Thursday, July 21, 2005
On Language 7/20: What has ‘Clueless,’ like, done to language?
This week marks a milestone—a tragic one, some would say—in the history of American English. Ten years ago this week, the movie “Clueless,” starring Alicia Silverstone, was released. And our language was, like, forever changed.
“The interesting thing about ‘Clueless’ is that the language was basically another character in that movie,” says Carmen Fought, linguist at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “A lot of research was put into it to really capture how Californians talked at the time, and I think that was the first time that people in different parts of the country got a clear exposure to all the features of the California dialect.”
A more complete and authoritative treatment of “like” is Geoff Nunberg’s essay “Like, Wow!” in his delightful collection “Going Nucular.” He traces “like” to the beatnik era of the 50’s:
And, probably most influentially, at least in the culture at large, there was Maynard G. Krebs, the goateed beatnik wannabe that Bob Denver played on the late-fifties TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Krebs was given to saying things on the order of “Like, wow! That is, like really, like cool!”
And here’s Nunberg on the function of “like”:
... there [is] method in it—one way or another, “like” lays a certain distance between speakers and their words. Sometimes it can soften a request, as in “Could I, like, borrow your sweater?” Sometimes it communicates disaffection: “Whaddawe suppose to, like, read this?” Or you can use it to nod ironically at the banality of your words, as in, “Do you suppose we could, like, talk about it?” That’s one use of the word that just about everybody has picked up on; I even use it in e-mail.”
- Episode 3 of PBS’ Do You Speak American
(includes Amy Heckerling reading from her Clueless thesaurus: scroll down or do a Ctrl+F search for “Heckerling”)