A Clockwork Orange author only managed entries for three letters and his abortive labours were thought to have gone for ever…
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.
Anna Edwards, the foundation’s archivist, told the Guardian: “We’re thrilled to be making such exciting and important discoveries as we’re cataloguing the collection.
“We found the surviving fragments of the dictionary at the bottom of a large cardboard box, packed underneath some old bedsheets. I suppose the reason for not finding this earlier is that the box seemed to be full of household objects, not literary papers.”
Burgess, who died in 1993, briefly mentioned the dictionary in the second volume of his autobiography, she said, “but everyone had assumed that the manuscript was lost”.
Burgess is best known for A Clockwork Orange, his savage social satire published in 1962. With his imagined teenage language, he created a nightmare vision of youth in revolt, inspiring Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 screen adaptation, known for its violent and sexually explicit scenes.
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.
“In his novel about Manchester in the 1920s and 1930s, The Pianoplayers, Burgess draws on his extensive knowledge of the slang of the period … In his novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun, he draws on his knowledge of Elizabethan slang, and his historical novel Napoleon Symphony uses the slang Burgess heard in the army to create a textured and realistic interplay between the soldiers in Napoleon’s ranks.”
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”).
The foundation is working with the slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, who said even in its limited state, Burgess’s dictionary is “fascinating both for his many fans and for specialist lexicographers”.
Burgess underestimated the sheer scale of work involved, Green said, noting that he had devoted more than 17 years of research to his own publication, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, published by Chambers.
“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.”
He observed that dictionaries invariably reflect “the mindset of the individual who edits them. This is patently true of Burgess’s book, which reflects both the age in which he worked and that of the author himself – he was then 49 – he includes a great deal of military uses, picked up presumably at first hand. His attitude to sexuality, and thus the terms he includes, is very much that of the barrack room.”
Green will give a talk on the discovery on 4 July as part of the foundation’s conference Anthony Burgess: Life, Work, Reputation, which runs from 3-5 July.
Entries in A from Anthony Burgess’s lost dictionary of slang
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.
Abdicate – In poker, to withdraw from the game, forfeiting all money or chips put in the pot.
Abfab – Obsolescent abbreviation of absolutely fabulous, used by Australian teenagers or ‘bodgies’.
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.)
Arse – I need not define. The taboo is gradually being broken so that plays on the stage and on radio and television introduce the term with no protest. The American Random House Dictionary … is still shy of it, however, though not of the American colloquialism ass. Arse is a noble word; ass is a vulgarism.
Source: The Guardian, 3 June 2017.