Within the first few lines of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, we are lured into a near-future after-dark realm, and a strangely potent new language. Fifteen-year-old Alex, the tale’s ultraviolent anti-hero and “humble narrator”, addresses us in the flip horrorshow slovos – that is, crazy, brilliant words – of Nadsat: a youth slang concocted by the polyglot author. The word “Nadsat” derives from a Russian suffix meaning “teen”, and the language of A Clockwork Orange is a vivid blitz of English and Russian words (“horrorshow” stems from the Russian term khorosho, meaning “good”) with varied additives: Elizabethan flourishes (“thou”; “thee and thine”; “verily”); Arabic; German; nursery rhyming.
Sixty years on from its publication (and more than a half-century after Stanley Kubrick’s infamous film adaptation), the book’s lingo has peppered pop culture, across music (band names like Moloko, Campag Velocet and Heaven 17; song titles by musicians including New Order and Lana Del Rey; concept albums such as Brazilian metallers Sepultura’s A-Lex, 2009; lyrics including David Bowie’s Girl Loves Me, from his final album Blackstar, 2016); art (a new major UK exhibition is entitled 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 thug of the future, and it had to be told in his version of English… It was pointless to write the book in the slang of the early 60s: it was ephemeral like all slang and might have a lavender smell by the time the manuscript got to the printers.”
There’s no such fusty potpourri whiff here. Nadsat repeatedly hits your senses with a pheromone spiciness; a metallic tang. The crisp, conspiratorial slang allows Alex to convey scenes of social ritual (the teen “height of fashion” flaunted by himself and his gang of droogs, or friends, including “flip horrorshow boots for kicking”) as well as the horror of the assaults they mechanically indulge in. It is somehow both alienating, and intimate: a mix that would invariably polarise reviewers. In 1962, The Times Literary Supplement slated A Clockwork Orange as “a nasty little shocker”. Kingsley Amis was far more favourable in The Observer, though he quipped that Nadsat proved a challenge: “the less adventurous reader, especially if he may happen to be giving up smoking, will be tempted to let the book drop”.