We don’t need no gestures

The other day in the class I’m TAing, the professor said, “by the end of the semester, there are ten questions that you should be able to answer like that.” That got me thinking, what is up with the phrase “like that” and its meaning, namely ‘with ease’. For one thing, it’s really hard to represent in writing. You could use typographic emphasis: _he can do it like **that**_. Or you could add a word to make it clearer: _she finished it just like that_. Or, you could notice that it’s sometimes (often?) accompanied by a snap of the fingers, so could have: _”You should be able to answer it like that,” he said with a quick snap of the fingers._

And on that note: it seems likely to me that what we have here is a phrase that was at some point rather dependent on a concurrent snap (either timed with _that_, or perhaps, for dramatic effect, just before _that_) to make any sense, but over time the association became conventional enough that the gesture was no longer needed. And in fact you could say _like that_ along with any appropriate gesture that indicates speed, ease, or some similar idea. It’d be interesting to see if, in the absence of any gesture, it is regularly or obligatorily replaced by some prosodic cue.

Then I checked the OED entry for _like_, and lo and behold, there was a meaning! But it wasn’t what I was expecting:

> […] of the nature, character, or habit indicated; spec. (usu. accompanying the crossing of the speaker’s fingers) as an indication that two people described are very friendly or intimate

The first written attestation for this use is from _The Great Gatsby_. For me, if I want to express that meaning, I’d have to use the finger-crossing gesture – no amount of facial or intonational gymnastics seems to get it quite right. Which is interesting, since my first associations with that particular gesture are the “hope” and “nyah nyah I can break my promise” meanings.

2 Comments so far

  1. The Ridger on October 2nd, 2007

    Huh. In both cases the “that” is a gesture. In fact, in something like “I did it like that” accompanying a demonstration of how you broke the machine (or whatever). The deictic nature of “that” almost requires it. In “they’re like that” the gesture is a metaphor. In “you can do it (just) like that” the gesture, another metaphor, is now unnecessary … but I think there’s always a special prosody to the statement, isn’t there?

  2. Russell on October 3rd, 2007

    Hmm, nice pickup on the “intimate” one being a metaphorical gesture.

    I would guess that you need the special prosody to have the expression make any sense. That’s why I noticed in class – the professor didn’t, to me, seem to use any special prosody or have any visible gesture. Which is not to say it wasn’t there.