The use of ‘like’ for many purposes - a vocal utterance to provide time to think, the equivalent of ‘umm’ or ‘err’, a voiced tic, or a phoneme with no semantic content – is extensive.
Its irritative quality is contagious. Some reactions to it are anti-social. I have heard a woman call out loud numbers, like a scoreboard, announcing each time another young woman said the word into her phone. It was a showstopping performance on a rush hour bus.
I have myself reprimanded an American tourist on the London Underground, pompously telling the bewildered, backward-cap-wearing young man, ‘Don’t say “like”. It doesn’t mean anything.’ (An American-born priest friend told me later that I had no doubt provided the chap with an anecdote that will delight his countrymen about how curmudgeonly the English are.)
Wainwright posits many reasons for the use of the word - ‘Chickens from the sixties finally coming in to roost,’ Jack Kerouac, Maynard G. Krebs ( a Beatnik character in the American television series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).
As a recent diversion I took from my shelves A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, his ‘greatest hit’. The work is the only one of Burgess’s to be routinely found now in bookshops and libraries. He wrote over 30 novels, though The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is reported to have found notes for three more works.
A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962, made popular by the Stanley Kubrick film nine years later. The novel reveals a prescience for the dull four letter word amid the linguistic fireworks of Nadsat. (Burgess himself acknowledged the Russian origin of the asterisked terms in the glossary of the 1972 Penguin edition.)
‘Like’ does not appear in the glossary, but it does throughout the narrative of Alex, the lead droog on the way to questionable reform. And it is not just Alex who uses it: his father and others ‘like’ their way throughout their dialogue. It pops up in Alex’s account of horrorshow violence, his brushes with the Law, his time in prison and his medically-led rehabilitation. It even appears in the final pages.
Needless to say, Burgess – of whom Private Eye, in a ‘Things They Never Said’ piece, jokingly quoted Little Wilson saying, ‘It’s this damn writer’s block’ – could have written long and hard about the use of language in the novel. He was, after all, a gifted commentator and critic in addition to being a extraordinarily creative artist.
I am sure the Burgess Foundation could steer me right on my researches. Based in his native Manchester, it ‘encourages public and scholarly interest in all aspects of the life and work of Anthony Burgess.’
All of this, of course, might let me know how ‘like’ made into A Clockwork Orange. What I probably need is not the background, nor the history behind ‘like’’s popularity, but why the common usage of a word, which any descriptive linguist would merely accept, has the ability to annoy me and so many others. Like.