The ubiquity of like

like

Don’t you just, like, love it when your witty Facebook post gets lots of likes? Like, doesn’t it make you feel like a social media king, and like everyone likes you? And did you happen to cringe reading that last clause: “make you feel like everyone likes you?”?

A few years ago in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens examined, like, the unstoppable onslaught of like. “Many parents and teachers have become irritated to the point of distraction at the way the weed-style growth of “like” has spread through the idiom of the young. And it’s true that in some cases the term has become simultaneously a crutch and a tic, driving out the rest of the vocabulary as candy expels vegetables.” With its modern ubiquity, it now acts as not just a sentence filler but also as a colloquial quotative (“he was like ‘no way!'”), a discourse particle, an emphatic, a hedge, and a speech disfluency.

But let’s not, like, spoil the proverbial child by giving it too much ink here, considering how much love — or like — like already gets on the tongues and keyboards of millennials. I’m not going to, like, dwell on the use of like as any of the above, nor on its new role as a quantifiable measure of one’s online popularity. I’d rather look at its use as a subordinating conjunction — ie. before a verbal clause when “as if” or “as though” are considered either preferable or mandatory, depending on how much of a purist you are.

But before we go there, I did find it fascinating to learn from the Online Etymology Dictionary that the word like has been used as a “postponed filler (“going really fast, like”)” from 1778: it’s like really old — 18th-century old. As a presumed emphatic (“going, like, really fast”) it dates from 1950, introduced originally in counterculture slang and bop talk. And as a colloquial adverb it has a long and illustrious history (“He was like to lose his life in the one [battle] and his liberty in the other [capture], but there was none of his money at stake in either,” from Charles MacFarlane and Thomas Napier Thomson’s Comprehensive History of England published in 1792). So like‘s ubiquity is not as modern a phenomenon as many might think …

Now back to grammar and the modern day. It used to be that like had just two official roles in linguistic life (not counting the fillers and emphatics as described above): 1) as a verb (“I like this dessert”) and 2) as a preposition for comparisons (“that car is like a house”). But increasingly — and somewhat controversially — it has come to be used as a subordinating conjunction, preceding a verbal clause when “as” (“as if”, “as though”, “as it should”) has been historically prescribed. “I feel as though I’m going to be sick” will more likely be phrased nowadays as “I feel like I’m going to be sick”.

Wikipedia describes how this distinction first made its way into many people’s consciousness back in 1954, “when a famous ad campaign for Winston cigarettes introduced the slogan ‘Winston tastes good — like a cigarette should.’ The slogan was criticized for its usage by prescriptivists, the ‘as’ construction being considered more proper. Winston countered with another ad, featuring a woman with greying hair in a bun who insists that it ought to be ‘Winston tastes good as a cigarette should’ and is shouted down by happy cigarette smokers asking ‘What do you want — good grammar or good taste?'”

To 21st-century ears, like as a conjunction is no longer considered “bad grammar” as it obviously seemed to many in the Mad Men era — although to some purists (including myself), it still grates. For a word that has such positive connotations, it’s one that seems to commit some of the most egregious of linguistic crimes in its various guises. You could like argue that it’s become like the bad boy of the English language. And if you like like this post, please would you like like it on Facebook?

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