A Clockwork Orange: the slang of 60-year-old teenagers that still shocks
In the opening lines of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, we are drawn into the near future and into a strangely powerful new language. Alex, 15 years old, ultraviolent anti-hero of the tale and “humble narrator”, speaks to us in the flip the slovos horror show – that is to say crazy, brilliant words – from Nadsat: a youthful slang concocted by the polyglot author. The word “Nadsat” derives from a Russian suffix meaning “teenager”, and A Clockwork Orange’s language is a lively blitz of English and Russian words (“horrorshow” comes from the Russian term khorosho, meaning “good”) with various additives: Elizabethan flourishes (“thou”; “thine and thine”; “truth”); Arab; German; nursery rhymes.
Sixty years after its publication (and more than half a century after Stanley Kubrick’s infamous film adaptation), the book’s lingo has dotted pop culture, through music (names of bands like Moloko, Campag Velocet and Heaven 17; song titles by musicians like New Order and Lana Del Rey; concept albums like A-Lex by Brazilian metalheads Sepultura, 2009; lyrics like Girl Loves Me by David Bowie, from his latest album Blackstar, 2016); art (a major new exhibition in the UK is called The Horror Show!) and nightlife (from legendary Ibiza club Clockwork Orange, to NADSAT: a 2021 compilation of young LGBTQ musicians from Paris). Nadsat is the sticky creative juice that fuels A Clockwork Orange’s cult status.
In his autobiography You’ve Had Your Time (1990), Burgess explained that A Clockwork Orange “had to be told by a young hoodlum from the future, and it had to be told in its English version… There was no need to write the book in the early 1960s slang: it was fleeting like all slang and could smell like lavender by the time the manuscript hit the press.”
There’s no such dusty potpourri smell here. Nadsat repeatedly hits your senses with a pheromone pungency; a metal tab. Crisp, conspiratorial slang allows Alex to convey scenes of social ritual (the “high fashion” teenager displayed by himself and his gang of drugs, or friends, including “flip horrorshow boots for kicking”) as well as the horror of the assaults they mechanically engage in. It’s somehow both alienating and intimate at the same time: a mix that would invariably polarize critics. In 1962, The Times Literary Supplement billed A Clockwork Orange as “a nasty little shocker”. Kingsley Amis was much more supportive in The Observer, although he joked that Nadsat proved a challenge: “the less adventurous reader, especially if he manages to quit, will be tempted to give up the book”.