Avva has been reading Chandler and has posted about what he finds a strange use of like, postposed rather than preposed (the current use, as in “It was, like, weird”):

“She thought I ought to be willing to throw a scare into the roommate just on the telephone like, not mentioning any names.” (from The Long Goodbye)
“Only that half is folded back like, so I guess maybe you can’t see it.” (from The Little Sister)

This is a quite distinct usage from the currently fashionable one, and much older. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang says:

1 [late 18C+] used to express ‘approximately’, ‘just about’ or poss. to draw attention to the subject matter when used prenominally, as in he ran down the road like, and … 2 [1940s+] (orig. US Black/beatnik) to express ‘kind of’, ‘in a way’ or ‘so to speak’ when used postpositively, as in it takes like ten minutes; I feel, like, sick 3 [1950s+] (orig. US jazz/beatnik/hippie/teen) usu. used as an interjection or to draw attention to what follows, or to indicate uncertainty, or simply as a meaningless filler as in Like man, it’s out of sight, Like he drove so fast…

The OED, unfortunately and uncharacteristically, jumbles up these uses, but it’s easy to disentangle them from the citations (and it’s quite something to see the Noctes, Henry Green, and Black Panther all cited in the same entry!):

7 dial. and vulgar. Used parenthetically to qualify a preceding statement: = ‘as it were’, ‘so to speak’. Also, colloq. (orig. U.S.), as a meaningless interjection or expletive.
1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence. 1801 tr. Gabrielli’s Myst. Husb. III. 252 Of a sudden like. 1815 Scott Guy M. vi, The leddy, on ilka Christmas night.. gae twelve siller pennies to ilka puir body about, in honour of the twelve apostles like. 1826 J. Wilson Noct. Ambr. Wks. 1855 I. 179 In an ordinar way like. 1838 Lytton Alice ii. iii, If your honour were more amongst us, there might be more discipline like. 1840-41 De Quincey Style ii. Wks. 1862 X. 224 ‘Why like, it’s gaily nigh like to four mile like’. 1870 E. Peacock Ralf Skirl. I. 112 Might I be so bold as just to ax, by way of talk like, if [etc.].1911 A. Bennett Hilda Lessways i. vi. 49 He hasn’t passed his examinations like… He has that Mr. Karkeek to cover him like. 1929 ‘H. Green’ Living vi. 57 ‘E went to the side like and looked. 1950 Neurotica Autumn 45 Like how much can you lay on [i.e. give] me? 1961 New Statesman 22 Sept. 382/2 ‘You’re a chauvinist,’ Danny said. ‘Oh, yeah. Is that bad like?’ 1966 Lancet 17 Sept. 635/2 As we say pragmatically in Huddersfield, ‘C’est la vie, like!’ 1971 ‘H. Calvin’ Poison Chasers xiii. 170 To concoct some fiendish scheme that might like give youse a fightin’ chance. 1971 Black Scholar Apr.-May 26/1 Man like the dude really flashed his hole card. 1973 Black Panther 17 Nov. 9/4 What will be the contradictions that produce further change? Like, it seems to me that it would be virtually impossible to avoid some contradictions.

There is a large bibliography of works on the more modern use; I wonder if anyone (say, one of the Language Log crew) knows of good studies of the earlier one?


  1. Both are very common in Ireland; perhaps the postpositive use re-inforced the prepositive one, back when Valley Girl speak started popping up in our media.

  2. What are yer sayin like, mon, do yer nah spee-ak Geordie like?
    Apologies for the terrible attempt at an accent there, but you really need to visit Newcastle-upon-Tyne if you like the word ‘like’ a lot.

  3. I found the same think up North like, in Aberdeen, Scotland.
    Scousers and Geordies and Scots and Irish (and, OK, Mancunians, grumble, grumble) unite!
    Is it, I wonder, a Celtic substitute for “innit”? There are these interrogative sentence endings they use…”like” and “innit” and “yeah”. Watch Jamie Oliver, he says yeah a lot at the end of his sentences, and to my ears he sounds like he’s an Essex lad. Estuary like, innit, yeah?
    Another odd use of like, that I’ve only heard from Scottish friends (but which, for all I know, may be widespread in both sceptered and emerald isles) is:
    “What are you like?” which means, “What the hell’s your problem?”.

  4. Not so uncommon.
    Now step away from that dictionary, real easy- like.

  5. I used to hear “quick-like” which is an archaic form of quickly a lot.

  6. Pukka, innit? Wotcher, tiger! Jamie Oliver is most definitely an Essex lad (and his tongue’s too big for his mouth, which doesn’t help matters). I always thought “What’s he like?” for “What’s his problem?” was a Cockney expression, although London slang tends to spread pretty rapidly throughout the country nowadays. The best TV programme for sampling English regional accents (particularly north-eastern ones like Geordie) is definitely Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Why-ay mon!

  7. Here in Toronto, Canada, my husband and I can both remember our parents using like, like this. Most certainly I say quick-like every now and then.

  8. My favorite like-utterance comes from a girl passing by in the halls of the psych building, who said to her companion, “His like desk was like covered with like papers.” Really. I heard this with both my own ears, first the right, and then slightly later with the left.

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