Like has undergone radical developments in modern English. It can function as a hedge (‘I’ll be there in like an hour’), a discourse particle (‘This like serves a pragmatic function’), and a sentence adverb (‘It’s common in Ireland, like’). These and other non-standard usages are frequently criticised, but they’re probably older than critics think.
More recent is the so-called quotative like (‘I’m like, Whoa!’), also often disparaged. This became widely established impressively fast and is leading to some remarkable usages in younger generations: children saying things like ‘What’s Ernie like?’ to mean ‘What’s Ernie saying?’
So some uses of like are emerging right now, spreading through younger speech communities. In episode 278 of Australia’s Talk the Talk podcast, guest Alexandra D’Arcy – a linguistics professor who literally wrote the book on like – says that while she might say ‘at like the same time’, her son can say ‘at the like same time’, which is not in her grammar at all. It’s a subtle but striking difference.
It gets better. The latest novel use to which like is being put is as an infix. Infixes are a pretty small set in English, so a new one is a genuine surprise, linguistically. In some ways it is unlikeprecedented.
A quick side note: An infix is an affix that occurs inside a root or stem – unlike a prefix or suffix, which occur before (unfair) or after it (development). Infixes are common in some languages, but in English they’re marginal, occurring in a few compound plurals (passers-by, cupsful), hip-hop lingo (hizouse), Simpsons-ese (saxomaphone, scrum-diddly-umptious), and expletive infixation (abso-bloody-lutely) – though here the insert is not an affix, so some would categorise this as tmesis. See this work by Alan Yu (PDF) for cross-linguistic detail.
Like now joins the limited club of English infixes. This re-like-markable innovation seems to have been around for a couple of decades at least (see below), but it came to my attention only recently, through The Vocal Fries, a podcast about linguistic discrimination. Episode 21 features (guess who!) Alexandra D’Arcy, who, around 23 minutes in, discusses the different roles of like and says:
And now there’s an infix. Right? So you can get—I can’t do it, it’s not part [of my grammar], it’s too new for me. This one’s genuinely new, but younger speakers can say things [like] ‘un-like-believable’. Right? ‘She’s un-like-sympathetic’…
Certain words are more amenable than others to like-infixation, for both semantic and morphosyntactic reasons. Forever forming for like ever is a particularly common construction (it even features in a popular print), with ever sometimes typed in all caps (for like EVER) to like add to the user’s expressive style.
Browsing Twitter suggests it’s pretty much all younger people using it, mostly young women – ever in the vanguard of linguistic change – but a fair number of young men too. The 1.9-billion-word GloWbE corpus has 11 examples, while the new, 14-billion-word iWeb corpus has 74, including the following:
Most of the corpus examples are from the last 10 years, but the oldest I found is from c.1998, in the Never Been Kissed screenplay, revised draft by Jenny Bicks, based on Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein’s original script:
O.K., what have you wanted for like ever but you didn’t think it would – ever happen?
With more research, that can probably be antedated. Point is, this is new and fun and interesting, like is unlikestoppable, and its evolution is in-like-evitable. Within a generation it’ll feel like like has been an infix for like ever.
In a footnote to his essay ‘Big Red Son’, in the collection Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace quotes journalist Dick Filth (a nom de plume) using the verb disrobe infixed with like. His anecdote features an identity-swapping prank between Trey Parker (of South Park fame) and a person called Farrel Timlake during a film shoot:
Then later at one point Trey orders Farrel, as Trey, to perform – because, oh, Farrel performs sometimes too, under the name Tim Lake, Tim Lake, get it? – and Farrel does, did, puts down the notebook and phones and dis, like, robes and dives right in …