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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”