Live Through This

Talking: A Personal History

What you reveal to the world every time you open your mouth.

Illustration by Cynthia

Illustration by Cynthia

As someone who prefers to stay in observer mode during most social interactions, I’ve spent many, many years listening to people talk. I love to hear people’s stories, no matter how mundane the facts may be (“Sooooo in the end it turns out that red mulch was much better for my yard—and my wallet, am I right?”), there’s a hidden story—a secret set of messages—in how someone delivers information. If you pay attention to people’s speech patterns and verbal tics, you’ll get a glimpse into their personal history—where they’re from, how old they are, what subcultures they may have occupied, and when. To demonstrate, here’s what you’d hear if you eavesdropped on me at various points throughout my life:

1. The moment I started speaking–present: “like” and “you know”
By now these utterances, popularized by the Valley Girl craze of the 1980s (the pinnacle of which was this amazing song by Moon Unit Zappa), have become part of my natural way of speaking. (I’m lucky that I avoided later Valley Girl speech innovations like the vocal fry and ending all sentences like they’re questions? [Exception: See #4, “Right?”]) I’m aware that “like” and “you know” drive people even slightly older than me crazy, and so I’ve been working on monitoring my speech, the better to control it in situations like job interviews or meeting with academic advisors—anywhere I don’t want to come off sounding stupider than I am. But these two guys are so deeply embedded in my speech patterns that extricating them has proven nearly impossible. I recently tried to get through one day without saying “like,” or “you know”—I made it, like, four minutes. It was really hard, you know? Especially when all of my friends constantly use them as well, and because they are so dang useful: “Like” and “you know” are easy little tools to use when you need to take a brief pause while talking to organize your thoughts—essential for people with ADHD, like me for example. I’ve come to see them as benign habits that I have no hope of ever quitting.

2. Earliest speaking days–present: “man”
This one comes directly from my parents, who graduated from high school in the late ’60s and still use “man,” both jokingly and not, on a regular basis. Growing up, I heard “oh, man” and “hey, man” and, when my mom was making fun of the ’60s, “far out, man,” all the time. I started saying “man” when I was small just to be silly, then it stuck. Now I just use it every day the same way I use “hello” and “goodbye,” naturally and frequently. I probably sound like a total jerk, but whatever, man.

3. Late 1980s–present: “dude”
Pretty sure I picked “dude” up from Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Theodore “Ted” Logan, though Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably bears some measure of responsibility as well. Everyone I’ve ever loved has been called “dude” by me at least 8 million times. Dude. Dude! Dude. Dude. For real, dude. Seriously, dude. What’s up, dude? Dude, no way. Come on, dude.

4. 1990–1992: “NOT!”
The early ’90s were weird, man. For a while, the best comeback a fourth-grader (like I was at the time) had was “NOT!”—a truly stupid saying popularized by the legendary Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar of Wayne’s World and emblazoned on every corny sweatshirt, Hypercolor T-shirt, and office mug you could find. It was even named Word of the Year in 1992 by the American Dialect Society. Once in a while someone’s mom or grandpa will drop a “NOT!” like it’s 20 years ago and it is the best, because they’re the only ones who can still pull it off.

5. 1990–present: “Right?”
I can distinctly remember being nine or so and listening to my 12-year-old cousin and 16-year-old sister talking to each other at my aunt’s house. It sounded something like ths:

“So I was going to the pool yesterday, right?”

“Right.”

“And I totally forgot my towel. So I ask the guards if they have an extra one, because you know they do, right?”

“They totally do! I’ve seen them hand towels out before.”

“Riiiight?!”

And so on and so forth. “Right,” I picked up, was being used both as a quick way of asking, “Are you paying attention?” and as a means of getting confirmation that what you’re saying is obvious. In an effort to sound more “grown up,” I started using it as often as I could. “So I was on the bus, right?” somehow sounded cooler and “more mature” than “I was on the bus” to my 9-year-old ears. Little did I know that it was the start of a Valley Girl–ish end-of-sentence upward inflection that haunts me to this day. I can’t even help it at this point: “Right?!” just shoots out of my mouth, the same way “hey” or “OK” or any other word I’ve ever learned does, natural and necessary and simply a way that I communicate, as annoying as it may be to others.

6. 1991–present: “whatever”
Oh, “whatever.” The be-all-end-all of ’90s teen slang, a grunge-era Gen X apathy relic that became anthemic thanks to Kurt Cobain (“Oh well, whatever, never mind”) later used incessantly by Angela Chase and company on My-So-Called Life (usually in the “or whatever” form, an exquisitely half-assed way to end a sentence) and finally owned by the great Cher Horowitz of Clueless, who, along with her classmates, popularized the practice of pairing the spoken word with the W finger sign and solidified “whatever” as the answer to, well, basically everything a person didn’t want to answer. “Whatever” has never left me, mostly because it’s multipurpose: It can be used to shrug things off, to passive-aggressively end a conversation/argument, or to express a complete lack of interest in the topic at hand. It’s a quick way to sum up a million emotions in one word, and if you don’t like it, well, whatever.

7. 1995–1999 (and, honestly, all the time still): “mad”
We’ve established I went to high school in the late ’90s, which was a mad buggin’ time for language arts among teenagers. The most common intensifier we used was mad. Mad crazy. Mad late. Mad tired. Mad dope. Mad busy. And so on and so forth. “Mad” was constantly coming out of my mouth until I moved to Boston for college, and then, naturally, it was replaced by…

8. 1999–2002: “wicked”
Growing up in New England, I was already familiar with “wicked,” but it became a full-blown vocabulary ISSUE when I moved to Boston and suddenly found myself adding it to every other sentence. Things weren’t just “awesome,” they were “wicked awesome.” I couldn’t shake it until I left the city—and even now, more than a decade later, it still creeps into my daily speech, particularly when I’m with my New England–based family or when I’m really, really tired, for some reason. There’s something comfortable and familiar about it, something that reminds me of home.

9. 1999–present, but only in private: “babe”
Ugh, I know. Nobody wants to be around that couple who incessantly call each other “babe,” but what can you do, man? Love works in stupid ways. However, I am careful not to “babe” out in public, because I’m not a jerk, and because the only person who can pull it off is Will Arnett in Hot Rod.

10. 2011–present: “ahriiiiight!”
This one is relatively new, and it’s annoying the hell out of my family, but if you love Bob’s Burgers as much as I do, it’s hard not to pick up the characters’ fantastic and endearing verbal tics—especially Linda Belcher’s “ahriiiiiight.” This happens to me a lot: a phrase makes me giggle, I realize that I can mimic it fairly well, and I start using it when I’m alone in the house, either talking to myself (What? It makes things less boring) or talking to the dog or whatever. And then I’ll slip and start catching myself using it in public, no matter how strongly I abhor the thought of becoming one of those “Hey! I quote movies!” people who do nothing but essentially recite scripts to you instead of having conversations. I actually have to bite my lip to stop yelling “Ahriiiiight!” in circumstances where nobody would know what the hell I’m talking about.

If you examine your own linguistic habits and those of the people around you, you’ll discover a similarly telling history. Humans are copycats—no matter how unique we think we are, how we dress, socialize, dance, eat, and talk is heavily influenced by our environment. We don’t always keep the things we pick up (I haven’t said “Peace out, Cub Scout” since roughly 1995), but for the most part, our speech tells our history. It contains bits and pieces of everyone and everywhere we’ve ever known and rolls it all up into a lovely, weird little ball of words. Right? Right. Ahriiiiight!

47 Comments

  • pez-darling July 8th, 2013 11:17 PM

    From this moment forward, “peace-out, cub scout” will be my official farewell.

    • N.Arie July 8th, 2013 11:35 PM

      I know, right?

    • Emmie July 9th, 2013 7:22 AM

      peace out, brook trout! Other than that, we always said “peace out, girl scout” though. A minor but interesting difference.

  • katiebell929929 July 8th, 2013 11:27 PM

    I have the worst habit of saying swaggie. And I’m not even a Justin Beiber fan. But,talking like a Valley Girl is, like, my favorite way of speaking.

    • Saana V July 9th, 2013 11:00 AM

      i started using swag ironically and it stuck. Same with yolo and lol. Actually i’ve started using a lot of words ironically now that i think about it, also stuff from dumb text posts and memes have stuck. Help me.

    • Tyknos93 July 9th, 2013 10:37 PM

      Thanks to you I found this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ch8raUdgtbQ

      Then I proceeded to choke on my drink and almost die. It was wonderful.

  • mmorsmordree July 8th, 2013 11:54 PM

    Growing up in Southern California “Like” has become a part of my daily vocabulary, not only that but being Latina has me speaking Spanglish not only with my family but with my friends as well.

  • llamalina July 9th, 2013 12:02 AM

    All of these words are pretty much embedded into my vocabulary except #10. I grew up in California and everyone where I live speaks like that. I didn’t even realize I spoke like that until I was, like, twelve and a local commented on it when I was on vacation somewhere. Other popular words/phrases are: “like, totally dude!” “gnarly/gnar” or “hella”. Man, without ‘hella’, how would I describe anything that was a relatively large amount?! I like to think that my valley girl accent is relatively cool. Like, whatever.

  • alienbabe July 9th, 2013 12:32 AM

    wow this is so accurate.

    http://sweetandsourstyle.blogspot.com/

  • takebackyourpower July 9th, 2013 12:39 AM

    the illustration!!!! love!!!!!!!!!

  • kolumbia July 9th, 2013 1:11 AM

    In fifth grade, I switched schools in the middle of the year and didn’t have any friends. I noticed that the other girls punctuated their speech with “like,” so I thought if I imitated them, they’d like me. (This did not work.) It did, however, leave me unable to say a single sentence without pausing to throw in a bunch of unnecessary “likes.” It drives me crazy because I think it makes me sound dumb, and I can’t break the habit.

  • queserasera July 9th, 2013 1:24 AM

    as a socal native, “dude” and “like” are a big part of how i speak. i’ll be going to the east coast for college, i know i’ll be in for a culture (esp. slangs) shock. this article’s totally relevant!

    http://televiseddinner.blogspot.com/

  • whatsernamewashere July 9th, 2013 1:36 AM

    Hahahah I love this article!

    Another one that I think applies if you’re from Norcal (which I am) is “Hella”. It’s used as an adjective in like, every sentence :)

    • kaylafay July 10th, 2013 2:21 AM

      I’m from Southern California but i know a bunch of people up north and i’ve totally noticed it!! It’s so strange because socal people avoid that word because its a norcal thing and so i got used to people kind of poking fun at “hella” but then when i went up there again, everyone was saying it and i was giggling by myself because I thought it sounded funny

  • taste test July 9th, 2013 2:11 AM

    from when I was like 4 until I was 10, I thought “totally” was like the epitome of cool teenspeak and I tried to use it all the time. now I use “like” and “or whatever” sometimes but my main verbal tics are actually “kinda” and, uh, “actually.” I’m not sure where they came from. I didn’t even notice how often I used them until I started having to edit them en masse out of my forum posts and stuff. buuut I actually didn’t edit any of them out of this!

    also on the topic of valspeak I think “grody” needs to make a comeback because I kind of love it

    http://xyzzyzzyzx.blogspot.com

    • allier July 9th, 2013 8:55 PM

      YES I LOVE GRODY! I also especially love “Grosky, Brosky”. why is slang so cool.

  • Tangerine July 9th, 2013 3:26 AM

    Yes, most of these words or verbal tics are totally accepted in california. And honestly, pretty much every language has it’s own “like” and “dude” and “wicked”. The problem with people who judge others on useage of slang is that they lack enough linguistic and historical perspective to realize that all of modern English is “perversions” on the original. You know?
    :p

    • Tangerine July 9th, 2013 3:37 AM

      In other words, today’s slang is tomorrow’s formal language, and many of the specifically gendered phrases mentioned in this article, like “like”, “you know”, “whatever”, and other slang phrases used mostly by girls get the HARDEST rap. I’m tired of hearing people say that those words make people sound stupid. Because I honestly suspect that people think they sound like stupid filler words because they are favored by young women. Call me paranoid.

  • Sophie ❤ July 9th, 2013 6:39 AM

    This was just so relatable and accurate! Loved it!

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • whyamidreamingwhenimstillawake July 9th, 2013 6:49 AM

    I am a terrible person. I use text-talk like lol and soz and jelly in my everyday speech. It started out as an ironic thing… n_n

  • Emmie July 9th, 2013 7:20 AM

    I’m from northern VT and I didn’t even think about how “wicked” is such a common intensifier/synonym for all things awesome here until I went to college.
    All your references are on point. Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!

  • backyardtapir July 9th, 2013 7:25 AM

    I’ve tried to cut down on the frequency of “like” (or I’m trying to be more aware of it, anyway), and my friend told me about the game they use in her family: whenever someone says “like”, you repeat it like an echo. It’s extremely annoying and effective. :S

  • AidaA July 9th, 2013 7:39 AM

    “Dude” was the like the ONE in high school. Oh. haha maybe “like” as well. It was weird cos I went to school in Hackney. The London equiv of maybe Harlem? or Brooklyn? and everyone was like “bruv” “blud” and I’d be there like “Duuuude! Did you seen Doctor Who on Saturday??!”

    -Aida

    http://sunshinesuperwoman.blogspot.co.uk

    • VB July 9th, 2013 9:24 AM

      No way, I go to school in Hackney now! What school did you go to?

      • AidaA July 9th, 2013 12:11 PM

        oh wow! Do you know Mossbourne??

        • VB August 28th, 2013 7:52 PM

          omg I go to Mossbourne! I’m just about to start year 12! Wow, when did you go there?

  • AidaA July 9th, 2013 7:41 AM

    oh yeah! i forgot to say. Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure is “most excellent”.

    Be excellent to each other

    -Aida

  • Saana V July 9th, 2013 11:02 AM

    I live in finland so my worst speaking habit is probably just talking finglish. I mean, i fricking use almost all of these daily.

  • christinachristina July 9th, 2013 1:01 PM

    cool story brah

  • Chloe C July 9th, 2013 1:05 PM

    I’ll never forget when my 10th grade English teacher scolded my classmate for saying “like” too often. She said she sounded uneducated. Thus, I tried my best to remove it from my vocabulary. It didn’t work.

    Nonetheless, I like saying

    “like, whatever”

    and calling people

    “dude”

    and ending my sentences with

    “man”

    They’re expressive!

    spectaclar.blogspot.com

  • irismonster July 9th, 2013 2:34 PM

    My mom wants us to be the Belchers for Halloween (even though we only have four members–go figure,) and I said that we simply cannot if she doesn’t have a good Linda “alright.” Now she says it all the time. Curses.

  • GlitterKitty July 9th, 2013 3:26 PM

    I started out using “swag” ironically and it became totally serious. Swag.

  • Abby July 9th, 2013 4:17 PM

    When I went to college in upstate NY I met a bunch of people from Long Island who say “mad” ALL THE MOTHER EFFING TIME. I didn’t know what it meant and I had to ask (I’m from Maryland… my verbal tic is “like”), and they all looked at me like I was dumb :(

  • periwinkle_dreams July 9th, 2013 5:08 PM

    I remember being so impressed when I heard one of my classmates answer questions in my lit class one year. She never used “like”, “um”, “you know”, or any of those verbal fillers. Her pauses made people pay attention and take her seriously – they kind of didn’t allow others to zone out, in a way – and she always sounded really intelligent. And, no one ever interrupted her. I, on the other hand, always ramble and constantly add “so”, “like”, “or something”, and “and whatnot” to my speech unnecessarily. I think a lot of that might have originated with a sort of fear of being interrupted, that if I wasn’t still very obviously talking, people would take a pause as an opportunity to jump in and talk over me. Not sure why…I’m really trying to cut back on those filler words now, but it is a hard habit to break.

  • smarielarson July 9th, 2013 5:54 PM

    I am trying my hardest to bring back “bomb dot com” much to the dismay of my friends.

  • maxrey July 9th, 2013 6:24 PM

    My mother recently commented on my use of words and phrases like “cray,” “totes,” “obvi,” “probs,” “OMG,” etc. They started somewhat ironically, but now they’ve stuck. :[

  • abby111039 July 9th, 2013 7:36 PM

    I’m the same way with “bro”. I don’t care what gender someone is, I will call them bro no matter what. It’s a bad habit. And “homeslice” is starting to become one thanks to my friend. It’s a little embarrassing if someone doesn’t take it as a joke.

  • Ariella95 July 9th, 2013 8:02 PM

    My friends and I used to say “OMG!” out loud as a joke, and now I can’t get rid of the habit. I also try to stop myself from telling stories that go like this: “So, I was like…, and then she was like…” It’s not good.

  • unicornconnect July 10th, 2013 2:46 AM

    wicked sick awesome bro.

  • TessaTheTeenageWitch July 10th, 2013 5:22 AM

    I started using ‘lol’ as a word (pronounced like the start of lolly) because I have a very ironic sense of humour…. but at some point it stopped being ironic. And now I am just *that* jerk.

    My friends and I also have adopted “ACED IT MAAATEEE” in a really bogan/stereotypical Australian accent because there is nothing like making fun of your own culture in as loud of a voice as you can, RIGHT?!?!

    Cuss words words get creative covers, too… so you’ll often here us yell “SHIZNICK” or something bizarre, and ‘seriously’ is another habit of mine.

    Ugh, talking is harrrdd.

  • Dino July 10th, 2013 1:08 PM

    My friend and I once decided to make “that’s so fetch” from Mean Girls THE THING to say at school… but we never got around to it.
    My math teacher always says “sure” instead of yes when you ask a question in class. It’s so irritating! Don’t you think? Sure.

  • gothsloth July 11th, 2013 2:28 AM

    i literally say all of these things listed, but i personally don’t think i’m too bad about it. :P i do know it gets worse whenever i watch clueless, and go around saying i was, ‘totally buggin’ and screech, ‘as if!’ when somebody asks me if i did something ridiculous. sigh.

  • Mary the freak July 11th, 2013 5:18 AM

    This was such a great article!
    I’m from Germany, and I found, like, so many words I once said which sound so weird, man. (see what I did there).
    The word “like” kinda follows me whereever I go, I even start german sentences with “like”.
    Talking’s hard. :D

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

    http://unicornlyawesome.blogspot.com/

  • polarette July 11th, 2013 4:15 PM

    I use “dude” ALL the time for everybody. Then at some point I started to get super awkward when I got to know more trans or cross dressing aquaintances- I’d say it and then be like “Oh, I’m NOT disrespecting your gender identity, I say this to everyone, I… oh dangit…” but I can’t stop myself. I’ll have to ask an etiquette aunt about this…

  • Mimi7 July 11th, 2013 4:21 PM

    Ive had odd sayings through out my whole life. In 2nd grade “good idea?” said in a very upbeat question, then in 5th grade “my bad” was cool for some reason. Since maybe 8th grade I’ve taken to saying ” really actually”, I know, it makes no sense, but it’s fun that way :)

    http://dreaminginfashion.wordpress.com/

  • aikaendi July 12th, 2013 6:40 PM

    This is really interesting as someone who don’t have english as main language (I’m swedish). For me, these are just english words without any geographical context, and I’m used to using them (or reading them) all in the same extent.

    http://aikaendi.blogg.se
    http://fruitytea.tumblr.com

  • Jes July 29th, 2013 6:20 PM

    When I was in 8th or 9th grade everyone used to say “janky” all the time. It means weird, creepy, suspect, etc. Currently, everyone in my school says “rattled” instead of “angry” or “upset,” and “wheeling” to mean going after a person with the goal of hooking up or dating (i.e. “Sean is totally wheeling Sarah!”)