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Anthony Burgess’ Legendary Dictionary of Slang Lives

The author and linguist gave up the book after realizing how enormous the task of keeping up with slang would be

Anthony Burgess at the PEN International 1985 in Lugano (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)
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The reaction most readers have to beginning Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange is: What are half these words? That’s because much of the novel is written using Nadsat, a dystopian teenage subculture language fusing British rhyming slang and Russian that Burgess created for the book. But that wasn’t Burgess’ only foray into the world of slang. Dalya Alberge at The Guardian reports that the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, who received his possessions after his death in 1993, recently discovered part of a manuscript for a dictionary of slang that the prolific author began working on more than 50 years ago.

According to Alberge, Burgess mentions the dictionary in the second volume of his autobiography, but researchers never discovered it within his papers and believed it was lost. Until now. When rummaging through a cardboard box that contained some of his possessions, archivists uncovered the unfinished manuscript, which was tucked under bed sheets. “I suppose the reason for not finding this earlier is that the box seemed to be full of household objects, not literary papers,” Anna Edwards, archivist for the foundation, tells Alberge.

Penguin Books commissioned the dictionary in 1965 and Burgess accepted the offer. But after embarking on the work, he quickly realized how impossible a job it was. In the book Conversations with Anthony Burgess, he says: "I’ve done A and B and find that a good deal of A and B is out of date or has to be added to, and I could envisage the future as being totally tied up with such a dictionary.”

In fact, he explains that the strange language in A Clockwork Orange stemmed from his frustration at keeping up with slang. The contemporary slang he used in previous novels was often out of date by the time the book was published. By creating his own language, he hoped to avoid that.

According to Alberge, what survives of the dictionary are 153 entries for the letter A, 700 for the letter B and 33 for the letter Z. Burgess' definitions are conversational and playful. For example, in the entry "Arse," he writes, "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."

The dictionary is not the only “Lost” Burgess documents to recently come to light. In March, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation also revealed the discovery of notes for a set of novels the writer dubbed the "George Trilogy." In 1972, a year after Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of A Clockwork Orange came out, Burgess was miffed that he had made little money on the deal and wanted to cash in on his newfound fame. Working with a “book packager,” he proposed three novels for the American market, one on George S. Patton, one on composer George Gershwin and one on George III. The deal eventually fell apart, but instead of moving into more commercial writing, Robert McCrum at The Guardian reports, Burgess produced some of his most avant-garde fiction in following years—whose pages were filled, of course, with his extraordinary use of words. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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