‘Like’ is an infix now, which is un-like-believably innovative

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’…

Some examples:

A selection of tweets containing the phrase "for like ever". See link below.

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:

Selection of examples of "for like ever" from iWeb corpus

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.


More discussion at 3 Quarks Daily, Language Hat, Sensible Endowment.


22 Responses to ‘Like’ is an infix now, which is un-like-believably innovative

  1. Charlotte Sant says:

    This is interesting! I’d heard of ‘fucking’ being an infix (as in ‘un-fucking-believable’) but never ‘like’! Do you know of any other examples? It’s especially strange because ‘fucking’ and ‘like’ don’t seem to have exactly the same role in a sentence, so I’m wondering what the generalization would be for infixification (probably not a word, haha!).

    • Stan Carey says:

      There are more examples in paragraph 5 (-s-, -iz-, -ma-, diddly, bloody, etc.). That’s true about their different roles; I would hesitate to generalize much, given how few infixes there are in English and yet how diverse. John J. McCarthy’s paper ‘Prosodic structure and expletive infixation’ (PDF) has good discussion of the metric constraints of that type.

  2. Stan, brilliant, as usual. Not every day I come across a never-before-seen resource like the BYU Corpus of Global Web-Based English. Thanks for that. And may I return the favor by introducing you to a great Twitter tool site: http://www.allmytweets.net, a site which allows you to pull up any Twitter’s last 3,200 posts.

  3. At my age (60), im not into gossip, and life is generally not exciting or surprising enough–thankfully–to cause me to force myself to incorporate this infix into my daily life. However, because my job involves driving around all day, therefore often requiring me to visit public restrooms, I do find it un-like-fucking-believable that people have stopped flushing toilets behind themselves. There. I’ve spoken my mind on that subject.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a great double infix! I don’t plan to add the like infix to my speech, but it could happen anyway; quotative like and some other uses have crept in regardless of intent.

    • John Cowan says:

      My wife, who’s 75, finds it un-abso-fucking-lutely-believable that women squat over public toilets rather than sitting on them, pee all over the seat, and don’t bother to clean up after themselves. But so it is.

      • Donna Hughs says:

        I found incidents of that in Europe, and eventually learned it was the result of use by immigrants accustomed to relieving themselves over a hole in the floor, usually surrounded by tiles with places indicated for one’s feet. These were called “Turkish toilets,” which I encountered in Greece. I believed those who said it was actually a healthier position for relieving oneself. Immigrants from places where their use is common apparently were disgusted by the notion of sitting in contact with a surface which other people’s relatively private bodily parts had also touched, so they would climb up on the seat of a conventional toilet to avoid such contact–a relatively unsteady arrangement, to be sure. And yes, I would have welcomed more efforts at cleanup by such users.

  4. John Cowan says:

    I would tend to discard the “for, like, ever” evidence altogether, because it’s questionable whether “forever” is one word or two. It was routinely spelled “for ever” until the 19C, it alternates with expressions like “for life” and “for two years”, and its emphatic form is “forever and ever”, not “forever and forever”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a fair point, and it helps explain that example’s great frequency compared with, say, in-like-credible or un-like-sympathetic. I guess it’s a dubious example, but it could still contribute to laying the groundwork for more prototypical examples.

    • Matthew Woodcraft says:

      Also, I see that Googling for “for, well, ever” finds lots of examples (going back to 1960 on the first page of results).

  5. astraya says:

    I’m old enough to be grumpy about this. I’ll just say I don’t like it, and leave it at that.

  6. Bruce McLin says:

    Stan seems to believe that this infix use of like will be around, going forward, for, like a long time. I wonder. Since it is mostly a young-person based speaking phenomenon, will it be polished out when they get into the “real world” of business or academia and remain just like a small, really like interesting part of the language?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I can’t see it entering standard English any time soon, if ever, but stranger things have happened. When people adopt more formal varieties (e.g., for work or academia), they don’t tend to relinquish their less formal registers but rather assign them to the appropriate domains. So it’ll be interesting to see whether the usage peters out, remains niche, or becomes more widespread.

  7. Donna Hughs says:

    I’ve assumed it arose for quotative use arose because it’s much easier now, with texting etc., to check the particulars of what someone has said or written and call attention to discrepancies; consequently people began using “like” to indicate a rough equivalence or greater indeterminacy. So rather than say, “I said I’d be a little late” when they don’t recall exactly what they said or don’t want to be pinned down about it, they might have said “I said something like, ‘I might be late'” and that got shortened to “I was like, ‘I might be late.'”

    • Stan Carey says:

      I agree that part of the appeal of quotative like is that it permits a more approximate report of speech – but it predates text messaging by decades, so I don’t think our leaving digital footprints (so to speak) motivated the usage.

  8. […] ‘Like’ is an infix now, which is un-like-believably innovative […]

  9. I’ve not come across like as an infix yet myself, but I’ll be looking out for it. How fascinating!


  10. […] Stan Carey at Sentence First reports on the many new usages of the word like, such as quotative (in the comments, some people note that this is often used for inexact quotation). However, the most surprising is its use in Australia as an infix — a very rare beast in English: “‘Like’ is an infix now, which is un-like-believably innovative”. […]

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