August 17, 2007

Like totally presidential

Listening to President Bush's press conference last Thursday, Patrick McCormick was surprised by the sentence quoted below (as per the transcript at

It surprised me, frankly, because the impression you get from people who are reporting out of Iraq is that it's like totally dysfunctional -- that's what your -- I guess your kind of -- your friend or whoever you talked to is implying.

Patrick's reaction:

It struck me as unusual to hear an old fogey like George Bush use "like, totally". So I'm curious, is it unusual for people over age fifty -- old conservatives in particular -- to use that construction? Do you suppose he acquired it from younger staff?

Over age sixty, even -- W was born 7/6/1946.

[Update -- I've added some actual facts at the bottom of the post. If you want the executive summary, it's that

  • Adults were using discourse-particle like fairly frequently in professional settings, even a decade ago;
  • Contrary to stereotype, men apparently use it more than women do.


First, let's get some transcriptional issues out of the way.

Here's the audio from the phrase in question, first in context and then by itself:

Here's my transcript (which is the same as the official one, except for false starts and filled pauses):

I've- I've- it surprised me, frankly, because
the impression you get from
people who are reporting out of uh
uh Iraq is that
it's like totally dysfunctional.
That's what your- your- I- I guess your kind of-
your friend or your- whoever you talk to is implying

Second, I'd like to point out that this is not an isolated case. On July 19, 2007, President Bush said:

And the reason I say that, it just shows how difficult it is to do what some assume can be done, which is, like, totally seal off the border.

And on April 2, 2004:

I mean, I think it's a wonderful story about a mom and a wife who, instead of getting, like totally distraught with the circumstances, says, I'm going to go back to school.

So it seems that W is a regular user of "like totally" But I don't think this is surprising for someone W's age. That's because I say things like that myself, and I'm only a couple of years younger than he is. And I think I have a reasonable story to tell about why this is.

High-frequency use of totally is now associated with Valley Girl modes of speech, especially when it's used as an emphatic adverb meaning something like "definitely", e.g. "omg, that's totally going on my myspace". But as an occasional modifier of gradable predicates (like dysfunctional), totally has been totally unsurprising for hundreds of years. Thus Jane Austen, who was fond of the word, wrote in Emma:

Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities, which Mrs. Elton is totally without. An unpretending, single-minded, artless girl --- infinitely to be preferred by any man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton.

As for the use of like as a particle "to express a possible unspecified minor nonequivalence of what is said and what is meant", as Muffy Siegel quotes Lawrence Schourup as putting it, it's also now associated with ValSpeak, but it started with the beat generation in the 1950s ("it's like nowheresville, man") and continued with hippies in the 1960s ("it's like psychedelic, man"). I'd guess that Moon Unit Zappa's generation got this feature from their parents, not the other way around.

So maybe W has been primed by the twins to use "like totally" -- but it's also plausible that he picked up like and totally like totally naturally, as a youth in the 1950s and 1960s, just like the rest of us did.

[Another possibility is that W meant to use the young-female associations of "like totally" to tag Iraq nay-sayers as unmanly. But the other quoted examples suggest that this is like, unnecessarily subtle.]

[Topher Cooper comments:

Seems to me that at least since the 60's there has been more and more use of "like" to mean something other than "to express a possible unspecified minor nonequivalence of what is said and what is meant" and more to simply add emphasis or draw attention to the word it is modifying. If a "hippie" said "That's, like, cool, man!" they (ok, we) were definitely describing "that" as "cool" not as something "very similar to cool." But it isn't really what I understand the term "intensifier" to mean either -- e.g., "it" isn't necessarily "very cool". There's more of a sense of "look here, the coolness of 'it' is somehow surprising or notable" but not necessarily in degree.

I also think that something got missed in your analysis was what the "like" modifies. The usage that came in with ValSpeak treats "like totally" as a unit. So when Moon Unit said that something was "like totally grody" the parsing might almost have been "(like totally) grody." But Bush's phrase would almost certainly have been "like (totally dysfunctional)".

I apologize for giving an oversimplified if not entirely false impression of Muffy Siegel's excellent paper on the meaning of like -- she explicitly asserts that the current usage is different from "the much older (and perhaps fictional ...) 'beatnik' use". But she doesn't offer an argument for this differentiation, and I'm not entirely convinced. At least, there are a range of cases where older and newer uses (including entirely standard uses) overlap.]

[OK, I thought I'd better try to find out what the facts are. Luckily, someone has actually looked into things empirically, rather than just evaluating their own stereotype-tinged impressions, as I did.

According to Yoko Iyeiri et al., "Gender and Style: the Discourse Particle like in the Corpus of Spoken Professional American English", English Corpus Studies 12, 2005.

We have investigated the Corpus of Spoken Professional American English and found that the discourse particle like is attested in the exploratory talk of the national meetings of mathematics tests and reading tests, both held in the 1990s, to a noticeable extent. By contrast, the expository talk of White House press conferences and faculty meetings of the University of North Carolina provides far fewer examples of the discourse particle like. As for gender differences, the same item is more frequently employed by male speakers. This result does not necessarily support the generally accepted view, which argues that it is a characteristic feature of young female speech.

Iyeiri et al. identify the like of examples like "right so I'm just like below the allotments just now" with the old parenthetical use, which the OED calls "dialectal and vulgar", and traces back to Fanny Burney's Evelina (1789):

Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship's taking offense.

They argue that "the discourse particle like is not meaningless or expletive, although it is not always an easy task to describe the meaning", and observe that "on the whole, it seems to convey the feelings of approximation and illustration".

Here's their figure showing the frequency per 10,000 words of the discourse particle like by men and women across four of the settings sampled in the Corpus of Professional American-English, which "includes transcripts of conversations of various types occurring between 1994 and 1998", and"consists primarily of short interchanges by approximately 400 speakers that are centered on professional activities broadly tied to academics and politics, including academic politics". WH (White House press conferences), FM (faculty meetings at UNC), CM (conferences on mathematics tests) and CR (conferences on reading tests):

You can read their preprint for more information and discussion, but two things are clear:

  • American adults were using discourse-particle like fairly frequently in professional settings, even a decade ago;
  • Contrary to stereotype, men use it more than women do.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 17, 2007 08:21 AM