Sometimes the most common of words are the ones that have undergone the most change over the centuries. Case in point: like.

Now, the original meaning of like still makes plenty of sense: “having the same characteristics or qualities.” It dates from around 1200 and is a formation of an Old English word, gelic, which in turn came from a Proto-Germanic word of similar spelling that meant “having the same form.”

So what makes it interesting? How it was used. In those centuries gone by, like was used to describe how similar things were only, and usually in the phrases “like unto”…and it even had comparative and superlative forms until the mid 1600s! So that color could be liker the one I have, but that one is likest. (Fun, huh? I say we bring that back…)

In the 17th century, like was often used to mean “come near to, was likely,” as in “I like to spit out my drink from laughing.” American English developed the meaning of “be in the mood for,” as in “I feel like pizza tonight” round about 1860.

The meaning of “such as,” as in “a girl like her” is also from the 1880s. The slang filler word we’re taught to avoid in our Speech and Debate classes (He was, like, so fast) can be blamed on the “bop talk” of the 1950s

But things get interesting when you look at the verb form, rather than the adjective. Old English did also have this verb form…but back then, it meant “to please, be pleasing, be sufficient.” Etymologists aren’t exactly sure how it changed from being the property of the thing that is pleasing to the act of being pleased by something, held by the person. We see examples in Shakespeare of that original meaning–for instance in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” we get the line “The music likes you not.” As in, pleases you not. Not a snarky way of saying that you’re no good at music. But round about Shakespeare’s time, the meaning had begun to shift to what we know it as today.

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