The Invasion of the "Like Virus"

In the “Nova Trilogy” (1961), poet and author William S. Burroughs first introduced the idea that  “language is a virus from outer space”.  The main story revolves around the pre-history introduction of a language virus as the source of several control mechanisms created to keep humanity on this planet enslaved. The virus has several distinct attack modalities, and came to our world from the Crab Nebula, which was born as a result of a supernova.  The design of the virus is intended to create so much conflict that an infected planet eventually explodes, spreading the virus onwards.

William Burroughs said:  “I suggest that the spoken word as we know it came after the written word. We may forget that a written word is an image and that written words are images in sequence that is to say moving pictures. My basic theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made the spoken word possible. Doktor Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz has put forward an interesting theory as to the origins and history of this word virus. He postulates that the word was a virus of what he calls biologic mutation effecting a biologic change in its host that was then genetically conveyed. One reason that apes cannot talk is because the structure of their inner throats is simply not designed to formulate words. He postulates that alteration in inner throat structure were occasioned by a virus illness.”

Burroughs emphasizes that the virus idea should not be understood as a metaphor, but as an actual parasitic organism.

The current non-traditional use of the word “like” began in the 50’s and was popularized by a cultural group which should have been easily recognized as being of extraterrestrial origin – the Beatniks.  Maynard G. Krebs (clearly an alien) in the Dobie Gillis series (1959 to 1963), succeeded in infecting the minds of the masses through the medium of television (which is purported by many to be extraterrestrial technology).  A long series of aliens have continued to perpetuate the “Like” Virus, most notably; Alex in Clockwork Orange, Scooby Doo and Shaggy (Shaggy was modeled on Maynard), Cyndi Lauper and Frank Zappa via the song “Valley Girl”. (The San Fernando Valley region of California is now a stronghold of a new breed of alien-human female hybrids who communicate by using the word “like” almost exclusively).

Clearly the virus is running rampant, and taking its inevitable toll on the minds  - and intelligence – of unsuspecting humans, who are particularly susceptible to contagion during their teens and twenties.

Correct usage of the term includes:

·       as an adjective which identifies similar things:  “Your shoes are like mine”
·       as a preposition used in comparisons:   “He eats like a pig”
·       as a conjunction linking two ideas:   “They act like they don’t want to go”
·       as a verb denoting an action:  “I like her”
·       as a noun which identifies a thing:  “She has many likes and dislikes”

The devastating power of the Like Virus is based on the subtle seduction of it being such a versatile word.  As people (unconsciously) discover the many ways the word is useful, they are triggered to begin extending its use in all sorts of (unconscious) ways. Here are some of the common symptomatic forms of a Like Virus outbreak:

·       as an adverb or modifier of other words:  “I, like, died”
·       as a quotative referring to another person’s actions:  “He was, like, I’ll be there in 5 minutes”
·       as an onomatopoeia imitating something:   “It was like, Boom!”
·       as a discourse particle or interjection:  “I, like, don’t know what to do”
·       as a hedge or qualifier:  “The restaurant is, like, five miles from here”
·       as a filler:  “I’m, uh, like, am not sure”
·       assuming telepathic comprehension by the listener:  “You know, it was like”
·       to replace any word one can not recall in the moment: “I was at the grocery store  looking for some like”

Interestingly, linguists recognize that the use of many of the previous forms does carry actual meaning, albeit not related to the content of a given conversation itself.  What is communicated is information regarding the richness – or lack thereof – of the speaker’s background knowledge, current understanding and ability to effectively communicate with others.

 In general, linguists lambaste the misused word as “meaningless filler, abused by unintelligible mumblers who can't string together three words without having to stall for time.”

The virus seems to be the most acute when a speaker is feeling insecure, and is also (paradoxically) very strong when one is among friends - apparently based on an unconscious assumption that the listener will understand the deep structure of meaning even though the speaker’s actual linguistic representation is very vague.

People are becoming less adept at communicating new or abstract concepts due to the diminishing use of highly specific language. Like replaces descriptive words (the basis of art, and the foundation of the expression of values) and perpetuates speech riddled with fuzziness, imprecision and omission of detail.

Terrifyingly, the Like Virus appears to have the ability to self-replicate and mutate into other, similar forms such as:

“You know”
“The parenthetical (question mark???)”

The end result is that in many cases, like, as it is commonly misused, has absolutely no intrinsic meaning at all!  This certainly is the basis of much misunderstanding, which of course leads directly to the chaos and potential explosive upset the aliens intended in the first place.


Research suggests that the frequency of “like” usage decreases proportionally the longer and more carefully a person thinks before responding to an inquiry.  This is considered to be evidence that attentive engagement with the process of communication, combined with the active use of one’s intelligence, has a powerful counter effect on the virus.  Intention, mindfulness and self-monitoring are reliable and effective de-programming tools.  In short - slow down, be vigilant and choose your words carefully.  We are conditioned to believe that we “should” be able to communicate at high velocity by the examples we see on television and in movies. We have comparatively few examples of people speaking in measured, thoughtful ways.

Comedian Lewis Black recently revealed that the end of the universe has been located; it’s in Austin Texas where there is a pair of Starbucks directly across the street from each other!  If this inane juxtaposition and over-abundance of coffee in one geographic location signifies the end of the world as we knew it… what shall we make of a string of sentences, each of which contains 3 or more inaccurate uses of the word “like”?

(Lewis believes that the only demographic group that could possibly sustain two Starbucks across the street from each other would be those people with Alzheimer’s…)

It’s interesting to note that the original source of the virus – Maynard G. Krebs - is most commonly remembered for his intense, phobic reaction anytime the word “Work” was mentioned.  Clearly, the Like Virus has the effect of minimizing the desire to work at thinking, or speaking clearly and powerfully – to really concentrate on what one is saying.

To paraphrase Taylor Mali:   “I entreat you, I implore you, I challenge you: speak with clarity and conviction. 
Say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks 
the determination with which you believe it. 
 Contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker, 
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY. 
 We must speak with it, too.”

Michael Wall  12/10/2007  

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