“Like” is a word that many people, especially younger ones, use a lot, and it drives language sticklers crazy. In today’s post, we look at what this word means and why it’s so popular.
A Short History of “Like”
“Like” has been a versatile word for many centuries. As a preposition, it comes from the Old English gelic, which means with the same form. We use it to say that one thing resembles another:
Her hair is like silk.
My shoes are like yours.
The verb “like” has its roots in another Old English word, lician, meaning to please or be suitable. Nowadays, it refers to the positive way a person feels about something:
I like your new hairstyle.
Would you like a biscuit?
Nobody likes pineapple on pizza.
However, at one time, it was used differently. Up until the late 14th century, it was the object that did the liking, and its meaning was to find favor with. So, it would’ve been more usual to say, “Your new hairstyle likes me.”
The above examples show that “like” can be used in many ways and that its purpose has changed over the years. More recently, though, “like” has become a common filler word, indicating a pause of hesitation in speech. But unlike some filler words, “like” can imply a range of things.
In some cases, using “like”can add emphasis:
My mom was, like, so angry.
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The speaker here uses “like” as an intensifier to stress how infuriated their mother was.
“Like” can also lessen the impact of the words that follow it:
My teacher says I’m going to, like, fail my exams.
Adding “like” before “fail my exams” provides a slight pause before the difficult news that comes next.
Another use of “like” is to suggest anticipation of the hearer’s disbelief:
I mean, like, literally all of them.
This “like” dictates that the word “literally” is to be taken literally! By using “like” here, the speaker indicates that they expect the listener to need convincing.
Or “like” can indicate a non-literal use, such as metaphor or hyperbole:
My dad will, like, go ballistic.
“Like” is used here to show that the speaker is not talking literally. They’re not expecting their father to fly through the air in an arching trajectory, so they indicate their metaphorical use of words by adding “like.”
Finally, “like” can indicate speech:
He was, like, “Work hard and you’ll get good grades.”
“Like” is often used instead of a dialogue tag (e.g., he said), but it signifies that the speaker is summarizing what was said rather than repeating it word-for-word.
Summary: Is “Like” a Lazy Word?
Some language pedants think people use “like” as a meaningless filler word, like “ah” and “er.” However, as the examples above show, “like” has many subtly different meanings.
Having said all that, most dictionaries don’t yet recognize the uses of “like” that we’ve discussed above. So, you should stick to the traditional uses of “like” in your writing, unless you’re creating fictional dialogue, where adding the odd “like” will make it feel more realistic.