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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 other articles by Dennis Baron