Is 'actually' the new 'like?'

Jan 20, 2013

This week on "That's What They Say," Michigan Radio's Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the surging use of the word "actually" in recent years, and whether or not it has become the new "like."

Now part of everyday speech, Anne Curzan says the word "actually" in fact came to the forefront of American speech only just in the past century.

"It turns out the word 'actually' has more than doubled in usage over the 20th century."

But in recent years, the spoken use of "actually" has become even more pronounced.

"Between 1990 and today, so a little over 20 years, 'actually' has tippled its usage in spoken language, so it's no wonder that we're noticing it, and feeling like its everywhere," she says.

Actually, the word "actually" takes on a lot of different forms, according to Curzan. Beginning as a signifier "actually" came to be used as a way to dismiss a false claim, and now in recent years has become a discourse marker of speech, similar to "like" or "um." In comparison with the annoying over-usage of "like" by today's youth, however, "actually" is no competition.

"I think people still may notice 'like' more than 'actually,'" says Curzan. "'Like' is mostly young speakers. I hear older speakers using 'actually' as well, and as with any discourse marker, it has trouble doing its work if we use it too much. It does some useful work, but if you use it all the time people notice it, and it stops being useful."