Anyone who has read A Clockwork Orange has been struck by the language Burgess created and interspersed with English throughout the novel. The author was fascinated by other forms of language and started writing a slang dictionary for Penguin over 50 years ago but the book was never finished and all drafts were believed to be lost until a recent discovery. Hidden at the bottom of a box of household items, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation found smalls slips of paper with words for the dictionary defined- 153 for letter A, 700 for letter B, and 33 for letter Z.
When discussing Burgess, the first thing mentioned is A Clockwork Orange and the violence or the satire of repressive control in the story. But, a profoundly unique aspect of the novel is the language. Alex and his teenage friends speak a slang called nadsat, which the reader uses context clues to slowly understand as the novel progresses.
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Lexicographer, Jonathon Green called Burgess’ dictionary especially fascinating stating “Slang is a very slippery customer … I get the feeling that Burgess thought it was much easier than it actually is … Smart as he was, with an understanding of linguistics and language, I don’t think he could have allowed himself to do a second-rate [dictionary]. If he didn’t stop everything else, that’s what he would have turned out with”.
Green spent almost two decades working on his own slang dictionary and is one of the top minds of the specific linguistic study. He will be discussing Burgess’s work and newly found dictionary at the Burgess’ Life, Work, and Reputation Conference on July 4th.
Some words found in Burgess’ dictionary:
Abdabs (the screaming) – Fit of nerves, attack of delirium tremens, or other uncontrollable emotional crisis. Perhaps imitative of spasm of the jaw, with short, sharp screams.
Abortion – Anything ugly, ill-shapen, or generally detestable: ‘You look a right bloody abortion, dressed like that’; ‘a nasty little abortion of a film’ (Australian in origin).
Abyssinia – I’ll be seeing you. A valediction that started during the Italo-Abyssinian war. Obsolete, but so Joyceanly satisfying that it is sometimes hard to resist.
Accidental(ly) on purpose – Deliberately, but with the appearance of accident: ‘So I put me hand on her knee, see, sort of accidental on purpose.’ (Literary locus classicus: Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, 1923.)
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