March 27, 2006

Lexical drift (2)

Here's another example of surprising and idiosyncratic drift in word meaning. I've been reading quite a few of the Alex Delaware novels by Jonathan Kellerman — police procedurals about hunting down murderers in Los Angeles. Psychologist Alex Delaware and his best friend the gay detective Milo Sturgis are always having long and complex discussions about how much the current evidence favors this or that suspect. And Milo will often say, for example, "So, you like the husband now?" — meaning (and I have no idea how it was that I could see this instantly), "So, you now favor the hypothesis that the husband is the murderer that we seek?" The verb like has taken on a new sense where A likes B means "A favors the hypothesis that B is the culprit." See how that works? Maybe the new sense will catch on more widely, maybe it will be limited (or is limited) to police talk, maybe it will never spread much; we don't know, and we can't predict.

I have a feeling (although my knowledge of police procedurals and police talk is quite limited) that I may have encountered similar instances elsewhere over the past years or decades, and that is more likely to be right than wrong (beware the recency illusion). In fact [update over the following few hours] email is already piling up: Jan Freeman tells me that this use of like was common on NYPD Blue; Adrian Riskin thinks it may go back at least as far as Damon Runyon; and James Nye and Douglas Davidson and Steven Keiser and Nathalie Hecker and all sorts of people point out that a very similar usage is found in sports (Which horse do you like in the fifth?; Who do you like for the Superbowl?), and that was very probably the seed from which the police usage grew. Final suspect as winner of a tournament of evidence, like meaning "favor as the probable final pick."

It is just possible that I may have said this before, but perhaps it will bear repeating: word meanings are imperceptibly shifting all the time in surprising ways. It's like continental drift, only less predictable.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 27, 2006 09:47 AM