A Usage That is So, Like, Old

Over at the ever-informative OUP blog, Anatoly Liberman is wrestling with what he calls a “ubiquitous modern parasite”: the word “like”. He chronicles the rise of the word as though it were a virus mutating to defy definition. Liberman believes “like freed itself from the verb to be and became an independent filler” with very little meaning.

And far from belonging to 21st century hipsters, Liberman traces the it’s origins back to 1741 with an OED entry “All these three, belike, went together”. He translates it as “Take away be-, and you will get a charming modern sentence: ‘All these three, like, went together.’” He goes on to find examples in Shakespeare (“You are like to be much advanced”) and the Bible.

“Like” has become so thin that Liberman struggles to describe it but labels it “a parenthetical word and should be flanked by commas” but also reckons it has much in common with adverbs because “the part of speech called adverb has always served as a trashcan for grammatical misfits”.

But like any good virus Liberman laments that he can’t restrict the spread of ‘like’ as it has spread to other languages. So far Liberman has observed other meaningless words being added into sentences: “Germans have begun to say quasi in every sentence. Swedes say liksom, and Russians say kak by; both mean ‘as though’.”

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