Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Friday, 8 October 2010

October 2010

He's all 'She's like, "Oh my God', and she goes 'Don't talk like that'

On a recent visit to her former school, actress Emma Thompson was apparently offended by use of the word like as a speech filler; at least, that is the usage that attracted the most comments from language experts. However, there is another peculiarly modern use of like that is, ahem, likely to aggravate more conservative speakers: an introduction to speech (always in combination with the verb be). For example:

He's like, 'I don't know'.

As with other slang or informal uses of like, this phrase has a peculiar bouquet of Southern California. Funnily enough, one of the earliest recorded citations of the phrase is a line from Frank Zappa's song 'Valley Girl':

She's like 'Oh my God'.

This is not to say that Frank Zappa invented the phrase; it was certainly in use before 1982 (when the song was released). It is not even guaranteed that the phrase originated in California's San Fernando Valley, though Zappa's use of it would indicate it had indeed become associated with Valspeak.

Is it possible, then to tell where be like as a direct speech introduction did come from? Perhaps not, but it may be related to other informal introductions for direct speech, some of which are logical developments of pre-existing phrases.

One of the oldest of these is the use of go, often in the simple past tense (went). This usage goes back to Dickens, and derives from the earlier sense of go meaning 'to make a noise as specified' (e.g. The gun went bang). This sense of go dates back to the 16th Century. It is interesting that applying it to reported speech took another 300 years to develop; however, as early citations seem to favour non-verbal sounds such as 'yo-yo-yo' or 'chirp'. Go followed by full sentences of reported speech don't become common until the late 20th Century, and are usually considered non-standard.

By contrast, one of the newest of these is be all, as in She's all, 'Ooh, let it out. You can tell me'. This usage was common in US English from at least the late 20th Century, and has been creeping into British English, probably via the usual suspects (imported US films and television programmes). In 2009 we added it to the 30th Anniversary Edition of Collins English Dictionary. One wonders what Ms Thompson would make of that.

The Virus Has Spread

The word viral used to mean 'of, relating to, or caused by a virus'. Of course, it still means that; but it has acquired another meaning in the past 10 to 15 years. The adjective viral, when used with something other than a disease, refers to the spread of something, usually publicity, via word-of-mouth, electronic discussion (emails, blogs, internet chatter, etc), which is metaphorically like the spread of a virus from person to person.
Lexicographers first noticed this sense of viral in the phrase viral marketing, which is an advertising campaign which disseminates its message 'virally'. In some ways this was a great marketing innovation, as it made use of burgeoning technology (the internet and email) and its adherents, and was cheaper than a traditional campaign, as most of the leg-work was done by the targeted consumers.

Word-of-mouth advertising campaigns go back to way before the internet, but the adjective viral doesn't seem to have been applied to them until they started using internet technology. Possibly this is because they emerged at the same time that increased internet access brought computer viruses to mass public awareness. Early viral marketing was spread by email (one of the earliest and simplest examples being Hotmail's tagline automatically added to the end of every email sent by the service, effectively making each email a mini-advert), as were most computer viruses of the time. Also, the irrelevance of spatial and national boundaries in cyberspace allowed viral campaigns to spread more quickly and more widely than previous word-of-mouth or stealth campaigns, creating something that resembled a global epidemic.

The earliest citation of viral marketing in the Bank of English comes from a 1999 newspaper article describing the phenomenon and explicitly likening it to computer viruses. Three years later, in 2002, we get our first citations of viral email. Some citations of this phrase use it as a synonym of viral marketing (much of which was still disseminated through email); others, however, point to a different phenomenon: the circulation of jokes via email, for entertainment, rather than marketing purposes. One person forwards the joke to her or his mates, who then forward it to their mates, and soon the joke ends up in nearly everyone's inbox.

Many of these jokes were long-winded, off-colour stories or rude pictures composed of non-alphanumeric keyboard characters, both of which were, frankly, a pain to read. However, some were brief, downloadable video clips, the famous 'dancing baby' of the late 1990s being an early notable example.
Before the advent of video-sharing website such as YouTube, these videos had to be contained within the email as an attachment. Nowadays, all you need is a link, which can even be contained in the subject field of the message, eliminating the need for superfluous LOLs in the body of the email. Also, the size of the email is smaller, making it less likely to clog recipients' inboxes. Finally, because the video itself is stored on a free website, potential viewers have other ways to search for and find it than just a randomly circulated email message.

The net result of this development is that the focus of these wide-spreading jokes is now on the video rather than the email, and people now speak of viral videos rather than viral emails.

There are no citations of viral video in the Bank of English before 2006 (YouTube was launched in 2005). From 2006 to 2009, there are 100 citations of the phrase (and only 23 of viral email). In fact, in corpus citations from 2005 to 2009, video is the second most likely noun to follow viral (infection being the first and marketing being the third). Email is way down at number 20.

All this is also leading to the emergence of viral as a noun, meaning 'a viral video', as evidenced by the increase in citations of the inflected form virals in the Bank of English. Before 2005 there were 3 citations of virals all misspellings of 'antiretrovirals'. From 2005 to 2009 there are 174 citations, all referring to viral videos. To be fair, most of these citations comes from issues of one men's magazine which seems to have taken the term and run with it. However, virals also generates more than 2 million Google hits, the majority of which link to viral videos. Worryingly, a lot of these are borderline pornographic, which suggest viral as noun may have less-than-savoury connotations.

Robert Groves – Editor