Reprinted from the novel “A Clockwork Orange”,
By Anthony Burgess
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the book it’s language. Alex thinks and talks in the “nadsat” (teenage) vocabulary of the future. A doctor in the book explains it. “Odd bits of old rhyming sland,” he says. “A bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.” Nadsat is not quite so hard to decipher as Cretan Linear B, and Alex translates it. I found that I could not read the book without compiling a glossary; I reprint it here, although it is entirely unauthorized, and some of it is guesswork.
At first the vocabulary seems incomprehensible: “you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches.” Then the reader, even if he knows no Russian, discovers that some of the meaning is clear from context: “to tolchock some old veck
in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood.” Other words are intelligible after a second context: when Alex kicks a fallen enemy on the “gulliver” it might be any part of the body, but when a glass of beer is served with a gulliver, “gulliver” is head. (Life is easier, of course, for those who know the Russian word golova.)
Anthony Burgess has not used Russian words mechanically, but with great ingenuity, as the transformation into “gulliver,” with its Swiftian associates, suggests. Others are brilliantly anglicized: khorosho (good or well) as “horrowshow”; iudi (people) as “lewdies”; militsia (militia or police) as millicents. Burgess has not used Russian words in an American slang extension, such as nadsat itself, in the termination of the Russian numbers eleven to nineteen, which he breaks off independently on the analogy of our “teen”. Thus kopat (to dig with a shovel) is used as “dig” in the sense of enjoy or under-
Stand; koshka (cat) and ptitsa (bird) become the hip “cat” and “chick”; neezhny (lower) turns into “neezhnies” (underpants); pooshka (cannon) becomes the term for a pistol; rozha (grimace) turns into “rozz”, one of the words for policeman; samyi (the most) becomes “sammy” (generous); soomka (bag) is the slang “ugly woman”; vareet (to cook up) is also used in the slang sense, for something preparing or transpiring.
The “gypsy talk”, I would guess, includes Alex’s phrase “O my brothers”, and “crark” (to yowl?), “cutter” (money), “filly” (to fool with), and such. The rhyming slang includes “luscious glory” or “hair” (rhyming with “upper story”?) and “pretty polly” for “money” (rhyming with “lolly” or current slang) Others are inevitable associations, such as “cancer” for “cigarette” and “charlie” for “chaplain”. Others are produced simply by schoolboy transformations: “appy polly loggy” (apology), “baddiwad” (bad), “eggiweg” (egg), “skolliwoll” (school), and so forth. Others are amputations: “guff” (guffaw), “pee and em” (pop and mom), “sarky” (sarcastic), “sinny” (cinema). Some appear to be portmanteau words: “chumble” (chatter-mumble), “mounch” (mouth – munch), “shive” (shiv-shave), “skirking” (striking-scratching).
There are slight inconsistencies in the story when Alex forgets his word and invents another or uses our word, but on the whole he handles his Russianate vocabulary in a masterly fashion. It has a wonderful sound, particularly in abuse, when “grahzny bratchny” sounds infinitely better than “dirty bastard”.
Stanley Edgar Hyman