The Evolution of 'Like'

How the ubiquitous, often-reviled word associated with young people and slackers represents the ever-changing English language

Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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.

Like has become a piece of grammar: It is the source of the suffix -ly. To the extent that slowly means “in a slow fashion,” as in “with the quality of slowness,” it is easy (and correct) to imagine that slowly began as “slow-like,” with like gradually wearing away into a -ly suffix. That historical process is especially clear in that there are still people who, colloquially, say slow-like, angry-like. Technically, like yielded two suffixes, because -ly is also used with adjectives, as in portly and saintly. Again, the pathway from saint-like to saint- ly is not hard to perceive.

Like has become a part of compounds. Likewise began as like plus a word, wise, which was different from the one meaning “smart when either a child or getting old.” This other wise meant “manner”: Likewise meant “similar in manner.” This wise disappeared as a word on its own, and so now we think of it as a suffix, as in clockwise and stepwise. But we still have likeminded, where we can easily perceive minded as having independent meaning. Dictionaries tell us it’s pronounced “like-MINE-did,” but I, for one, say “LIKE- minded” and have heard many others do so.

Therefore, like is ever so much more than some isolated thing clinically described in a dictionary with a definition like “(preposition) ‘having the same characteristics or qualities as; similar to.’” Think of a cold, limp, slimy squid splayed wet on a cutting board, its lifeless tentacles dribbling in coils, about to be sliced into calamari rings—in comparison to the brutally fleet, remorseless, dynamic creatures squid are when alive underwater—like as “(preposition) ...” is wet on a cutting board.

There is a lot more to it: It swims, as it were. What we are seeing in like’s transformations today are just the latest chapters in a story that began with an ancient word that was supposed to mean “body.”

Because we think of like as meaning “akin to” or “similar to,” kids decorating every sentence or two with it seems like overuse. After all, how often should a coherently minded person need to note that something is similar to something rather than just being that something? The new like, then, is associated with hesitation. It is common to label the newer generations as harboring a fear of venturing a definite statement.

That analysis seems especially appropriate in that this usage of like first reached the national consciousness with its usage by Beatniks in the 1950s, as in, “Like, wow!” We associate the Beatniks, as a prelude to the counterculture with their free-ranging aesthetic and recreational sensibilities, with relativism. Part of the essence of the Beatnik was a reluctance to be judgmental of anyone but those who would dare to (1) be judgmental themselves or (2) openly abuse others. However, the Beatniks were also associated with a certain griminess—why would others imitate them?— upon which it bears mentioning that the genealogy of the modern like traces farther back. Ordinary people, too, have long been using like as an appendage to indicate similarity with a trace of hesitation. The “slow-like” kind of usage is a continuation of this, and Saul Bellow has thoroughly un- Beatnik characters in his novels of the 1950s use like in a way we would expect a decade or two later. “That’s the right clue and may do me some good. Something very big. Truth, like,” says Tommy Wilhelm in 1956’s Seize the Day, a character raised in the 1910s and ’20s, long before anyone had ever heard of a Beatnik. Bellow also has Henderson in Henderson the Rain King use like this way. Both Wilhelm and Henderson are tortured, galumphing char- acters riddled with uncertainty, but hippies they are not.

So today’s like did not spring mysteriously from a crowd on the margins of unusual mind-set and then somehow jump the rails from them into the general population. The seeds of the modern like lay among ordinary people; the Beatniks may not even have played a significant role in what happened later. The point is that like transformed from something occasional into something more regular. Fade out, fade in: recently I heard a lad of roughly sixteen chatting with a friend about something that had happened the weekend before, and his utterance was—this is as close to verbatim as I can get: So we got there and we thought we were going to have the room to ourselves and it turned out that like a family had booked it already. So we’re standing there and there were like grandparents and like grandkids and aunts and uncles all over the place. Anyone who has listened to American English over the past several decades will agree that this is thoroughly typical like usage.

The problem with the hesitation analysis is that this was a thoroughly confident speaker. He told this story with zest, vividness, and joy. What, after all, would occasion hesitation in spelling out that a family was holding an event in a room? It’s real-life usage of this kind—to linguists it is data, just like climate patterns are to meteorologists—that suggests that the idea of like as the linguistic equivalent to slumped shoulders is off.

Understandably so, of course—the meaning of like suggests that people are claiming that everything is “like” itself rather than itself. But as we have seen, words’ meanings change, and not just because someone invents a portable listening device and gives it a name composed of words that used to be applied to something else (Walkman), but because even the language of people stranded in a cave where life never changed would be under constant transformation. Like is a word, and so we’d expect it to develop new meanings: the only question, as always, is which one? So is it that young people are strangely overusing the like from the dictionary, or might it be that like has birthed a child with a different function altogether? When one alternative involves saddling entire generations of people, of an awesome array of circumstances across a vast nation, with a mysteriously potent inferiority complex, the other possibility beckons as worthy of engagement.

In that light, what has happened to like is that it has morphed into a modal marker—actually, one that functions as a protean indicator of the human mind at work in conversation. There are actually two modal marker likes—that is, to be fluent in modern American English is to have subconsciously internalized not one but two instances of grammar involving like.

Let’s start with So we’re standing there and there were like grandparents and like grandkids and aunts and uncles all over the place. That sentence, upon examination, is more than just what the words mean in isolation plus a bizarre squirt of slouchy little likes. Like grandparents and like grandkids means, when we break down what this teenager was actually trying to communicate, that given the circumstances, you might think it strange that an entire family popped up in this space we expected to be empty for our use, but in fact, it really was a whole family. In that, we have, for one, factuality—“no, really, I mean a family.” The original meaning of like applies in that one is saying “You may think I mean something like a couple and their son, but I mean something like a whole brood.”

And in that, note that there is also at the same time an acknowledgment of counterexpectation. The new like acknowledges unspoken objection while underlining one’s own point (the factuality). Like grandparents translates here as “There were, despite what you might think, actually grandparents.” Another example: I opened the door and it was, like, her! certainly doesn’t mean “Duhhhh, I suppose it’s okay for me to identify the person as her . . .” Vagueness is hardly the issue here. That sentence is uttered to mean “As we all know, I would have expected her father, the next-door neighbor, or some other person, or maybe a phone call or e-mail from her, but instead it was, actually, her.” Factuality and counterexpectation in one package, again. It may seem that I am freighting the little word with a bit much, but consider: It was, like, her! That sentence has a very precise meaning, despite the fact that because of its sociological associations with the young, to many it carries a whiff of Bubble Yum, peanut butter, or marijuana.

We could call that version of like “reinforcing like.” Then there is a second new like, which is closer to what people tend to think of all its new uses: it is indeed a hedge. However, that alone doesn’t do it justice: we miss that the hedge is just plain nice, something that has further implications for how we place this like in a linguistic sense. This is, like, the only way to make it work does not mean “Duhhhh, I guess this seems like the way to make it work.” A person says this in a context in which the news is unwelcome to the hearer, and this was either mentioned before or, just as likely, is unstatedly obvious. The like acknowledges—imagine even a little curtsey—the discomfort. It softens the blow—that is, eases—by swathing the statement in the garb of hypotheticality that the basic meaning of like lends. Something “like” x is less threatening than x itself; to phrase things as if x were only “like,” x is thus like offering a glass of water, a compress, or a warm little blanket. An equivalent is “Let’s take our pill now,” said by someone who is not, themselves, about to take the pill along with the poor sick person. The sick one knows it, too, but the phrasing with “we” is a soothing action, acknowledging that taking pills can be a bit of a drag.

Note that while this new like cushions a blow, the blow does get delivered. Rather than being a weak gesture, the new like can be seen as gentle but firm. The main point is that it is part of the linguistic system, not something merely littering it up. It isn’t surprising that a word meaning “similar to” morphs into a word that quietly allows us to avoid being bumptious, via courteously addressing its likeness rather than the thing itself, via considering it rather than addressing it. Just as uptalk sounds like a question but isn’t, like sounds like a mere shirk of certainty but isn’t.

Like LOL, like, entrenched in all kinds of sentences, used subconsciously, and difficult to parse the real meaning of without careful consideration, has all the hallmarks of a piece of grammar—specifically, in the pragmatic department, modal wing. One thing making it especially clear that the new like is not just a tic of heedless, underconfident youth is that many of the people who started using it in the new way in the 1970s are now middle-aged. People’s sense of how they talk tends to differ from the reality, and the person of a certain age who claims never to use like “that way” as often as not, like, does—and often. As I write, a sentence such as There were like grandparents and like grandkids in there is as likely to be spoken by a forty-something as by a teenager or a college student. Just listen around the next time you’re standing in a line, watching a talk show, or possibly even listening to yourself.

Then, the two likes I have mentioned must be distinguished from yet a third usage, the quotative like—as in “And she was like, ‘I didn’t even invite him.’ ” This is yet another way that like has become grammar. The meaning “similar to” is as natural a source here as it was for -ly: mimicking people’s utterances is talking similarly to, as in “like,” them. Few of the like-haters distinguish this like from the other new usages, since all are associated with young people and verbal slackerdom. But the third new like doesn’t do the jobs the others do: there is nothing hesitational or even polite about quotative like, much less especially forceful à la the reinforcing like. It is a thoroughly straightforward way of quoting a person, often followed by a verbatim mimicry complete with gestures. That’s worlds away from This is, like, the only way to make it work or There were like grandkids in there. Thus the modern American English speaker has mastered not just two, but actually three different new usages of like.

This article has been adapted from John McWhorter’s latest book , Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally).