Terry Gross: The Queen of “Like”

How the NPR host saved America's dumbest word.

The first time I heard my father say it, I was seven years old. We were waiting for an elevator in New York, where we lived, when he dropped a casual, grammatically unnecessary “like” into a sentence that has otherwise been lost to history. Understand, I grew up in a household where saying “like” was a moral failing, a practice reserved only for the most helplessly vapid second-graders. The slip-up was a betrayal—as if I were raised strict kosher, only to catch him in the kitchen at midnight, preparing a BLT.

But had I been listening to Terry Gross in elementary school, I might have forgiven him on the spot.

Gross’s vocal stylings have been celebrated before. “She’s not afraid of silences, or above a noisy ‘Blech!’” the critic Greil Marcus wrote in the New York Times in 1998. Confirming my suspicions, if not my sentiments, Times Magazine interviewer Andrew Goldman told Gross this summer that many people have “erotic associations” with her voice. But for all the praise, Gross’s greatest linguistic feat has gone more or less unnoticed: the way she uses “like.”

Let there be no doubt: Terry Gross is not in the same league as Caroline Kennedy, who famously uttered “you know,” more than 200 times in an interview with the New York Daily News. Gross usually employs the term a handful of times over the course of a typical 40-minute conversation, though the number rises when an interview is going particularly well. And unlike Kennedy, Gross uses “like” neither as a stammering placeholder nor as a meaningless flavoring particle. Rather, her “likes” are stepping stones within sentences, on which she presses her weight, pivots, and tucks into her point. What’s more, she’s given new life to a word that was hijacked, trashed, and left for dead by the “Clueless” set. Because the erudite, measured Gross has precisely nothing to do with “like” as we know it, the tic is all the more effective.

By my count, Gross deploys her “like” in three ways, all of which were on display during a set of recent interviews with comedy writers.

Earlier this month, Judd Apatow was talking, rather nonchalantly, about his teenage daughter’s obscene amount of Twitter followers. Gross, faintly alarmed, responded, “Do you want to, like, edit her tweets? Do you read what she’s tweeting to make sure you’re okay with it?”

To Stephen Colbert, in October, she marveled, somewhat haltingly, “You’re walking the line so well between, like, your character, and your own beliefs.”

A few weeks earlier, she justified kvetching about her petite size to an unsympathetic Mindy Kaling, who accused her of “humblebragging.” “No,” Gross protested, laughing, “What I am, is like, really short. And when you see, like, jackets with the shoulders drooping off of you and pants that are just, like, way too, like, tight in one place and loose in another place, it’s not a good thing. And the petite styles, sorry to call out the petite designers out there, but so many of them are just, like, hideous.”

Each of these “likes” serves a distinct purpose. In the first, it softens the rough edges of a question whose subtext—”Um, why are you letting your child tweet to thousands of strangers?”—might have otherwise grated Apatow. In the second, Gross signals her own struggle to properly articulate Colbert’s deliberately confusing habit of saying things in character that he also believes in real life—a trick his audience doesn’t always pick up on. That little cry for help beckoned Colbert to rush in with more explanation, to complete the thought, to give her a hand. In the third, she nails what many “Fresh Air” listeners call her “conversational” tone. Gross’s vulnerability—something lacking in Charlie Rose’s interviewing style, for instance—comes through with every “like,” a tactic that lowers the guest’s defenses too. (One forgets that most of her interviews are done over the phone, making it especially difficult to coax unfiltered emotion out of guests.)

When Gross herself sounds somewhat intimidated and uncomfortable, as in recent interviews with decorated authors Hilary Mantel and Colm Toibin, the “like” mostly disappears. I suspect those writers’ literary accomplishments made Gross more self-conscious about her own choice of words. But more significantly, both of them were austere and chilly, and Gross struggled to break through. Gross, in other words, uses “like” only when she feels an emotional connection. And once she does, like a pill dissolving into water, a state of release washes over the studio and the tension is broken.

There are different kids of “likes.” There is liking someone, as on Facebook (or real life, if you wish). There is like as comparison. Then there are the three most controversial likes. Like used in a “quotative” way: “So I’m like, ‘Shut. Up.’” Like used for hyperbolic purposes: “It’s like a million degrees in here.” And like as filler. Like, the way Terry Gross uses it.

While linguists (really, there are a lot of papers on this) have acknowledged the usefulness of the first four, most pooh-pooh the last one as pure Valley Girl-speak. Like, remember in Fast Times at Ridgemont High when Jennifer Jason Leigh says to Phoebe Cates about having sex for the first time, “There are, like, variables I might not be good at.”

But these naysayers are wrong. As the novelist Ian McEwen told Christopher Hitchens, who wrote his own piece on “like” a few years ago in Vanity Fair, this usage—Terry Gross’s usage—complements the talents of a “natural raconteur.” “It can be used as a pause or a colon: very handy for spinning out a mere anecdote into a playlet that’s full of parody and speculation.”

Gross also does “um” and “so,” usually to begin sentences. But these habits aren’t as interesting. They serve a lesser purpose, and aren’t so controversial anyways. No, not since Anthony Burgess had his fearsome Droogs use it in A Clockwork Orange (“That really wouldn’t have been playing like the game”) has someone so artfully and intelligently employed the term, anointing it with unlikely new linguistic glory. Dad, you’re forgiven.