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Much has been written over the years of the arcane, mysterious dialect nestled within the dystopian classic film A Clockwork Orange. The “ultra-violent” tale of youth gone wild amid an authoritarian and corrupt government structure came out in 1972 to much fanfare, as well as impassioned controversy. 

The humble narrator of the gruesome tale, one Mr. Alexander DeLarge, aka little Alex, speaks rather eloquently and with breezy romanticism about heinous acts of violence and perverted encounters he and his best buds, the droogs, perform on a near-daily basis. 

Based on the 1962 novella by British author Anthony Burgess, the film adopts an idiosyncratic and unusual vernacular created by Burgess himself. The official word for this particular language is Nadsat. Nadsat is basically Russian-influenced English, with a dash of sing-songy terms and anglicized slang. 

A doctor in the book explains it thuswise: “Odd bits of old rhyming slang … a bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.” 

That is to say, Nadsat is either an inspired flight of linguistic liberation or it’s a bunch of gobbledygook; you decide.

That being said, it is not surprising that the language in A Clockwork Orange flows freely with sophisticated syncopation and arresting visceral impact, as Burgess was an accomplished linguist, musician, and composer.

But what’s curious about the language in the polemical film is the use of the word “like.” Alex and his droogs use like in the same manner practiced by today’s millennials and Gen Zers, even though the book was written decades ago. Younger generations may not realize, but there once was a time when people didn’t use the word like in such a haphazard way—that is, as a meaningless filler peppering their descriptions and acclamations in every other sentence or every other word for that matter. “I was, like, driving to work, and like, the traffic, was, like, unbearable.”

The pervasive use of the term seems to have started in the Eighties, but the phenomenon really hit big in the Nineties, and it persists to this very day.

Presently, like seems to be used in place of “um” or “wait for it.” “I was feeling gutted about, like, not making a good first impression.” Or “Brad Pitt is a great actor, but he’s not, like … on Leo’s level.”

If you have the stomach for it, being A Clockwork Orange is a truly brutal film, go back and listen to how little Alex uses the word like. It is remarkably identical to the manner in which American society now uses the term.

Before Alex attacks his droogs on the Flatblock Marina, he says, “But suddenly, I viddied that thinking was for the gloopy ones, and that the oomny ones use, like, inspiration and what Bog sends.”

Upon casing a house for a home invasion, the alpha chelloveck Georgie Boy similarly states, “It’s owned by this, like, rich ptitsa.”

And the grinning bulldog Dim addresses his droog and leader Alex saying, “You’re using the gulliver too much, like, maybe.” 

So, the issue becomes, did Anthony Burgess, a brilliant linguist and talented wordsmith encourage generations of young people to savage their own language by using like incessantly? Or is it all just a coincidence? 

When writing the book, Burgess opted not to use the slang of his time because he knew linguistic slang was, by nature, always changing, and he didn’t want his novella to quickly be perceived as outdated. Did he ever imagine just how widespread the word like would become in decades to come? 

Some people have argued that this use of like originated in the Eighties with the California valley-girl stereotype. “There’s, like, the Galleria and like, all these, like, really great shoe stores,” Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl” song says. Could it be that some of the 80’s valley girls were watching A Clockwork Orange?