English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Punctuation Usage Writing

When ‘like’ means ‘lack’

Q: I’m not sure if this is all over the South or only in Kentucky, but people here use “like” to mean “lack.” Just the other day I heard a baker say of her cupcakes in the oven, “They still like some time.” Do you have anything to say about this usage?

A: The use of “like” to mean “lack” is a Southern regionalism, not just a Kentucky usage.

The Dictionary of American Regional English describes “like” here as a “pronc-sp” of the verb “lack” in the South and South Midland regions. A “pronunciation spelling” is one that represents the pronunciation of a word more closely than its traditional spelling.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve edited slightly to conform to the original wording, is from an 1857 report of the usage in central North Carolina: “Like for lack” (Tarheel Talk, 1956, by Norman Ellsworth Eliason).

The next DARE citation, also edited, has two examples of the usage in northwestern Arkansas: “like, v. tr. To lack. ‘I like two dollars.’ ‘It liked two minutes of ten’ ” (Dialect Notes, 1905).

The two most recent DARE examples are from the 1980s. The first represents the speech of western Kentucky and the second, which is edited and expanded, illustrates the speech of northern Georgia:

  • “ ‘You would go to a rest home and leave me by myself?’ he asked, with a little whine. ‘I’ve a good mind to,’ she said. She measured an inch off her index finger. ‘I like about this much from it,’ she said” (from “The Ocean,” in Shiloh and Other Stories, 1982, by Bobbie Ann Mason).
  • “You need to understand that in Cold Sassy … We also say … like for lack, as in ‘Do you like much of bein’ th’ew?’ ” (from Cold Sassy Tree, a 1984 novel by Olive Ann Burns, set in the early 20th century.).

We wonder if this usage may have been influenced by the use of the verb “like” in the conditional to mean “want,” as in “I’d like three apples and four pears.”

We couldn’t find the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, or other references.

We’ve seen comments online by Southerners who say “lack” is sometimes spelled as well as pronounced “like” in the region. All the written examples we’ve seen are from language authorities or fiction writers describing the pronunciation.

However, we’ve made only a cursory search of social media for examples of people using “like” for “lack” in writing. A more thorough search may find such examples.

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