Dollops of Mud and Demonic Poetry

July 29th, 2012

A talk given to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester as part of a Conference to celbrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange

The phrase queer as a clockwork orange, which means eccentric or bizarre, and can be applied sexually or otherwise, was sourced by Anthony Burgess to late World War II when, as a serving soldier, he heard it in the mess. I am quite willing to believe him: the phrase is cognate with similar slang similes such as queer as a coot, first ascribed to his acquaintance Julian McLaren Ross, queer as a three dollar bill, queer as duck soup, a coinage of the 1930s and oldest of all queer as Dick’s hatband, which seems as impenetrable a construct as Burgess’s borrowing and has been recorded in this sense since at least 1835 (meaning ‘below par, or ‘out of sorts’ it goes back a further half-century). As I say, I wish to believe, but…the problem is that we have no proof. Despite the resources of the Internet, and other than in scholarly articles that quote Burgess himself, the first recorded citation comes as late as 1977, in a glossary appended to a book designed to help policemen battle with the contemporary world.

First recorded that is, other than in the book itself, although the ‘queer as’ never appears, and the basic phrase, for which Burgess subsequently drew his own illustration, is used either as the title of the writer F. Alexander’s magnum opus or to describe Alex as rendered void and directionless by the Ludovico therapy.

This is frustrating, and I am incapable as a lexicographer to overlook it, but it is ultimately one more subtext in a book that is awash with subtexts. Scholars – here too I have no doubt – continue to elucidate them. Meanwhile the slang lexicographer, that shameless voyeur, eyes fixed firmly on the gutter and its denizens, takes his own view. If it is, as Burgess described our craft, somewhat ‘mixed and eccentric’ and even ‘quarrelsome’, then please forgive me. For me the book is dominated by the role of Nadsat, the teen slang that Burgess conjured forth for Alex and his peers. There is also a good deal of what, perhaps paradoxically, I would term ‘mainstream’ slang, though this, I would suggest, is somewhat overlooked. It is surely the slangiest of Burgess’ books but not just that: rarely in any work of literature does what I term the counter-language play so central a role.

I shall return to A Clockwork Orange in greater detail, but first I would like to say a few words about Burgess and slang.

I can think of no-one, especially among those whose skills as a linguist stemmed from phonology, so willing to take this subset of English so seriously. Burgess wrote about slang, was regularly quoted about it and of course created his own version for his best-known novel. He devotes a chapter to it in A Mouthful of Air and if that is rather more of a tour d’horizon than a linguistic analysis of the register – and greater linguists than he have faltered before that task – it remains an excellent overview, even if, naturally, he could only work with what then existed.

Yet I am not sure, if I am honest, quite how much he actually liked it. Or should I say approved of it. Central to all his comments on the topic was his identification of the register not simply with those at the bottom of the social ladder, which status was forgivable, but also those far down on the literate one, which was not. Slang, read one review, was something that ‘dribbled’; in another he wrote of a text marred by ‘slackness and slanginess.’

He definitely appreciated its innate rebelliousness, its role, as I have described it, as the language that says ‘No’ the language that embodies doubt. ‘The word “slang”, he noted, ‘suggests the slinging of odd stones or dollops of mud at the windows of the stately home of linguistic decorum.’ And he understood exactly where this bottom-up language comes from, acknowledging that ‘the downtrodden […] are the great creators of slang’ but elsewhere dismissed Black English, as spoken in the impoverished American ghettoes, as ‘a tongue of deprivation’ and sneered at those who ‘sentimentally drool over its alleged expressive virtues.’ I shudder to imagine what he would have made of the Ebonics controversy of the late 1990s when in California this variety of speech was advocated as an alternative to standard usage. In 1970 he noted that though ‘[slang was’] humanly irreverent, [it] tends to be inhumanly loveless. It lacks tenderness and compassion; its poetry has the effulgence of a soldier’s brass buttons.’ Perhaps his most generous assessment came in A Mouthful of Air when he typified it as ‘the home-made language of the ruled, not the rulers, the acted upon, the used, the used up. It is demonic poetry emerging in flashes of ironic insight.’

It also in A Mouthful of Air that he referred to it as ‘a pile of fossilised jokes and puns and ironies, tinselly gems dulled eventually by overmuch handling, but gleaming still when help up to the light.’ The phrase ‘fossilised jokes’ seems to have been taken wholesale from the subtitle of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in which they are included alongside puns, colloquialisms, catch-phrases and vulgarisms. Whatever he thought about slang, he undoubtedly liked Partridge, the leading slang lexicographer of the 20th century. The men had met in 1965 during Burgess’s own attempt to compile a dictionary of contemporary slang.

He recalled in You’ve Had Your Time that

‘Eric Partridge had invited me [...] to cannibalise his own great dictionary to the limit, but I feared that I was not really a lexicographer. The lexicographer’s work is never done. He has more correspondence than the novelist, for people will go mad about words while ignoring literature. New words are born every day. New ingenuities of etymology from country vicarages and old people’s homes have to be rejected with courtesy. Still, I was tempted. The lexical bulk of any dictionary is to be found under ‘S’, but the true linguist thinks of ‘S’ as accommodating two different phonemes – the ‘s’ of ‘sit’ and the ‘sh’ of ‘shot’ – while the ‘B’ entries -initialising unequivocally with the ‘b’ phoneme – present the true superlative of weight. If I could get through ‘B’ without too much groaning I would take on the whole task.’

The true linguist indeed, but lexicographers play by other rules. For one so knowledgeable of dictionaries, it surprises me that he appeared to think one compiled them by starting at A and moving on to Z. If only. In the event he gave in after a stab at B and left the job to Partridge, the expert. They remained friends till the older man’s death in 1979 and Burgess wrote generously –perhaps over-generously – of the lexicographer in both reviews and in the posthumously issued Eric Partridge in his Own Words.

If Partridge has an over-riding fault, it is in his willingness to allow guesswork into his etymologies. The orthodox position is expressed by Oxford etymologist Anatoly Liberman, who has made it clear that ‘better no etymology at all than a bad etymology.’ As Partridge’s successor, and faced with the same problems as he was – since slang is particularly cussed when it comes to elucidating its roots – I have to agree, however much my teeth may be gritted as I say so. ‘Etymology unknown’ is the most depressing phrase I type, but type it I must because if that is indeed the case, then to offer readers anything else is inexcusable.

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 at least a rudimentary knowledge of linguistics, was happy to echo his friend. 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.’ The problem, I would suggest, is that if one is offering readers what is meant to be an authoritative work, a linguistic tool as I see the dictionary, then this is not merely amateurish, but downright misleading. 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, but such is the dangerous road on which Partridge and he were willing to tread. Of course Burgess was not a lexicographer, although he wrote appreciatively of such as Johnson and the OED’s James Murray, but a creative writer, a novelist. It is from this, I believe, that sprang what as a professional I see as a willingness to embrace guesswork. If one’s life is centred on invention, then why should etymologies, especially when they can play host to such alluring inventions, be excluded from one’s creative skills. Etymology, especially what I term deep etymology, taking words back to their very earliest roots and moving out from a simple meaning to the complex fusions that draw on a variety of linguistic sources, is a seedbed of potentiality. The necessity, however, is to root out weeds, and Burgess was too willing to let them flourish.

As he characterised Partridge, Anthony Burgess was himself over and above all ‘a lover of words’, a quite literal philologist, revelling in their complexity, their variety and their potential for manipulation. His own vocabulary, of course, was impressively wide-ranging. The briefest glance at some reviews offers hogo, mantrip, protonym and malefit: hardly standard and there is much more.

He is a devotee of the dictionary, trusting the lexicographers and admiring their scholarly, disciplined, hard-won creations. I can think of few, if any outside the professionals – and perhaps including them – who write of lexicography and its practitioners with such sympathy and understanding. He had taken against Marghanita Laski, and mocked her in the street name Marghanita Boulevard in A Clockwork Orange; he might have been mollified had he known that she was the chief contributor of citations to the second edition of the OED. As he puts it in a review of Katherine Murray’s biography of her grandfather Sir James, ‘There are naïve people who regard philologists as dull, forgetting that the rogue-god Mercury presides over language.’ Elsewhere he noted that ‘The study of language may beget madness. Mercury presides over philology as well as thievery.’ He was very happy to pay Mercury his due.

With all of that in mind, I cannot imagine, therefore, that Burgess disliked slang. I cannot imagine that he disliked any language. He did, however, or so it seems to me, distrust it. He admired and even indulged Partridge, wrote on his slang lexicography and that of others, but in the essays and reviews that I have read, I haven’t found a parallel admiration for the lexis with which Partridge worked. He is interested, knowledgeable (though not invariably accurate) but he lacks respect. This sense of distrust seems equally born out in the work in which, of course, slang plays its greatest role: A Clockwork Orange. Though even, or perhaps I should say especially here, Burgess’s take on the counter-language, was such that – dissatisfied with the potential ephemerality of what was on offer – he chose not to use the youth slang that was available, but to invent his own and in so doing to use as his primary source not English, but a language that we can assume would have been even more alien than contemporary youth-speak to all but a minority of his readers

The genesis of A Clockwork Orange can be found, as Andrew Biswell has explained, in spring 1961 when Burgess wrote to his friends Diana and Meir Gillon that

‘I am in the early stages of a novel about juvenile delinquents in the future’ and noted in parenthesis that ‘I’m fabricating with difficulty a teenage dialect compounded equally of American and Russian roots’.

The American contribution would fade, replaced by mainstream British slang or plays upon it, but the Russian element, as we know, continued to take the dominant role.

I am hardly alone in paying Nadsat its dues, but before I consider the language there is another aspect that I would suggest makes itself particularly plain to one who researches, as do I, in writing’s less salubrious themes. Alex and his droogs, what might now be termed his crew or fam, his fellow gang-bangers (in the original and the more recent senses of that term) represent what by 1962 was a very well-established tradition: the J.D. or juvenile delinquent novel. I am not suggesting that Burgess had immersed himself in the work of ‘Hal Ellson’ (later the sci-fi author Harlan Ellison), or that of Wenzell Brown, Edward de Roo and ‘Vin Packer’ (actually Maryjane Meaker), even if their publisher Ace Books also gave readers Junkie, by Burgess’ acquaintance William Burroughs. But the world of the J.D. gangs, with their switchblades and leather jackets, their jailbait and gang rapes, their drugs and of course their slang, had proved very popular (it remains so, updated to the worlds of Irvine Welsh or Niall Griffiths) and one can see many of the same tropes in A Clockwork Orange.

This is not to say that A Clockwork Orange would have sat comfortably among such titles as Ellson’s Reefer Boy, Brown’s Jailbait Jungle or Packer’s Young and Violent, but those creations, set in 1950s New York, were not that far away either in time or in their violence, their hedonism and their disdain for convention. Some even included the obligatory trip to jail, wherein the hero experienced some form of reformation, though under less melodramatic circumstances than those suffered by Alex.

And there was, of course, their impenetrable slang. Burgess made a conscious decision to invent a slang for his near-future delinquents, and mixed it so heavily with Russian, it proved hard going for many readers. But in 1953 how many outside the initiates would have picked up ‘They bought some junk from a cat in the park, but it was real beat stuff and they didn’t get no charge’ or the exchange ‘The trim’s not bad. Let’s pull a midnight review.’ ‘Cut it,’ Thomas ordered. ‘We ain’t got no time to cat around.’ – both lines from Wenzell Brown novels. The young, as Burgess pointed out, have a language all of their own.

The juvenile delinquency considered in A Clockwork Orange is projected somewhere into the future and situated in an unspecified country where at least a proportion of the young seem to be running riot, and are waging war, with the aggressive collusion of the authorities’ front line agents, the police, on the established order. The future does not improve it. Anthony Burgess, whatever many viewers of the Kubrick film of his novel may have assumed, was not a fan of what the Fifties had coined as ‘youth culture’. It is informative briefly to compare his novel with another youth-focussed work, Colin Macinnes’ Absolute Beginners, published in 1961, while Burgess was still at work. Quite unlike Burgess, Macinnes aimed to celebrate youth. He loved their music, their clothes, what he believed was their lack of racism – other at least than in the Teddy Boys, positioned as the villains of the piece and as such a group who had wilfully failed to keep pace with developments – and above all their sheer modernity. He also attempted to display their language. Absolute Beginners, set very much in the here and now, sited in a Notting Hill that was still equated with blacks and bohemia rather than with bankers and bonuses, is resolutely upbeat. There are no killjoy authorities, let alone sadistic aversion therapists. If one fails to embrace youth, one has only oneself to blame. Even with a climatic chapter staged against the background of 1959’s Notting Dale race riots, it offers what can be called an optimistic ending.

The anonymous Absolute Beginner is portrayed as streetwise but he would not have lasted long one-on-one, let alone twenty-to-one with Alex. MacInnes had written affectionately of Tommy Steele; in a movie he might have cast Cliff Richard as his hero. Kubrick, of course, would use Malcolm McDowell, the gun-toting, vodka-swigging antihero of If. And his slang, while of its time, was predictable; Nadsat would have eluded him.

Burgess never mentions MacInnes; nor does he mention another contemporary ‘youth novel’, Robin Cook’s The Crust on Its Uppers, published like his own in 1962. This story, fictionalising that louche world where, to paraphrase, the Chelsea Set met the Kray Brothers, was another book where young protagonists were delineated by their own language. Cook used over 250 slang terms and provided readers with a glossary. Most were current, mainly from the East End, though few readers would have known them, and one, morrie, meaning a wide-boy, was definitely all Cook’s own. But one word hardly makes a lexis. MacInnes’ Beginners and Cook’s morries were of their own time. Burgess’ droogs were something else.

I hold no brief for analysing any aspect of Burgess’ novel other than in terms of the language. I am fortunate in the centrality of that language’s role and the fact that it is especially his invented tongue Nadsat, the language of his teenage hoodlums, that has made and kept it famous. Burgess’ aim, it appears, was to avoid linking his story to any time or place. He drew on his experiences of Teddy Boys in England and stilyagi on a visit to Leningrad, and brought in his wife’s assault, perhaps rape by a pair of GIs, but this was background. He did assemble a possible glossary, based on contemporary teen slang, but abandoned it.

As he explained in You’ve Had Your Time,

‘It was pointless to write the book in the slang of the early Sixties: it was ephemeral like all slang and might have a lavender smell by the time the manuscript got to the printers. It seemed, at the time, an insoluble problem. A slang for the 1970s would have to be invented, but I shrank from making it arbitrary.’ The solution came when he started, coincidentally, to relearn Russian ‘It flashed upon me that I had found a solution to the stylistic problems of A Clockwork Orange. The vocabulary of my space-age hooligans could be a mixture of Russian and demotic English, seasoned with rhyming slang and the gipsy’s bolo. The Russian suffix for –teen was nadsat and that would be the name of the teenage dialect.’

Recent editions of the book have been supplied with glossaries, and a canonical version thereof – based on that compiled by Stanley Edgar Heyman in 1963 – is widely available on the Internet. Burgess was unimpressed; he termed the glossary ‘stupid.’

Stupid or not, it was not available in the original editions. Readers were forced to use context as an aid to translation, although Alex, occasionally styling himself ‘Your Humble Narrator,’ is generous with his bracketed explanations of many terms. Some critics have suggested that the author was consciously and generously self-censoring, rendering the extremes of violence, of tolchocking, the britva and the old in-and-out, less immediately accessible and thus sparing the readers until, better accustomed to the atmosphere of this strange future world, they could more easily take them on board. There is nothing from Burgess to render this theory fact. What he does, with consummate skill, is to take a language that he, but one imagines relatively few of his readers knew: Russian, and by using both literal and ludic, usually punning translations, create an argot – a private language or jargon – for his gang of psychotic droogs. That its name, Nadsat, plays on the suffix used for the numbers thirteen to nineteen, but is used for teen as in teenager, underlines the way in which this was done. This playful redefining of Russian works throughout to sidestep the ties of contemporary youth slang. At the same time, readers who ‘got’ the puns, would have seen that Burgess still recognised what his teen contemporaries might have been saying. Kopat (to dig with a shovel) is used as ‘dig’ in the sense of enjoy or understand; koshka (cat) and ptitsa (bird) become the beatniks’ ‘cat’ and ‘chick’, although slang’s bird had already meant a girl since 1550. Burgess can also play with non-teen slang, such as his use of vareet (to cook up) which he uses in its non-culinary sense, meaning to prepare or make happen.

What Burgess did not use – I have no idea whether or not he knew its lexis – was mat, Russia’s purpose-built, centuries-old obscene slang. Had he done so he might have offered some form of play on mudi, for testicles rather than yarbles, from yarblicka, apples (though apples has been thus used in English slang) and a variation on the insult pedik or pidor, literally pederast, in place of sod. Lubbilubbing, from Russian lyublyu, love, would also have found a number of grosser synonyms.

Dr Brodsky, architect of Alex’s enforced reformation, terms Nadsat ‘the dialect of the tribe’ and dismisses it as ‘quaint.’ His sidekick, Dr. Branom sees it as a mongrel assemblage: ‘Odd bits of old rhyming slang […] A bit of gipsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav.’ And he attributes them to ‘Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.’

Dr Branom is right as regards the Slavic input – of the 242 terms included in the Heyman glossary some 190 have Russian origins, but otherwise he is overly glib. Those terms he identifies as rhyming slang do indeed rhyme, but with the exception of Charlie, a semi-rhyme based on Charlie Chaplin and as such more of a pun, which is first found in the US Army in 1917 but just once since, only for Burgess. Luscious glory, used for hair, may rhyme with upper or top storey, but that, in non-rhyming slang, usually means the head, cognate with the attic or that belfry in which one may encounter bats. Hound-and-horny, corny, exists nowhere but in the novel; pretty polly does indeed rhyme with lolly, money, and the phrase jolly for polly, sexually available for a price, is recoded in a gay lexicon of 1972. But not before and I would suggest that the phrase is primarily dependent on assonance. Ironically the one term that has resisted translation – though context makes it clear that sharp means a female – is perhaps the single genuine piece of rhyming slang. It abbreviates sharp and blunt, and means cunt, specifically the vagina and generically women.

As for Gypsy, or properly Romani, it is also less well represented than Branom suggests. The only term that Hayman claims is dook, ghost, which he links either to dook, a Romani term for magic (properly ‘second sight’) or to the Russian dukh: a spirit or ghost. Slang’s more usual use of the Romani is in dukkering, palm-reading, which is also linked to duke, the hand. Again, the gypsy terms come in what Hayman has missed. Cutter, used for money, comes from Romani couta, a guinea, and was long established in mainstream slang to mean cash. Rozz, which is used for policeman and is attributed to the Russian rozha, an ugly face or a grimace is surely no more than the English rozzer, which is considered to come from Romani roozlo, meaning strong and also used to mean a villain; I should add the alternative etymology: French argot’s rouse or roussin, a policeman, from roussin, medieval French for a warhorse or hunter.

What has tended to go relatively un-noticed, amid the fascination with Nadsat and the readers’ admiration of Burgess’ linguistic skills, is his use of English slang. Elsewhere, I would suggest, he is not an especially slangy writer. There are passages in Enderby and the Malayan books (where the appearance of banchoad, motherfucker, must have made knowledgeable readers jump), but he was not someone I turned to when looking for cite-dense texts. It was true that a few Nadsat terms were adopted after the movie was released, but such use was a fad; there is no evidence that it persisted.

In A Clockwork Orange Alex uses mainstream slang, though he weaves it around his Nadsdat vocabulary; so too do working class characters, typically policeman and prison warders. These do not, it appears, know Nadsat, or if they understand it they do not choose to use it. The authorities – the minister, the prison’s governor and charlie, and the two aversion therapists, remain limited to standard English. This is not to suggest that such slang is intended to create sympathy. Burgess’ use is accurate, but he is not placing it in the mouths of characters we are supposed to like. There may be a form of rhyming slang but there are no chirpy cockney sparrers. The warders and policemen, whether former droogs or otherwise, are violent; Alex and Co. need no introduction. Each side is pitted against the other and while the droogs may assume that Nadsat will be understood within their own circles, they know that more mainstream slang works better with the Establishment’s agents. The slang terms, like the Nadsat ones, showcase the themes that have always underpinned the counter-language: sex, violence and intoxication.

Having substituted Nadsat for real teen slang, Burgess’ mainstream lexis is very traditional. One finds done in, fagged and shagged (all exhausted), stinking, blast you, bastards, so (as an intensifier), like (as a modifier), crappy, not too clever, sing (to confess), bash in the chops, shop (as in ‘belong to the other shop’), meth (i.e. methylated spirits, not methedrine), rod, (the penis), crack into (to hit), lip music (talk), turnip (the head), bleeding, hole (the mouth as in ‘shut your hole’), cop it lucky, sod, sodding and try it (on). Sarky, sarcastic, shive, to cut (from shiv, a knife, another Romani term), and snuff it, to die are equally well established. Snoutie and tick-tocker appear to be inventions, but they have not travelled far from their origins, snout, jail slang for tobacco, and ticker, the heart. Pan-handle, for an erection, is new, but cognate with slang’s mast, prong, rail, truncheon and wood and underlines how well Burgess recognised the thematic synonymy that lies behind the slang lexis.

Certain terms occupy a zone somewhere between invention and the conventional. Cancer, a cigarette, simply abbreviates cancer stick; chai, while taken from Russian chai, meaning tea, could equally well have come from cha, long used in the British Army and beyond; glazz, an eye, also linked to Russian, might have relied on the synonymous glasier, used since the 16th century. Oozy, a bike-chain claims Russian uzh, a snake but one should note a semantic link to Dutch slang, which means both snake and chain. It is suggested that sammy, generous, comes from Russian: samoye, the most but I would opt for the mid-19th century stand sam (or sammy), to treat.

One Response to “Dollops of Mud and Demonic Poetry”

  1. [...] finally, slang lexicography Jonathon Green has the text of a talk he gave about Anthony Burgess and slang, which is really well worth the read. It’s certainly one of the best treatments of the [...]

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