It seems that "to be like" is an informal phrase for "to say". E.g.

She was so angry, she was like "I'm breaking up with you", and I was like "I'm sorry", and she was like "Go away".

Is this a recent thing? When did "to be like" start to be used to mean "to say"? It doesn't seem to be in any dictionaries (yet) (I might be wrong, though).

It would be interesting to know why the words "to be like" came to mean "to say", although I realize that the answer to the majority of "why" questions is "just because".

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    I've heard this for the past twenty years. It's largely supplanted the "he/she goes" construction, as in "And I go, 'Wow, cool,'" and she goes, "Yeah, totally."
    – Robusto
    Jul 12, 2012 at 12:57
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    Similar in at least one other languages: German (Example: Und ich so: "bla bla"). That's why I think the etymological background is quite interesting. Is it just for Germanic languages or do other languages also contain such a thing? And is it imported from English to German, or German to English; if not already existing for many many years?
    – Em1
    Jul 12, 2012 at 13:36
  • @Matt: Now that I've reviewed your "Valley Girl" link I believe this to be a duplicate. I think the excellent answers there more than cover the topic. Mods, I recommend a merge.
    – Robusto
    Jul 12, 2012 at 14:00

6 Answers 6


The OED’s earliest citation is dated 1982. It is from Frank Zappa’s song ‘Valley Girl’, which has the line ‘She's like Oh my God.’ The entry is for to be like, and it is described as colloquial and of US origin and as being ‘used to report direct speech (often paraphrased, interpreted, or imagined speech expressing a reaction, attitude, emotion, etc.); to say, utter; (also) to say to oneself.’ A further note says

Often used to convey the speaker's response to something, or to introduce segments of an ongoing conversation between two or more speakers. Sometimes also used to introduce a gesture or facial expression evocative of the speaker's feelings.

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    Zappa's song was documenting a particular form of speech that arose in the California valley--IIRC there was also a magazine article at that time exploring the dialect... Jul 12, 2012 at 15:50

As someone who used to be among native speakers of that dialect...

There are many usages that are getting conflated in the other answers here:

  1. Like, he was mad at me, man.
  2. He was, like, 'I am so mad!'
  3. He was, like, mad at me!

You're only asking about usage 2. In this case like isn't acting as a discourse particle--it most definitely is not standing in for 'um' or 'err'. (That's use 1, which is a much older usage.)

It acts (acted?) as a non-specific way to introduce a third party's contribution to a conversation: the speaker is not necessarily quoting them directly, but instead is communicating the intent of what they said. He said, 'I am so mad!' would communicate something different--that that is what was actually said. In this case, the speaker means that what he said was 'like' (similar to) 'I am so mad', but not actually that.

Usage 3 is more about using the word as a community-defining shibboleth.

But hey, usage probably has shifted in 30 years.

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    And then I was all, Alex nailed it. And then EL&U goes, ya maybe. And I was like, whuuut?
    – choster
    Jul 12, 2012 at 16:15
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    @choster: that is such a great comment. I mean, like really, you know? Jul 13, 2012 at 22:28
  • As a young person who has spent his whole life using these constructions I can tell you definitively that the explanation of usage 2 is not correct. The answer from helloworld below sums it up perfectly. This construction either introduces a direct quote (and not a paraphrasing) so I would say #2 only to convey that he literally said “I am so mad.” Or you can use this construction for basically the equivalent of a though bubble in a comic. Example: “When I saw the purple dinosaur I was like ‘WTF is going on here?!’” - I don’t mean that I literally said that, but rather that’s what I thought.
    – Danny
    Jul 4, 2019 at 7:23

Since I am all too frequently faced with this at work, in an American middle school, I should point out out that while it does double for the ubiquitous um, it also means that they may be paraphrasing. In other words "I don't remember what he said but he meant go away"

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    +1 I don't remember what he said but he meant OOOO seems the most succinct way to express the meaning. Jun 17, 2013 at 9:27

The expression you're referring to is actually just "Like" and not "To be like."

"Like" is used by some people as a discourse particle. In other words, it's another way of saying "Um..."

Ex. I, like, don't know what you're talking about.

North American teenagers have been stereotyped to be followers of this trend. It's part of a bigger sociolect (or social dialect) called "Valleyspeak" and associated with a certain group originally from the San Fernando Valley in Southern California.

The whole sociolect started in the 1970s.

As to how "Like" evolved to include the meaning of "I said" as well, here's the link to a previous topic here at EL&U: Is Valley Girl speak "like", entering the language?

  • It started in the 1970s? How do you explain its use by the beatnik subculture in the 1950s? If you don't believe me, listen to this comedy album, which was made in, I believe, 1959. There is an extensive riff on the word "like" and its usage.
    – Robusto
    Jul 12, 2012 at 13:54
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    I got it from Wikipedia: "Valleyspeak or Valspeak is a common name for an American sociolect, originally of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, in particular Valley girls. This stereotype, which ORIGINATED IN THE 1970S, became an international fad for a certain period."
    – Cool Elf
    Jul 12, 2012 at 14:32
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    Then your "it" is ambiguous. Making the final sentence a paragraph on its own exacerbates the ambiguity, making you appear to address the entire subject, not simply the preceding paragraph. The question is about the use of "like" and not Valley Girl speech. In other words, you have elevated an afterthought beyond its capability to function.
    – Robusto
    Jul 12, 2012 at 14:44
  • Then why don't you just help me edit it?
    – Cool Elf
    Jul 12, 2012 at 15:01
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    That's not entirely accurate. It's not just the 'like', it's also the 'to be'. See the similar construction: "She was all, 'oh my god', and I was all, 'I know, right?'". Jul 12, 2012 at 17:28

I think the actual phrase is I'm, like, "Go away". 'Like' as a meaningless interjection (the thing is, like, I don't know what to say, like) probably became popular during the sixties; many people see it as a sign of the incipient fall of Western civilization, but I find it hard to see how it's worse than Er. I am I believe to be a Generation X locution for I think/ thought as well as I said; this is just a combination.

Bear in mind also that, just as with I sez, the number of times I'm, like, is repeated is inversely proportional to the likelihood that whatever it was was actually said.

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    +1: I think you're on the right track, but it's a little more than that. It's not so much a meaningless interjection as an informal quotation marker. "Like" used to be an interjection back in the mid-20th century, but has branched out into this new form of meaning without conscious reference to the older usasge.
    – Robusto
    Jul 12, 2012 at 13:16
  • That's the way it started, but as we can see from the question, it's also interpretable as be like = say. It certainly gets used that way in ordinary discourse, and since everybody makes up their own grammar for slang expressions, there is no doubt that many people interpret it this way. One needn't speak of "the actual phrase", as if there were only one, carved in granite and approved by the Academy. Jul 12, 2012 at 14:03
  • If it's a meaningless interjection, if you take it away, what's left is this: I'm, "Go away." In this instance, "I'm like" means "I said." An example of "like" as a meaningless interjection would be this: I was, like, wanting him to go away.
    – user64602
    Feb 3, 2014 at 19:15

Apparently it's called the 'quotatative like,' and you can read about it in this great Boston Globe article. From the article:

“I was like” is neither just “I said” or “I thought,” but an opening into either direct quotation or inner condition, as well as a much wider range of dramatic reenactment or, especially on the Internet, visual representations of feeling.

When I've used the 'quotatative like,' I mean to convey more than I said/he said/she said, etc. I'm not just saying that somebody said, "Whatever," I'm also saying their attitude and demeanor was like, "Whatever."

Also, while Raalestins' thoughts on the matter perhaps concern a linguistic phenomenon that occurred among culturally different speakers at a different time, the "like" and "be" have the same function in the uses under discussion.

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