In our mouths or in print, in villages or in cities, in buildings or in caves, a language doesn’t sit still. It can’t. Language change has preceded apace even in places known for preserving a language in amber. You may have heard that Icelanders can still read the ancient sagas written almost a thousand years ago in Old Norse. It is true that written Icelandic is quite similar to Old Norse, but the spoken language is quite different—Old Norse speakers would sound a tad extraterrestrial to modern Icelanders. There have been assorted changes in the grammar, but language has moved on, on that distant isle as everywhere else.
It’s under this view of language—as something becoming rather than being, a film rather than a photo, in motion rather than at rest—that we should consider the way young people use (drum roll, please) like. So deeply reviled, so hard on the ears of so many, so new, and with such an air of the unfinished, of insecurity and even dimness, the new like is hard to, well, love. But it takes on a different aspect when you consider it within this context of language being ever-evolving.
First, let’s take like in just its traditional, accepted forms. Even in its dictionary definition, like is the product of stark changes in meaning that no one would ever guess. To an Old English speaker, the word that later became like was the word for, of all things, “body.” The word was lic, and lic was part of a word, gelic, that meant “with the body,” as in “with the body of,” which was a way of saying “similar to”—as in like. Gelic over time shortened to just lic, which became like. Of course, there were no days when these changes happened abruptly and became official. It was just that, step by step, the syllable lic, which to an Old English speaker meant “body,” came to mean, when uttered by people centuries later, “similar to”—and life went on.