The first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the word like is verbal filler. But that’s not the like I’m talking about. Not the like that came from Old English gelic denoting something that has the same form or body of something else. Not the like that was found in Kidnapped or A Clockwork Orange to fill spaces between sentences, not the like in “Valspeak” found in the song Valley Girl (“What Is”). While this is a popular use for like, and it’s seen, like, everywhere, the cultural progression of like as a verb—to be fond of something—is less obvious.
Likjan. A Proto-Germanic root, lending itself to numerous languages such as Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch… lika, likon, likia, lijken. To suit. Old High German, Gothic… lihhen, leikan. To please. Lik meaning the body or form—to be similar. Old English, lician, meaning to please, to be pleasing, to be sufficient (Harper). Am I sufficient?
When you like something, you enjoy it. Whether it be a food, a hobby, a subject, or a job, we express the things we, well, like, using the word itself. I have a soft spot for dogs. I fancy reading books. It’s much simpler to say the word like. You find these things agreeable, so you say you like them. In the twenty-first century, liking is even quantifiable. People create posts on social media with the goal of amassing internet likes, to the extent that it can even become an addiction. Words like “smash that like button” or “make sure to like” swarm about, pressuring you into increasing the counter of people made to like something. Addiction to getting likes, to having others hit that thumbs up or heart button for you. Addiction to being liked. What if the subject in question is a person?
“I like you, Mary. I really do.” These iconic lines, said by Patrick in a teenage romcom called Saved!, conveyed a young, blossoming, and sweet love, shared between two high school students in a mall (Saved!). But what about the word like makes it so innocent, so noncommittal, a way for children to convey affection to each other? Unfortunately, not much is said about the origin of the verb like and its use in this way, but its association with playground crushes is apparent. Articles upon articles instructing on how to say I like you without actually saying the word like, subbing it instead for words such as happy or feelings. As Glamour magazine puts it, “saying ‘I like you’ seems a little juvenile” (HowAboutWe). But commitment is hard—incredibly so. Could you bear to say I love you to someone you met only two weeks ago, but you know you’re ready to commit to a relationship with? Why does saying like instead of love feel like you’re putting less cards on the table, opening up less of your chest to expose less of your heart? If they don’t like you back, is it more bearable than when they don’t love you?
When you said “I like you,” what did you mean? The issue with such a noncommittal word is ambiguity—do you like me like I like my pets, my friends, my favorite book character? Or is it something more? Is it juvenile of me to think that “I like you” could mean something more? Is it nothing more than a passing comment? Am I thinking too deeply about the meaning behind the word? “I love you” is unmistakable—and unmistakably hard to say. So we say “I like you,” and we return to those playground crushes, dancing around with our feelings until someone is ready to take the leap.
I’m not ready.