Burgess’s Slang.

This Guardian piece by Dalya Alberge is almost a year old, but I don’t seem to have mentioned it before:

The writer Anthony Burgess invented futuristic slang for his cult novel A Clockwork Orange and was so fascinated by the language of the street that he began work on a dictionary more than 50 years ago. Now his lost dictionary of slang, abandoned after several hundred entries covering three letters, has been discovered.

The work had been hidden in a vast archive of his papers and possessions held by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, an educational charity in Manchester, where he was born a century ago. […]

Graham Foster, a researcher at the foundation, said the partially completed dictionary is still a “significant” discovery. “None of this has ever been published,” he said.

“Burgess … valued language above almost everything else … He was also fascinated by the slang he heard in his school days, his time in the army during the second world war and when he lived in Malaya during the 1950s. Burgess also enjoyed a long friendship with the slang lexicographer Eric Partridge.

“This interest influenced almost all of his novels, most famously in A Clockwork Orange, in which he invents a new language called Nadsat. This is not slang, but it shows a developed and sophisticated interest in exploring the possibilities of language. […]

The dictionary was commissioned by Penguin Books in 1965, but Burgess soon discovered writing it was too difficult, saying: “I’ve done A and B and find that a good deal of A and B is out of date or has to be added to, and I could envisage the future as being totally tied up with such a dictionary.”

What survives are 6×4 slips of paper on which each entry is typed. There are 153, 700 and 33 slips for the letters A, B and Z respectively.

Entries include abdabs (“fit of nerves, attack of delirium tremens, or other uncontrollable emotional crisis”) and abortion (“anything ugly, ill-shapen, or generally detestable”).

There are some good quotes from lexicographer Jonathon Green:

“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 said.

But he criticised some of Burgess’s words and definitions. “Terms like ‘writer’s block’ are not slang. Proper names like the Beatles are not slang. Meanwhile, one cannot, as in ‘arse’, begin a definition with the statement ‘I need not define’. Nor throw in personal assessments (‘Arse is a noble word; ass is a vulgarism).”

Green defined slang as always subversive: “You could say it’s taking the piss. It sets itself up ‘against’ … Most slang is a playful reinterpretation of a standard English word or phrase.”

Thanks, Trevor!

Addendum. Stan Carey points out in the comment thread that Jonathon Green has a more detailed piece at the GDoS blog, from around the same time, and it’s extremely informative; here’s an excerpt (Burgess and Eric Partridge were friends):

It interests me that the polymathic Burgess, whose knowledge of language was so extensive, and who, unlike many fulltime lexicographers, and especially those of us who focus on slang, had in addition a working knowledge of linguistics, was happy to echo his mentor. Something, Partridge suggested, was always better than nothing, and Burgess backed him up. ‘I maintain,’ he says, ‘as Eric always did, that it is better to guess than to be silent.’ And adds, ‘This is amateurish, but it is human.’

Not only that. If one is offering readers what is meant to be an authoritative work, a dependable linguistic tool as I see the dictionary, then this is not merely amateurish, but downright misleading. ‘Something’, however alluring, is often the falsest of friends. I doubt that Burgess would have condoned, as do swathes of the internet where relativism rules and authority is condemned as ‘elitist’, the statement that fuck comes from the acronym ‘fornicate under command of the King’, and add a wholly specious anecdote as alleged proof. (The etymology is in fact from various germanic verbs with roots in fik-, fak-, fuk-, fok– that mean ‘move back and forth’.)

Yet such is the dangerous road on which Partridge and he were willing to tread. It may be less fun, but the safest dictum is that pronounced by the OED etymologist Anatoly Liberman: ‘better no etymology at all than a bad one.’

I heartily second that conclusion.


  1. Maybe I should read something instead of asking question here, but indulge me, if you know the answer. How is it possible to compile a dictionary collecting words for A, B, and then Z? If a lexicographer studies slang (s)he should go into places where the slang is spoken, listen to people, and record what for her(im) seems to be slang. Then go to some other places and verify, maybe consult some books and dictionaries. But in no moment there is a chance to limit oneself to a single first letter. When actually writing the dictionary, thinking about definitions etc. it is possible to do things alphabetically, but that part seems to be the least time consuming. And yet, dictionaries are printed one alphabetical volume at a time with large delays between them, spanning sometimes decades. How come?

  2. Michael Eochaidh says

    The trick is clearly to write a dictionary for a dead language.

  3. @D.O.: I could imagine that Burgess had hand-written notes on words beginning with other letters and that the typed slips represent entries that he was preparing for publication. Perhaps the hand-written notes are still somewhere among his papers. But of course it’s also possible that he wrote the entries for publication from memory. That wouldn’t have been a professional lexicographer’s approach, but well, Burgess wasn’t one.

  4. By the way, I don’t agree with the quote from the Guardian stating that Nadsat “wasn’t slang” – that is exactly what it is meant to be, youth slang from the dystopian future Burgess envisioned in “Clockwork “.

  5. Good point.

  6. Not quite on thread, but Burgess on translation is here.

  7. Jonathon Green has a more detailed piece at the GDoS blog, from around the same time.

  8. Thanks, that’s much more detailed — I’ll add it to the post. Too bad nobody saw fit to edit it; there’s a bad typo in the first paragraph:

    As the talk explains, despite his initial committment to the task, it did work out. Brugess abandoned the task, and returned his publisher’s advance in 1966.

    Obviously, “did” should be “didn’t” (and for that matter “committment” should be “committment”“commitment” [argh!]). Sentences just trail off, like “There are also a number of cross-references, indicating other terms that he either intended to include.” And there’s a bizarre refusal to use question marks:

    “…why should etymologies, especially when they can play host to such alluring inventions, be excluded from one’s creative skills.”
    “So where and how does Burgess assemble those barely 900 terms.”
    “If he couldn’t use his own texts, then who could.”
    “So did he plagiarise Partridge, ‘unintentionally’ or even otherwise. ”

    Ah well, such are the times we live in!

  9. (and for that matter “committment” should be “committment”)

    It should, huh? Hartman’s Law strikes! (At Google I sat opposite Jed Hartman; it was him.) But it’s also called Skitt’s Law, (Erin) McKean’s Law, and Muphry’s Law.

    (But there are half a million ghits for “committment”. Unfortunately, there are over a million ghits for [“committment” -commitment], too.

  10. Argh!

  11. Of course, I conformed to Hartman’s Law myself by leaving off the right parenthesis, even after I checked the spelling of his name.

  12. I am somewhat comforted.

  13. Following a series of links, I got to “I think ‘to be a nitpicker’ is one of those irregular verbs: I am a purist, you are a pedant, they are a bunch of nitpickers.”

    “I am… You are… He is…” is an old comedic trope. Does it have a name? How far back does it go?

  14. David Marjanović says

    The Bierce-Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation states that every statement about correct spelling, grammar or I forgot what else is bound to contain at least one eror.

    Muphry’s Law is not the same thing, despite some overlap; it applies to typesetting, and no doubt to typing.

  15. Yet such is the dangerous road on which Partridge and he were willing to tread.


  16. “I am… You are… He is…” is an old comedic trope. Does it have a name?


  17. As in “I’m generous, you’re a spender, he’s a squanderer.”

  18. Yes, I’ve got it. I think it uses as an inspiration a conjugation table. There are some examples in Russian where actually the verb is changing (and not only in grammatical sense, which makes it a joke), but I don’t remember any from the top of my hat and too lazy to search.

  19. Huh, it never occurred to me that it might be inspired by conjugation tables. Though I’ve also seen it presented the other way (starting with “He…”), unlike conjugation tables.

  20. How were dictionaries of slang written before days of internet at all? Could you just go to a pub with a big tape recorder? And how many words and expressions could you reasonably record/write down in a day? And the next day, how many new words and expressions?

  21. David Marjanović says

    Yet such is the dangerous road on which Partridge and he were willing to tread.


    Peculiar writing for “Partridge and Burgess”, Burgess being the topic of the preceding sentence if we don’t count the parenthesis.

    How were dictionaries of slang written before days of internet at all?

    With a lot of work.

  22. ““I am… You are… He is…” is an old comedic trope. Does it have a name? How far back does it go?”

    The earliest I’ve come across it is Yes Minister (mid 1980s) but I can easily imagine it being a century older…

  23. It’s definitely considerably older; I remember it from when I were a wee lad in the ’50s/’60s.

  24. Normally you “tread a dangerous road”. “Tread on a dangerous road” sounds comic.

  25. Thank you!

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