The Grammarphobia Blog

A Faustian flight

Q: I was reading a biography of Thomas Carlyle in which he describes his first train ride as the “likest thing to a Faust’s flight on the Devil’s mantle.” The word “likest” seems so handy. When and why do you think we stopped using it?

A: You’re right: “likest” would be a handy word to have today. And, as you’ve discovered, it once was a handy word. In fact, it was used for hundreds of years (spelled “lickest,” “likkest,” “lykest,” and “likest”) before falling out of favor in the mid-19th century.

As a superlative that means most like someone or something, it first showed up in print in the 14th century. Here’s an early example from Piers Plowman (1377), William Langland’s allegorical poem: “He … made man likkest to hym-self one.”

The most recent published reference for “likest” that I can find in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1859 book about British novelists: “Swift … the likest author we have to Rabelais.”

I can’t find “likest” in the two modern US dictionaries that I use the most, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

But I do see the word in my Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) from the 1950s. Web 2 describes both the comparative “liker” and the superlative “likest” as “Now Chiefly Poetical,” though I don’t recall seeing either one in any recent poetry.

By the way, Carlyle used “liker” as well as “likest.” In his book Past and Present (1843), the essayist and historian wrote: “Nothing liker the Temple of the Highest, bright with some real effulgence of the Highest, is seen in this world.”

As for that devilish comment in the Carlyle biography, it was an allusion to the scene in Goethe’s tragic play in which Mephistopheles spreads out his mantle, or cloak, to take Faust on a satanic flight through the air.

Why did we stop using “likest”? I don’t know, but I’ll update this if I come across a likely story!

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