I was watching the movie "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind" when I heard the phrase "That was like three seconds" from Kate Winslet.

You can find this phrase at 01:14:25.

She and Jim Carrey were kidding and playing. She held a pillow tightly over his face, then he pretended to be dead (suffocated) in order to frighten her.

She was very scared, but when she found out that it was just a joke, she said:

  • Oh, my God. That was terrible. That was like three seconds.

What did she mean? I searched the web, but none of the meanings that I found for "second" or "three seconds" makes sense in this context.

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    Think of like in this context as a colloquial / uneducated alternative to about - or indeed just a meaningless "filler" word. Obviously the actual sense intended is That was only three seconds, but don't make the mistake of supposing like could reasonably be used to mean only, just, merely in any other contexts. – FumbleFingers Oct 22 at 14:51
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    It really is not uneducated. It has become standard spoken speech for all young people regardless of ethnicity, education, class background,religion or anything else. It peppers so much speech these days. The other day I heard a young journalist on CNN stop herself from saying it and switch to about. It all started in California.....:) – Lambie Oct 22 at 15:07
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    I agree that this use of like is a very poor indicator of education level. @FumbleFingers, why would you suggest this like is filler? It has a very clear meaning to me - in fact, the very same meaning as you've identified. It's used to signify an approximation. To me, "that was three seconds" and "that was, like, three seconds" clearly differ in their degree of certitude. In the latter case, the speaker says that the period of time was similar to (but not exactly like) a period of three seconds. – Juhasz Oct 22 at 15:15
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    @Lambie: To quote Wikipedia, such use of like (as a "discourse marker", with little semantic content from the perspective of nns learners) has long been stigmatized in formal speech or in high cultural or high social settings. You might disagree with people who see it that way, but the fact remains they still exist (and very likely in greater numbers within educational establishments trying to teach their students "proper" English). And after all, why did your "young journalist on CNN stop herself from saying it"? – FumbleFingers Oct 22 at 15:20
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    @FumbleFingers. Of course, it can be a discourse marker, I agree 100%. But in spoken language, it is acceptable in informal circles. I actually think it was picked up by middle-class kids in California. My nephew who graduated from a top college summa cum laude uses it in speech all the time. Beatniks used it in the fifties. "Like, man, if you’re Beat, where else is there to go but Greenwich Village, Earth? Like, it’s Endsville, man, you dig?" Then, the skateboarders, surfers and snowboarders got a hold of it. allthatsinteresting.com/beatniks-photographs-new-york – Lambie Oct 22 at 15:46

It just means that the duration was approximately three seconds long. She is either referring to how long she held down the pillow or to how long he was pretending to be dead, but I can't find the clip online to confirm.

Here is a cartoon from The New Yorker magazine, 1928.

The use of “like” for “about” or as a discourse marker goes way back. It was also common usage by Beatniks. Somehow, it's been around a long time. It is used by young people a lot even today. Its origin is not really working class. It is used in informal speech. It would be frowned on in any formal setting.

Beatnik usage (1950's):

Beatniks were generally middle-class drop outs. Not from the working ("uneducated") classes. Definition: Like: a word used to add emphasis. "He was, like, mad!" – Beatnik slang

Use of "like" as a discourse marker in a 1928 cartoon:

Cartoon with like

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    I think your dated cartoon emphasizes an important point: it's not, like, the use of this word that some people find annoying or "uneducated" – it's more the overuse of the word (where it's used, like, several times in one paragraph, for example). – J.R. Oct 22 at 16:02
  • @J.R. It is exactly like that but the punctuation is missing: No, he's got, like, an office. That is the only reading that would make sense. The fact it is used so many times in speech by some speakers today does not explain where it came about. Also, some speakers may use it only once and not, like, keep repeating it. Maybe, it originated in NYC. – Lambie Oct 22 at 16:12
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    While its quite true that "like" is a common discourse marker, in this particular case it actually seemed to have an impactful meaning (similar to the words "roughly" or "approximately"). Either way though, its pretty much the exact same function in this cartoon and in the scene described. – T.E.D. Oct 22 at 19:06

"Like" here is functioning as a particle rather than an adverb - she is not comparing anything to "three seconds", but saying that she was only holding him down for three seconds, which shouldn't have been enough time to smother him.

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    I'd say that she is comparing something to "three seconds." She's comparing the amount of time Jim Carey's character held his breath to "three seconds." Something like: "That [amount of time you held your breath] was like [a period of time lasting] three seconds." – Juhasz Oct 22 at 15:18
  • Could she be saying that his feigning death lasted a little too long for a joke? So not "only" but "a full"? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 22 at 15:21
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo I can't recall the scene precisely, but to me the interpretation that makes the most sense is "it's not funny to pretend you were dead, I only had your face covered for, like, three seconds". Three seconds honestly isn't that long to go limp for, if it was "like ten seconds" that reading might have more weight. – Alan T. Oct 23 at 10:53
  • @Juhasz I think the idea of comparison is where the particle usage of "like" derives from (see definition 3) but my main point was to emphasize that it shouldn't be thought of like a literal comparison - that reading muddies the waters a bit and seems to be what lead to the confusion here. – Alan T. Oct 23 at 10:55

I believe that, in the scene, Kate's phrase was a Hyperbole wherein her saying, "That was, like, three seconds," isn't a literal statement to Jim's 'quick death' but rather her exaggerated, and sarcastic, response to how quickly he 'died'.

For example, a similar use of this kind of phrase is often used by the speaker as a sarcastic, or ironic, reply to something that subverted his/her expectations (much like how a straightman responds to the punchline to a joke).

Picture two individuals: Tom and Tim. Tom asks Tim to go out and get him a coffee, expecting Tim will be gone for 10+ minutes. Tim leaves only to come back less than 5 minutes later with Tom's coffee. Tom, surprised, exclaims, "Dude! That was, like, three seconds!"
[Tom is surprised how quick Tim was to deliver a coffee]

Alternatively: Tom asks Tim to make a pot of coffee in the next room. Tim leaves to the room to make coffee while Tom waits. However, Tom remembers (less than a minute later) he left his phone in that room as well and enters to ask Tim to pass it to him. However, upon entering the room, Tom sees that Tim had completely destroyed the room with spilled coffee grounds, creating a mess that seems impossible to make given the short amount of time passed. Tom blurts out, "Dude, it's been, like, three seconds."
[Tom is in utter disbelief how Tim managed to make such a mess in a short amount of time]

That was like x seconds (or any other amount of time) can mean it took approximately this amount of time.

As several other answers already point out in this case it is probably used with a different intention, to indicate that the time passed was very short. An alternate example:

That relationship lasted like 2 minutes

However, it is also possible to indicate that the time passed was very long:

It took the ref like an hour to notice the injury


And yes, of course this is all relative, 3 seconds is very short for 'not breathing' but it can also be a used to hint that something takes a long time.

When my mom types, there are like 3 seconds between keystrokes

  • 1
    So it doesn't really mean "approximately", like many are suggesting. It means "as though". The duration of that relationship was so short, as though it lasted two minutes. It took him ages to notice the injury; it might as well have taken him an hour. – Wilson Oct 23 at 10:41
  • @Wilson I am not saying it cannot mean approximately, but indeed. – Dennis Jaheruddin Oct 23 at 11:06

As a general rule, people are supposed to be able to hold their breaths (underwater) for about three minutes. When Carrey pretended to suffocate, she was frightened since it had been....

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