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How Old is the Parasite “Like”?

By Anatoly Liberman


When did people begin to say: “I will, like, come tomorrow” and why do they say so?  It may seem that the filler like, along with its twin you know, are of recent date, but this impression is wrong.  It is, however, true that both became the plague in recent memory.  Occasionally an etymologist discovers a word that was current in Middle or early Modern English, disappeared from view, and then seemingly resurfaced in the modern language.  One wonders whether this is the same word or its homophone “born again.”  For instance, the OED gives a single citation for cob “to fight” (1400).  Cob “to strike” (especially as a punishment) has been known from texts only since 1769.  A monosyllable like cob could have been coined with the meaning “beat, fight, strike” more than once.  If, however, cob1 is the etymon of cob2, the question arises why we have no record of this verb for nearly four centuries.  In similar fashion, filch “steal” turned up in 1561, and several scholars tried to connect it with Old Engl. (ge)fylcan “marshal troops.”  The chronological gap is hard to fill, so that filch, I believe, has nothing to do with fylcan.  The ubiquitous modern parasite like can perhaps be traced to early usage, but the causes of its unhealthy popularity in today’s American English remain a mystery (though see below).

Of some interest is the fact that the adverb belike once existed and may still exist, at least in dialects.  Consider the following: “All these three, belike, went together” (1741; OED).  Take away be-, and you will get a charming modern sentence: “All these three, like, went together.”  Belike meant “in all likelihood.”  Like occurs in comparable contexts.  A few instances of it will be found in the first edition of the OED, under like 7 (marked as “dialectal and vulgar”): “Of a sudden like,” “In an ordinary way like”; those and a few other similar examples are from the 19th century.  Here like stands for as it were.  After the verb to be and its forms, like may be indistinguishable from likely.  Henry W. F. Talbot, the inventor of photography, was also interested in the history of words.  I will reproduce three examples, whose accuracy I did not verify, from his book English Etymologies (1847): “He is like to die for hunger, for there is no more bread” (Jeremiah XXXVIII: 9), “You are like to be much advanced” (Shakespeare), “I wish that I were dead, but I am na like to dee” (Auld Robin Gray).

My hypothesis is that at a certain moment like freed itself from the verb to be and became an independent filler.  It has been used in British dialects as it is used in American English for quite some time and was probably brought to the New World, where it stayed “underground” until approximately forty or fifty years ago.  Assuming that such is the state of affairs, one wonders why Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Jack London (among many other writers who reproduced the speech of common people) did not notice the parasite. The Second Supplement to the OED cited the sentence: “And I thought like wow, this is for me” (1970; no earlier citations).  The editors of the dictionary assigned this usage to “less analysable constructions,” and indeed like is redundant in like wow.  It need not even be called an adverb, for it is a parenthetical word and should be flanked by commas (as is done in most modern editions that contain samples of such usage).  But the part of speech called adverb has always served as a trashcan for grammatical misfits.

Even if a bridge can be drawn between like after be/am/is/are (and perhaps belike) and our free-floating like, we still do not know why the modern filler left its modest home close to the end of the 20th century and succeeded so singularly in contaminating the Standard.  Nowadays linguists are not supposed to be judgmental, so that I should have said penetrating instead of contaminating.  They should describe language with equanimity and detachment, as a geologist describes rocks or, even better, as a prosector dissects corpses.  But language, in addition to being a means of communication, is an object of culture, a garden in which flowers coexist with weeds, and I wince when I hear: “She may, like, come later” and “Did she, like, attend college?”  To be sure, the egalitarian motto—be descriptive, not prescriptive—is a hoax, for teachers and editors exist (are even paid) for instilling certain values into students and authors.  So I describe like and condemn it.

Although I cannot explain why like won its victory when it did (and this makes my reconstruction vulnerable), perhaps we may agree about why this victory occurred.  There is a branch of linguistics called pragmatics.  It deals with the ways people organize their speech; the use of like belongs to it.  Whatever the source of the filler, it seems to function (or to have functioned at one time) as a marker of uncertainty and resembles as it were, a common parasite in British English.  People tend to safeguard themselves from a possible rebuttal and do it instinctively.  “Will you, like, come tomorrow?”  It means: “Will you come tomorrow?  Of course, I am not even suggesting that you will, so if you have no such plans, I am quite happy.”  You know plays a comparable role.  “This is a strange thing, you know.”  Read: “I guess it is a strange thing, and you will not contest my statement, for you know that I am right, you yourself think so, don’t you?”  A classic example of pragmatic humility is the use of oder “or” as a tag in German: once the sentence is finished, the interrogative oder is added to it (comparable to isn’t it? and so forth).

The democratization of life in the free world did not abolish disparities in cultural level and status.  People continue to be cautious and instinctively defensive.  But after you know and like gained ground, they began to be repeated unthinkingly.  Every successful change passes through three stages: introduction, acceptance, and spread.  Language change is no exception to this rule.  (Those living in the American Midwest constantly hear a rising intonation at the end of declarative sentences.  An administrator said to a group of faculty: “There will be a freeze on hiring this year,” and one could not understand whether it was a statement or a question, even though the speaker had no doubts about the budgetary woes of the college.  Less enlightened people use this intonation all the time.  Is this another feature of what used to be a deferential attitude toward the interlocutor or a sign of instinctive self-effacement, now reproduced automatically on a par with like and you know?  Has this phenomenon been observed outside American English?)

I am far from certain that I managed to account for the triumph of the parenthetical like and offered my ideas only to invite discussion.  Particularly disconcerting is the fact that the analogs of like swamped other languages at roughly the same time or a few decades later.  Germans have begun to say quasi in every sentence.  Swedes say liksom, and Russians say kak by; both mean “as though.”  In this function quasi, liksom, and kak by are recent.  The influence of American like is out of the question, especially in Russian.  So why, and why now?  Delving into the depths of Indo-European and Proto-Germanic requires courage and perspicuity.  But here we are facing a phenomenon of no great antiquity and are as puzzled as though we were trying to decipher a cuneiform inscription.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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20 Responses to “How Old is the Parasite “Like”?”
  1. John Cowan says:

    I should rather say that teachers are paid to instill certain facts into students, one of which is that if you use filler like, there are various persons in power who will dislike you on no better grounds, so you had best learn to avoid it with them.

    As for rising intonation in statements, there is research to show that it is associated in American English not with deference but with power; it is not surprising that an administrator would use it. In Australian English it has been generalized. The same intonation appears in the North of England, but apparently with different semantics.

  2. Mike Gibson says:

    Another important usage of like occurs with direct discourse, mainly as reported in conversation. Here’s an example, “And so he was like, ‘Move your car before I smash it.’”

    In these instances, I find that like takes on adverbial qualities indicating the manner in which the reported speech was said. Instead of saying “And so he said with anger…” the speaker uses like and then infuses the anger into the reported quote, in most cases even acting out the tenor of the speech.

  3. Your description of the use of the free-floating “like” doesn’t fit my perception of its meaning, which is that what follows may not be an accurate description but may refer to something similar to the literal meaning. “Like, wow” means “I am amazed and ‘wow’ would be a good description of what I might exclaim but I might use some other word”. “Will you, like, come tomorrow?” allows the variation that you might come later today or perhaps the day after tomorrow.

    The suffix “ish” has a related meaning. I have heard people say things like “I will come at eightish”. I am not sure that it means anything much different from “I will come at, like, eight”.

    I am a native born American, which does not, of course, tell you anything about my linguistic observational powers.

  4. Rusty says:

    Another frequent use of the filler “like” is as an intensifier. “I said are you, like, coming tomorrow? And she was, like, so angry! But I was just like whatever.” The second “like” there serves as a marked pause and sets up an especially heavily emphasized “so angry.” It could be done without the “like,” but then there would just be a pause, and an opportunity to bear down on a whole extra word for emphasis would be lost.

    As part of the first generation of Americans to be criticized by parents and educators for the use of “like,” I have to say that yes, there are other ways to express what it expresses, but it remains an extremely useful and flexible pot of linguistic glue. With the great increase in written but still casual communication via social media, texting, blogging, and so forth, “like” can be crucial as a tone marker. Throw in a well-placed “like” and you can go from sounding like a pompous know-it-all to just someone talking. Your condemnation of it is actually sort of charmingly antiquated, at this point. I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard anyone complain about the use of “like,” and I can’t think of anyone I know under the age of 45 who doesn’t use it from time to time.

    It’s just, like, a word now, you know?

  5. Faze says:

    There was a character named Maynard G. Krebs in the 1950s teenage sitcom called “Dobie Gillis”, whose entire personality was built around the use of “like” in every sentence. Krebs was stereotypical cartoon beatnik, one of whose catchphrases was to shout “Work?” in horror whenever anyone suggested he might get a job. He was notably unambitious, and his frequent use of the word like may have been to signal his desire for secondary social status, and avoidance of conflict and competition. “Dobie Gillis” was hot right about the time that “like” took off in the language. The generation that picked it up may have been signaling that they did not care to be part of the pushy, ambitious, competitive world they were set to inherit from their parents. By adding “like” to defuse any statement that might possibly be interpreted as definitive or assertive, they were saying, “ooh no, we’re not taking responsibility for this world of yours with its Vietnam wars and racial problems.” Over time, this refusal to be assertive or definitive joined the general cultural leveling of the 60s and 70s, when the scruffiness that previous signaled lower status become the middle-class norm. “Like” is the Levis, or blue jeans of English language.

  6. Following up on this and on the some of the comments: some Sanskrit parallels to modern English “quotative” like:

    http://staefcraeft.blogspot.com/2010/09/english-like-can-like-function-like.html

  7. [...] his blog etymologist Anatoly Liberman has just written a post about the filler ‘like’, which my children [...]

  8. George D says:

    The word “like”, and “you know”, used in these contexts, are in fact still modifiers. They add meaning to a sentence by reducing the certainty of the verb or adjective they modify. They are often used to create or underline familiarity between speakers. By reducing the certainty in a statement they also subtly lower the relative social status of the statement maker. Hedging is a very useful part of speech, although you can of course argue that it’s overused here.

    As for why, and now? “Like” is, in popular culture, associated very closely with the “Valley Girl”. Given the influence of affluent California youth in popular culture, particularly film and television, since the early 1980s, the spread of a key element of this English is entirely unsurprising. See Valspeak in Wikipedia for a slightly fuller explanation.

  9. [...] still don’t see why one should go with get.  Perhaps next month more comments will come in.   The parasite like. Most of those who have commented on my post (and there were allusions to it in other [...]

  10. parviziyi says:

    Three cheers for this good blog post. It has some worthwhile reader comments too. As was said, “like” functions as a marker of uncertainty or to deliberately fuzzify what’s being said. Separately from that, as was said, it can be used as a tone marker. Those are useful functions even though there’s lots of cognitive laziness and sloppiness in the mix that is to be condemned. In the 19th century people surely needed those functions too. Instead of Anatoly’s question “why now?” I think it would be better to begin with “why not back then?” If you could read verbatim transcripts of 19th century people chatting (not Mark Twain & Jack London novels, and not courtroom transcripts), you might find the problem’s been there all along, with different stylistics.

  11. [...] What’s wrong with this overuse of “like”?  It turns out, grammatically and historically, nothing, according to language columnist Mark Peters. To me, the word “like” is the preferred binder and filler of the English language. What was dismaying is the way that the young woman, and seemingly everyone else like her, grasps on to this verbal plague. [...]

  12. [...] What’s wrong with this overuse of “like”?  It turns out, grammatically and historically, nothing, according to language columnist Mark Peters. To me, the word “like” is the preferred binder and filler of the English language.  Similar to contracting a pathogen from bad food processing, this woman, and so many like her, have fallen victim to a verbal plague. [...]

  13. [...] Facebook is also home to some old-fashioned peeving, as seen in the groups “Abolish inappropriate use of the word LIKE in the English Language” and “Excessive misuse of the word ‘LIKE’: A Manifesto.” The latter refers to “like” as a “common scourge” that acts as a parasite on its “unaware hosts.” This sense of “like” as a disease can also be found in the writing of far more informed sources, such as etymologist Anatoly Liberman, who calls it a “plague.” [...]

  14. [...] without really understanding why they think that way, like in this fluff piece. (Here’s the highbrow version, equally as fluffy, just with fancier words.) And this is the very crux of what distinguishes [...]

  15. Irina says:

    Being a Russian, I disagree with youк statement that kak by undoubtedly appeared under the AmE influence. People not only can’t speak English after studying it at school and universtity for more than ten years, there is no way that few individuals who can would introduce the idea of ‘like’ due to several reasons starting with hatred to Americans to social stratification.
    I would rather consider the popping of words with the same meaning and usage in different languaes a more economical and social phenomenon.

  16. Here & Now says:

    Thank you for your article. After a recent realization of how unnecessarily pervasive this pesky word is in my daily actions, I’ve made a commitment to reduce my own usage of “like”. In my opinion, and as a generalization, I believe that our manner of speech in American culture (as I’m not here speaking for or attesting to the nuances of other cultures or languages) has become too rapid for its own good. Words tend to come out of our mouths before we’ve fully formulated the idea that we want to express, which leads to the insertion of filler words. I think we should all slow down and think about not only what we’re saying, but the habitual sorts of actions that we take on a daily basis. Awareness is key.

  17. Dartyh says:

    I think you have to look at social changes to explain the spread of this word.

    The word “like” is often used to make feelings appear less definite. There is a crucial difference between “I was, like, pissed off” and “I was pissed off.” The latter is a definitive statement of emotion. The former expresses emotion while defusing it somewhat.

    I believe the spread of “like” coincided with the broader casualization of English-speaking US culture. Using the word “like” enables speakers to express emotions without relinquishing the casual “cool” that is the standard affect in contemporary polite society in the US.

    I would wager that all consumer societies have a word like this. I remember learning Russian in St. Petersburg in the late 90s. It was maddening to try to understand how speakers were using *kak by.* No one could explain it to me!

  18. [...] will let them be. It is the rising inflection that merits a moment’s attention. Rather long ago, I discussed the rising intonation in American English but would like to return to it in connection with Dickens’s speech habits. I remember my [...]

  19. Pat says:

    Twain did use “like” (in much the same way as we use “likely” today) when he reproduced conversational speech in “Tom Sawyer”. So yes, he did notice it.

  20. [...] comments I received deal with the use of the parasite like.  The focus of my essay was on the etymology of this like, and I attempted to trace it to rather [...]

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