolution of a common word.

PETER: I always love looking at the way we use words today compared to the way these same words were used not so long ago. And in the case of the word mean, M-E-A-N, mean, as an adjective. I want to start by asking my dear colleagues, what is the most common way to use mean as an adjective, as in mean girls?

NEIL: "He was mean to me."

EMILY: Unkind.

PETER: Yeah. And you said, Emily?

EMILY: Unkind.

PETER: Unkind.

AMMON: Unkind.

PETER: Cruel, harsh. That is the only way, almost, that I think of this word. Once I was watching Gosford Park, and the word mean was used clearly as an adjective, and it clearly didn't mean unkind or cruel. And that movie's set in the 1930s, it's also set in Britain, and I thought there's another mean, there's another meaning to this mean. And it turns out in that sense, it meant stingy or cheap. And I thought, "Well, that's funny." Of course, I later learned, I looked it up, that's still a current use in British English. But it got me to thinking about this word, seeing how it evolved and when it evolved, because it turns out that the unkind or cruel sense of mean is actually quite a new one. It's the newest, but what's interesting to me is that it has obliterated all the previous ones. This probably happens more often than we think. mean is complicated. We have to get through the hard part, which is, there are three means in English, three etymological words that are spelled, M-E-A-N, that have nothing to do with each other. There's the mean that we use as a verb as in, novelty means newness, and that's from Old English, that comes from the Old English word that means, to have in mind. So mean, as in carrying meaning. There's the one that refers to the mathematical average, like the mean temperature, and that comes from French, directly from French. It's from the Latin word, medianus. In French, the word is meien. And this is also the mean temperature, the mean average, but also, this is the one that becomes a noun, a man of means, or a means to an end. This is the one that evolved in that way. And finally, there's the one that we're talking about that becomes the adjective, meaning cruel or unkind. And that comes from Middle English, and originally, did not mean cruel or unkind. It came from the word that meant common or shared. And so it originally meant in English, "humble" or "ordinary" or "inferior." There's a quote from Benjamin Franklin I have, that he's talking about mixing ingredients to create dynamite. And he says, "By knowing the nature of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, these mean ingredients mixed, we can shake the air in a most terrible manner." And so mean just simply means ordinary, common, every day. That's what was meant by that. Now humble was immediately, or very quickly, in the 15th, 16th century transferred to people. And if you're describing someone as humble as a person, especially in the early modern era, it's often in contrast with noble or royal or some kind of aristocracy. And so we see that in the King James Bible, for example, "Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men." And that's referring to non-noble men. "The mean man boweth down," from the King James Bible. "The great man humbleth himself." So they make the distinction, the parallel, right there. Shakespeare used it this way, too. Richard II, "That which in mean men we entitle patience is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts." So he makes this distinction, again, between the mean and the noble. And in Henry V, a great rousing speech, "Few, we happy few, we band of brothers. There is none of you so mean and base that hath not noble luster in your eyes." So again, it's a real great parallel between the humble and the noble or the rich. And the word, demean, the verb demean, comes from this, to make humble or to make lower. And that's an interesting sidelight on this, too. Humble then continues on in the word mean to turn into a description of things that are humble, shabby, poor, poorly constructed. Charles Dickens uses it in Nicholas Nickleby: "In an upper room of a mean house situated in an obscure street." Now what mean house today, that doesn't really convey anything.

EMILY: I feel like that's a use that has been familiar to me since childhood, from reading-

PETER: Did you read older books?

EMILY: Yeah. From reading older books. That use of mean, more than the humble, more is that sense of want.

PETER: Sure.

EMILY: And it feels Dickensian.

PETER: Yeah, and from that period, Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. And that's stuff that I read when I was young. I must have encountered this, "A small mean-looking, middle-aged man with rounded shoulders." And I am sure I could have interpreted that to mean-

AMMON: Cruel.

PETER: Cruel. Probably not what was intended, and almost certainly not what was intended by Doyle. Mean-looking simply meant shabby, not rich. Evelyn Waugh uses it, so this is a good bit later, but 1945, Brideshead Revisited, he's in disgrace, "Coming out in that beastly rat-catcher coat and mean little tie." And it's a derogatory use, but it's a judgment, but it's not a moral judgment, just appearance.

EMILY: Well, sometimes our moral judgments are attached to-

PETER: Right. They have to do that, of course, of course. But then we get to this idea of mean streets. Mean streets, it turns out that's used quite frequently to refer to the poor neighborhoods of a city. I had to look up this word in this sentence from Harper's, "Out of the kennels of mean streets, whose meanness marble palaces and flowering gardens screen," or hide. That word kennel. We actually define it in Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary as a house or dwelling place regarded as unfit for human residents. We would think of the word kennel only in terms of animals, but there was a human use of that, that's dropped out of language. We actually dropped it from our collegiate dictionary. It's no longer in the dictionary. Again, but it makes the meaning here quite clear, that we're talking about poor streets. That Mean Streets, if you think of the Scorsese film, we probably think of something very different, right? The title in the 1970s of being a scary place or an unkind place, or a cruel place. Citations you can find for mean streets in the late 19th, early 20th century, and they're almost always in the locations of where poor people live. And so again, it gives you that context of this word has shifted. And that word, humble, that's maybe not the first way we think of this word today, but it does remain in almost a vestigial way, in the idiom, no mean feat. And, of course, that can be applied in other ways: no mean accomplishment, no mean distinction, no mean writer. And it just simply means not a humble. So it's a negative way of saying a positive thing, of making a positive statement about someone. Finally, we get to, from this lacking nobility sense, it actually meant lacking dignity and bringing down. And you're starting to make this class judgment or moral judgment. In Jane Eyre, there's the sentence "I was a precocious actress in her eyes. She sincerely looked on me as a compound of virulent passions, mean spirit and dangerous duplicity." Mean spirit here, not meaning cruel, but meaning unprincipled or low or base in that sense, low regard.

EMILY: Very interesting.

PETER: Yeah. Because it's the moral part that comes later. And that's the cheaper, stingy part where you start to judge someone and you judge what they do. And that's in Jane Austen, for example, "I would not wish to do anything mean," is the sentence. And it's about someone leaving money to the family, and so it clearly means stingy in that case. And this is where we got that sense from Gosford Park in the sentence, it's spoken by Maggie Smith in character as an elderly Duchess, "They always send up a good breakfast here. I'll say that for Sylvia. She's not at all mean in that way." She's not at all stingy in that way. But what's interesting to me is that these are uses of this word that have almost completely disappeared from American English.

AMMON: Yeah. I think it is interesting that cause a lot of times the words are so flexible that we can take in dozens and dozens of meanings. And this really feels like it's an invasive species, and it's not just the semantic drift. It's not just taking on a new meaning, it's ripping out the other ones.

PETER: It's being mean. It's taking over. But you're right. And it's very possible to read these older statements, even from the King James Bible or whatever, and you might just interpret it with the modern definition, and then you really wouldn't get to what was intended by the author. And especially the subtlety of, for example, just saying shabby or humble, which is not so judgmental. It's more just a statement of a condition. What's interesting, too, is that when we first start seeing this use, it's in reported speech and usually in that of the young. And so this typical way in which we observe language change-

EMILY: You mean, the modern uses where it means "unkind"?

PETER: Unkind or cruel. The first instances that I found, for example, put them in scare quotes, "I decided in my own mind that Mr. Maxwell was a 'mean, old thing'." from 1907. Or the series of books called The Motor Girls, which was like the Hardy boys or Nancy Drew, a series of novels for young people. The Motor Girls at a time when cars were new. "Cora," she exclaimed. 'I have been mean hateful to you.'" So they gloss it in that, but it's in the voice of a young woman. And then finally from Ethan Frome, from Edith Wharton in 1911, "Gentleman friend gone back on you? Say, Matt, that's tough! No, I wouldn't be mean enough to tell the other girls. I ain't as low-down as that." So again, informal speech, youthful speech, reported speech, informal, and that use of mean. So it's interesting that it seems innovative, so much so, that it's only spoken or reported spoken speech.

NEIL: But also in that last example, tying it to low down. So there's ties back to the class attribution, the peasant attribution, so to speak. So I think there are these really hard to identify and circle on a page, but always undercurrent of commentary about the lower classes, the humble parts, and mean streets being... I think we interpret it now as a street where something bad can happen to you, but we don't exactly say what. And the idea is just shading the previous meaning of streets where the poorer neighborhoods are. There's no logic there that necessarily poor is necessarily going to result something actively bad happening to you, but there's a connotation.

PETER: Yeah, and that gets to what Ammon said as this poisoning or infecting the other earlier meanings. They blend together, don't they?

NEIL: Yeah.


PETER: Because it's not going to be in a wealthy neighborhood where you'd be afraid for your safety.

NEIL: Right.

EMILY: The semantic development of this word is offensive, this linking of poverty and of not having enough to cruelty is really offensive.

AMMON: I think the fact that mean has pushed these other words to the curb and kicked them out, it's nominative determinism at its finest.

EMILY: When you first started talking about, I have this Dickensian association with mean, in these senses that I know, and I think I've always known on some level that are old fashioned, then I also think I associate it with the mean stable of Christmastime of Jesus's birth-

PETER: Ah, there we go, there we go.

EMILY: ... right? I think mean is a word-

PETER: Humble.

EMILY: ... that's associated with that... I can't remember. I'm sure it's in A Christmas Carol or something. It's very clearly in my mind. I just can't place it.

PETER: It was probably written in the 1800s and it carried that meaning.

EMILY: Right.

PETER: Yeah. Merriam-Webster, who didn't put this definition in our dictionaries until 1934, until the Second New International, the so-called Webster Second, the big, unabridged dictionary. And even then it was stigmatized. It had the label "colloquial U.S.," and the definition was, “Characterized by petty selfishness or malice; contemptibly disobliging or unkind; ill-tempered; fractious.”


PETER: It's a great definition in the old way, yeah.

EMILY: Do you know if this use of mean is fully established in British English now?

PETER: You know, I don't know.

EMILY: Because my sense is that the older meanings of mean live on in British English to a degree.

PETER: Oh, I think that's true. And it's probably not so surprising at all to them, and those carols are typically English. And certainly, that use of stingy is certainly current, but whether it goes back to the humble or non-noble, that's a good question. However, of course, if it's sitting right there, if it's in Shakespeare, for example, and used that way in Shakespeare, that means it's taught that way somewhere. Whoever is reading Shakespeare is going to encounter that usage. And I think it's important with Shakespeare, especially when he uses words that we still have in the language, but he's using them in a meaning that we don't first think of, that's where it gets exciting and interesting, to teach the way the language has moved on and carried on. We've kept this word, we know what it sounds like, it doesn't mean here what you think it means.

NEIL: We would be remiss if we didn't talk about another sense of mean that has developed maybe more recently. When I think of someone saying, "That bartender makes a mean cocktail," completely different from the original meaning and completely different from the sense of cruelty. It's talking about being impressive, talking about something that just astounds-

AMMON: Something bad.

NEIL: In a good way.

EMILY: Bad as good.

PETER: That's the lean, mean sense? "He's a lean, mean athlete," or, "She plays a mean trumpet." These are totally positive senses.

NEIL: Right. The idea of aggression as a positive attribute, possibly. Something that's a mean cocktail, it's going to make an assertive impression on you.

PETER: We do lump this positive sense, meaning excellent or effective, into the subsenses, that includes the unkind and cruel sense. So you're right, there is a kind of evolution there that has continued to this euphemistic sense.

NEIL: Right, it's like we're describing wrestlers or something, or boxers. We want them to be mean, that's a good thing.

PETER: It's a good thing.

NEIL: And if your wrestlers are mean, and your cocktail is mean, too, then it's a good thing.

PETER: But Ammon points out the word bad is a perfect example of this. And that's very informal for sure, but, "That was a bad solo you just played," and that everybody understands in the context that that means something extraordinarily good. It's really remarkable. Anyway, that's the lowdown on the humble word mean.

(music break)

EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!