What inspired the language of A Clockwork Orange?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. His dystopian novel, set sometime in the near-future, tells the story of teenage anti-hero Alex and his gang of friends, and their violent escapades.
Tea-drinking and toast-munching
Or put another way, it tells the story of Alex and his droogs who indulge in ultra-violence. This sentence contains two of the most famous coinages from the book, written in a specially constructed slang which Burgess called Nadsat. This is the argot that Alex and his cohorts use to speak to each other, as well as to those they persecute, and any of the authority figures who attempt to intervene. It is heavily influenced by Russian, often taking a word from that language and anglicizing it, yet retaining something of the original pronunciation, such as chelloveck. This means fellow or person in Nadsat as well as in the original Russian chelovyek. The following sentence shows some of the other influences at work too.
I read this with care, my brothers, slurping away at the old chai, cup after tass after chasha, crunching my lomticks of black toast dipped in jammiwam and eggiweg.
Loosely, this describes Alex drinking cup after cup of tea, and eating slices of toast with jam and egg. Chai is the Russian word for tea, but there are also parallels with the English slang word char; tass is based on the French and German words for cup (tasse and Tasse) and chasha has its origins in the Russian words for teacup (chashka) and a poetical word for a large cup (chasha); lomtick reflects the Russian lomtik meaning slice; both jammiwam and eggiweg are childish representations of jam and egg.
What is most interesting about this, certainly from a lexicographic point of view, is that inventive as the words most undoubtedly are, few of them have made their way into common parlance. A Clockwork Orange is cited three times in the historical Oxford English Dictionary (although quotations for other Burgess works are also included). Two of the examples are for thou and your, which are of course extremely common words with long histories where Burgess is not the earliest example. The third is the aforementioned droog which was coined by Burgess in the novel and appears on the very first page of the book.
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim.
Droog is from another Russian word, drug, meaning friend. Its meaning in the book is probably a little more sinister than that – these are henchmen rather than just good pals. And this is the nuance of meaning that the word has taken on – that of a member of a street gang. None of the other coinages have (so far) made it into our dictionaries, or really into common speech.
Newspeak versus Nadsat
It is perhaps worth comparing A Clockwork Orange with another linguistically innovative book – Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell. The OED gives the following as Orwellianisms: doublethink, Newspeak, Oldspeak, and unperson. There is an obvious similarity between these words and any of the Nadsat words mentioned above – they are examples not of Standard English but of a created language: Newspeak. But they are different in at least one important way, and that may hold the key to why these words have made their way into English whereas most of the Nadsat ones have not. They described something for which there was no comparable word in English, whereas Nadsat is, for the most part, a form of slang, describing things for which there is already a word in English, but in a different way.
As a linguist, Burgess was apparently all too aware that slang can date rather quickly – consider words like groovy, which could root a book or character in a particular time unless it was being employed deliberately for humorous effect. By making up a new type of slang, he could ensure that the book transcended the time in which it was written and is still all too relevant now, and probably will be in the future.
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