I think we’ve been unfair to the word “like.” It’s colloquially used as a filler word — something to say when you don’t, like, have anything else to say yet. This use of “like” is usually associated with Valley Girls, but its origins are older and vaguer than that.
“So what?” you ask. “It’s a verbal tick. A word for wasting time.”
Well, there’s a second use of “like” in Valley-Girl-speak which is subtly different from this one. As a filler word, “like” just wedges itself in the middle of an otherwise-normal sentence. But we can also use it to say things such as, “and then I was like, ‘why don’t I just go to a restaurant?'” Here “I was like” is being used similarly to “I said,” instead of being inserted as meaningless filler. “I was all” and “I was all like” can also be used this way.
But “I was like” does not always literally mean “I said.” It can also mean that I said something different which can be paraphrased in a certain way. If you ask me to do your taxes and I tell you “I really don’t have the time for that,” I could later say that I had been like, “no way,” although those aren’t the words I used.
Of course, “said” can also be used like this. Paraphrasing is more commonly associated with “like,” but it can work with “said” too. This next part, however, is unique to “like”:
“Being like” can also describe an attitude. If say I lost my keys and that I was like, “oh my God,” that doesn’t mean that I literally said “oh my God.” But it also doesn’t necessarily mean that I said anything at all. It means that I was frustrated to the point where saying “oh my God” would have been an appropriate expression of my feelings.
When we use “like” like this, we get to express ourselves in an entirely different way. If I’m describing myself trying to get a lawnmower started, instead of saying that I was confused and angry, I can say that I was like, “how does this thing even work?” This lets us interject a lot of flavour. It’s a much more emotive, conversational way of speaking. If I want to express that even more strongly, saying “I was like, ‘wow, how does this piece of junk even work’” is a much more evocative way of dialing it up than “I was very confused and angry,” because it’s a miniature performance. It lets us show feelings instead of just telling others about them.
I’m fond of this particular use of “like.” I think it’s an excellent tool for expressing emotion. Since using “like” this way is associated with Valley Girls, there’s a bit of stigma surrounding it. But I think that’s silly. “Like” lets us use English’s tools for expressing our own feelings (such as tone, interjections, strong language, etc) to describe feelings someone else had, or feelings we had at a different point in time.
Such a useful piece of language deserves more recognition as the gem that it is.