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shameless pleading






A matter of likelihood.

Dear Word Detective: We were driving home tonight and passed our neighbor’s house, in front of which he had piled a precarious mountain of odds and ends on top of the wheelie bin to be emptied by the trash folks in the morning. Knowing the persnickety standards of the local “waste management” company, my wife said, “I don’t think they like that like that.” For some reason, those two “likes” piqued my curiosity and I wondered if, and how, “like” the verb is related to that other “like,” whatever part of speech it is. — Alan C.

In that particular case, it’s either an adverb or an adjective, but “like that” is an established idiom, and idioms are weird, so it’s a bit hard to pin down. In any case, “like” can also serve as a preposition, conjunction and noun (as in Facebook “likes”). Speaking of weirdness, had I been in the back seat of your car at that moment, I might well have started humming a song from the early 1960s called “I Like It Like That,” written and recorded by Chris Kenner and Alan Toussaint in 1961 and later covered by the Dave Clark Five. The refrain of the song was “The name of the place is I like it like that,” and while it lacks the narrative subtlety of, say, “Louie Louie,” it’s a catchy tune.

The two “likes” are indeed related, both coming ultimately from a Germanic root (“likam”) that meant “body, shape, form,” with the added sense of “same.” The verb “to like” is somewhat older than the adjective in English, first appearing in Old English as “lician.” Curiously, the original meaning of the verb “to like” in English was “to be pleasing or suitable,” rather than “to be pleased or find suitable.” Thus if you were happy with your dinner, you might well announce that “It likes me.” This usage persisted into the 19th century (“I rode sullenly Upon a certain path that liked me not.” D.G. Rossetti, 1861), but beginning in the 12th century our modern transitive form (to find agreeable, attractive, admirable, etc.) gradually became more common. “Like” has produced dozens of idioms in English (e.g., “Like it or lump it”); interestingly, when applied to people, “like” is often used in explicit or implicit contrast to “love,” connoting a weaker emotion.

“Like” as an adjective came from Middle English, followed by the adverb, preposition and conjunction a bit later. The adjective “like” carries the sense of similarity and resemblance: something is “like” something else. As an adverb, “like” means “in the manner, fashion or to the extent of something or someone” (“Bob dances like a robot”), which leads us to the idiom “like that,” in which the “that” refers to something indicated or previously mentioned (“What was the use of his talking like that?” 1872).

Incidentally, “like” the adjective originally had comparative (“liker”) and superlative (“likest”) forms, but these have long since faded away. On the bright side, we still have the handy adjectives “alike” and “likely.” Interestingly, “likely” originally meant simply “resembling,” but it came to mean “probable” in the late 14th century, based on the sense of “resembling the truth or what is known.”

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