Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Nowadays, "Like" Just Means "Uh-Huh"

Like has a new meaning. The word used to mean 'feel affection for,' 'take pleasure in,' or 'enjoy.' Now, thanks to Facebook, like can also mean, "Yes, I read what you wrote," or just a noncommittal "uh huh."

Like was once a word that could be charged with emotion — as when Hamlet cruelly asks his mother to comment on the play that re-enacts the murder of his father: "Madam, how like you this play?" This gets Gertrude all upset.

Now like can simply mean, "So, what else is new?" Or even just, "I clicked on this."

This came about because Facebook allows you to like every post you read by clicking "like." Facebook users soon began to rate their popularity not just by the number of friends they've amassed (yes, Facebook also changed the meaning of friend), but by the number of likes they get as well.

like -- comment -- share

Every time you post something on your Facebook page, readers have the option to like it, add a comment, or share it on their own Facebook. Facebook then tallies how many "likes" your post has received. I've seen people go into a tailspin if not enough readers "like" a post.

counting likes

It's not surprising that the meaning of an old word like like has changed over time. Like goes back 1100 years to the earliest days of English, and it came into being long before English emerged from European prehistory. At first like meant, not 'be pleased with,' but 'body' or 'appearance.' Although like doesn't mean 'body' in English, the related word lich once did. Lich survives in modern English only in place names like Lichfield, in England, or Litchfield, in the U.S.It's literally 'body field,' or cemetery. Not a place one typically likes.

Nor is it surprising that words triggered by technological change find their way into general conversation: textspeak initialisms like OMG and LOL are now heard in spoken speech as well.

What is interesting about the new like is that it has no opposite. Queen Gertrude did not like the play. In fact she responds negatively to Hamlet's question with, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks," a Shakespeare line that's still quoted today. But if the Mousetrap, aka the Murder of Gonzago, were a Facebook video, Gertrude couldn't click "unlike" to express her displeasure, because on Facebook, which only wants to encourage happy thoughts, you can't dislike anything. Facebook has no "thumbs down" icon.

thumbs down

So when you read a post about a friend's crap day — "Someone stole my laptop, my cat got run over, I think I need a root canal" — it seems bizarre that, unless you want to write a comment, you can only express your sympathy by clicking "like."

Sure, you can unlike a post you've previously liked.

unlike

But that simply returns you to a state of neutrality. It doesn't say "I'm sorry that this happened." Sometimes people who don't want to draft a long response comment, "Strongly dislike." But I'm sure they'd rather just click an "unlike" button.

Interesting, too, you can't click like over and over to say "Strongly like." In the eyes of Facebook, permitting multiple likes would be protesting too much. If you really, really like something, you have to write a comment.

But there's one more step in to devolution of like from 'this pleases me no end' to 'I read what you wrote' to 'I noticed that you posted something." And that has to do with the growing volume of Facebook posts from the growing number of Facebook friends. The age of print produced too much to read. The digital age is producing even more. It wouldn't surprise me if the ancient Sumerians expressed the same frustration at the sheer number of clay tablets proliferating on a daily basis.

There is always too much to read, and so we either chuck it all — telling our friends, "I'm giving up cuneiform for a month" — or we perfunctorily skim our newsfeed item by item, going, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. Clicking "like" has become the digital counterpart of saying, "uh huh." Counting likeshas become a way to take attendance.

If anyone's out there, I invite you to like, comment, or share this post. And just so you know, I am taking attendance. This will be on the test.

Oh, and if you really don't like my post, keep it to yourself.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 11th, 4:19 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
Of course, this only deals with 'like' with regard to its online usage. It doesn't deal with the manner in which younger people use it in conversation. For example, in the following: "I wouldn't want to, like, be like him. You know, like, what I mean?", it has two interpretations. The traditional definition of 'same' & the equivalent of 'umm' and/or 'er' or a simple silent pause.
Monday August 11th, 4:50 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
Recently in a conversation we remarked that quite a few men in Ireland use the 'f' word about every five words, whereas women do in the same frequency with 'like', be it in a very different non-meaning than the 'like' discussed above:'I went, like totally mad', 'If you walk like down the street in any sizable town...'etc, etc. Driving me nuts. Not only is this a significant language impoverishment, it is also extremely tiresome, even overhearing it in a conversation that is not my own. I have discussed this deplorable phenomenon years ago on my website, 'Dolphin Address', at http://www.janploeg.nl/english/da_2008_en_08.html
and thought this usage should not go unmentioned, if only to depromote it.
Monday August 11th, 7:28 AM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
I appreciate your article, Dr. Baron, and your comments, Victor G. and Cachelot.

I'd like to point out another maddening abuse of like to mean either to say, or to think or feel. I have heard the following usage on a regular basis among college students and other young people in Baltimore, Maryland and in Birmingham, Alabama, suggesting that it is widespread at least in the Eastern U.S.

He's like, "I'm done with this," and I'm like, "are you for real?"

From the context, the hearer can infer with reasonable certainty that he actually *said* "I'm done with this," but the speaker's response - "are you for real?" - may have been either spoken or thought.
Monday August 11th, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
In the case of the first two comments, like is being used as a hesitation word. It's been used this way in English since at least the Beatnik age. In the case of the third, it's another example of lazy speech, which is continually changing it's garb. It is to be deplored mainly because lazy speech reflects lazy thinking. I believe this use of like came from the "Valley Girl" phenomenon in the early eighties. It gets on my nerves something awful!
Monday August 11th, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Sorry - of course it's its, not it's!
Monday August 11th, 11:51 AM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments. Of course there are several uses of like: like as a filler, indicating "I haven't done speaking but am casting about for the right word or phrase." There's like to introduce a quote (quotative like): He was, like, I think you know what I mean. Like can be a noun, as in one's likes and dislikes. And there's good old like as a comparative: A is like B, innit? None of these are intrinsically bad, (is intrinsically bad?) -- they're just what people do.

I'm just talking about one new meaning of the verbal like. Another influence on that new meaning: the more you use a word, the less it means (as in the comment above about the "f-word." The more you use the f-word, the less impact it has as an imprecation. So as like is used more and more on FB, the less its means 'I find this to my liking' and the more it means, uh-huh.
Monday August 11th, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Among teenagers (and some young adults), it's been a long time since anyone "said" (or "thought") anything! As I recall, the first substitution was "go": He goes "what time is it?" and I go "Five o'clock." Then "all" came along: She's all "What day is this?" and I'm all "Tuesday." Now, as noted above, "like" is the word of choice: He's like "What's the date today?" and I'm like "The seventh."

It seems that those three terms were/are used to QUOTE comments or thoughts, but to INQUIRE about them one would fall back on the s-word: Then what did she say? If he asks you, what are you going to say?

I wonder what word will be the next said-replacement - any predictions?

Another thought: Maybe the reason these quirky word choices are so noticeable is that "back in the day" we didn't actually quote ourselves and others so often; we would just say "He asked me what time it was, and I told him it was five o'clock." We didn't assume that our listeners wanted quite as much detail about our lives as is now often provided. Is this a symptom of an unfortunate self-absorption of the younger generation (along with selfies and Twitter) - or, in more positive terms, is it an indication of their openness, honesty and willingness to share?

The Happy Quibbler
Monday August 11th, 8:02 PM
Comment by: Adelaide H.
Thorunn S:

I believe that there is a daunting difference between the "Valley Girl" phenomenon and just an inability to communicate in the best, most clearest way possible. I do have a speech disorder and tend to use filler words because my brain switches off that track fast. It is not because I have a lack of vocabulary but because I just.. blank out, if that makes any sense.
Monday August 11th, 9:06 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Thorunn, there is a possibility that the use of "he's like" is an opinion and not factual.
Tuesday August 12th, 12:21 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I agree with Dr. Baron's comment.
Here is my analogy: Facebook's concern is only toward readers positive consent.Not otherwise.
I watch occasionally on TV, after any presentation the commenter proudly invites to "like us" option on face book or to "follow me @..."
Because, readers do not have any alternative to express their negative/crappy feeling, even though 10 people liked any piece in contrast to 20 people disliked the same item, there is no way to track it.
Because, these are social media, developers/designers at the beginning only thought about making friendship more and more, and these are friends only.
As I understand, we need real friends. Real friends constructive criticism is necessary and more valuable than million "like" consent.
Tuesday August 12th, 4:39 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
I agree with professor Baron that a single word in repetition loses it's meaning. But I tend to disagree when it's used in context. 'I' is a very often used word, and so is 'kitchen'. They have an established reference and are by apt repetition ingrained in our subconcious. The meaning of 'like' may have devolved, but simultaneously it has subvolved. It has become a Pavlovian key, which, when touched gives a little feelgood reward. By introducing such a mechanism positive behaviour is endorsed and promoted.
In other words, it's (self)congratulatory and cements 'the establisment'. Discontent spawns the will to change. The concept of 'like' is a tool of the conspiracy to keep society in bondage, like money does. 'Like' is the currency of emotional slavery. It may be subject to devaluation, but as long as it is maintained it will keep us happy and self-shackled.
Tuesday August 12th, 11:50 AM
Comment by: David M.
I like this article, although I am not a face bookie. That may be an incorrect usage of the word bookie, but I don't spend much time gambling on those interactions with friends. I adopted a Facebook page for communications with friends in Europe upon a time.

The deep part about the history of the word like has not put it six feet under, yet. Something about the dead and respect thereof is key to understanding the word usage in social media. In elementary school and middle school, we like someone or something in a sense similar to the definition in Facebook. Then puberty hits and we get into complicated definitions like love. The likes that social media enterprises adopted have the word as a principal meme for attracting interaction. That is good. One could go on about the dumbing down of interaction, but we are what it is. Elevating it to a higher form is our decision. As I recently said elsewhere in cyberspace – it is a developing art.

It is a good thing that they are not offering a dislike button. Even if marketing types train many in our culture on the politics of personal destruction, it’s good that people have some respect forced on them by other marketers. If you do not like what someone has to say, do like any good elementary school teacher would tell you, ignore him or her and move along. Please.
Tuesday August 12th, 10:22 PM
Comment by: Lazygrasshopper (India)
Nice article.
Thursday August 14th, 4:46 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (Walkerston Australia)
I don't use the word anymore.

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