Nadsat: The Language Behind “A Clockwork Orange”

Kicking off a two-part series on languages of Dystopian novels, Nadsat is the invented language of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, a highly controversial dystopian novella about a group of “ultra-violent” delinquents who rape, steal and abuse substances, led by Alex deLarge, and the with universal theme of internalization of good and evil.

Nadsat as an argot[i] is derived mainly from Russian, but also has some Romani gypsy words, and Cockney Rhyming Slang, as well as some words invented by Burgess himself. The name of the language itself, however, is the Russian version of the English suffix ‘-teen’ (-надцать, ‘nadtsat’), presenting us with the purpose of the argot: It is used by teenage criminals to conceal their illicit activities, much like the criminal slang used nowadays (e.g. drug slang, prison slang). The use of an argot is a physical representation of a dismissal of societal norms by the violent youths.

Drugs & Drinks

Alex and his droogs” (“friends,” Russian) hang out in the Korova Milk Bar (Korova meaning “cow” in Russian), where they serve moloko vellocet, a cocktail of milk (moloko, Russian) and amphetamines/opiates (vellocet, invented slang). But if you fancy something different, you can mix your milk withdrencrom (a clipped version of “adrenochrome”) or “synthemesc” (a compound of ‘synthetic mescalines), or try a firegold” (a certain drink, invented slang). Alternatively, stick with a cancer (shortened form of “cancer stick,” English slang for a cigarette still in use today).

A Clockwork Orange

Sex & Violence

If you’ve got a panhandle (erection, invented slang) you might engage in the old in-out-in-out (sex, invented slang), or if you’re feeling a bit less crude lubbilubbing (a mixture of “lyubylu,” Russian for “love,” and schoolboy slang).

Alternately you could drat (fight, Russian) an orange” (man, from Malay “orang,” like “orang-utan”) with a pooshka (gun, from the Russian for “cannon”) for his pretty polly (money, rhyming slang for “lolly”), maybe even “shive” (cut, from English slang “shiv,” a knife) with a nosh (knife, Russian).

A Clockwork Orange

The Law

Of course, if you’re in a shaika (gang, from Russian meaning “band of thieves”), you’ve got to avoid the rozz” (policemen, from Russian word for “grimace,” also English slang for police: “rozzers”), or else you’ll be sent to the “staja” (invented slang, portmanteau of “state” and “jail”) as a prestoopnik” (criminal, Russian).

A Clockwork Orange

Swearwords

Want to insult someone? Call them a “sodding gloopy bratchny” (sodding meaning “fucking,” English slang from “sodomy;” stupid bastard, both Russian) who “nukes of cal” (stinks of shit). How “sladky” (sweet, Russian) of you!

A Clockwork Orange

Miscellaneous

Yahoody – Jew (n.), from Arabic.

Vaysay – toilet (n.), from French pronunciation of “W.C” (watercloset).

Tashtook – handkerchief (n.), from German.

Dook – ghost (n.), from Romani Gypsy.

Polyclef – skeleton key (n.), from Latin prefix “poly-” (many) and French “clef” meaning key; “many keys.”

Cutter – money (n.), from Cockney Rhyming Slang/English slang for money: “bread and butter.”

A Clockwork OrangePutting aside the nefarious purpose of Nadsat, it must be said that linguistically it is a highly intelligent construction, often compounding words and using homophones, among other intricate language-creation techniques. Anthony Burgess was a linguist as well as an author, and his playful use of Russian to create a secret dialect for Alex is witty and pleasing to the ear. Admittedly, A Clockwork Orange is about the shady side of life and can often be disturbing (the book has often been banned in schools, and the film adaptation has even been alleged to inspire crime in teenagers), but I invite you to admire the striking lingo that Anthony Burgess created.

To hear some Nadsat being spoken, watch a trailer for the 1971 film adaptation of the novel here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut6CAVrR5Q8 (warning: violence).

 


[i] An argot is a secret language used by a specific group for privacy, often used by criminals.

Helena has been nicknamed ‘Nelpas’ since birth, but nobody knows why. Other mysterious aspects of her existence include a worryingly intense love of books, a penchant for fruit teas, and a modest collection of N64 games stored in a wooden box. Helena also likes vintage clothes, being really tall, baking cakes, and IGGPPC. Most of all, Helena is a linguist, and a fierce one at that. Namárië!

  • arielletje

    I read A Clockwork Orange when I was really too young to be doing so – consequence of reading materials’ content not matching up with the formats I needed as a kid – and didn’t understand most of it, but came away with the definite feeling that it was Not A Nice Book. Not having any real concept of British politics beyond a grade-three introduction to World War 2, the Russian confused the heck out of me because it seemed so very random. I’ll have to read it again!