In 1965, author Anthony Burgess (1917–1993) began a massive task: to pen a dictionary for Nadsat, a futuristic slang language he had invented for his 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange. He made it three letters and hundreds of entries in before abandoning the task, and his work seemingly disappeared—until now.
On June 3, The Guardian reported that Burgess’s burgeoning dictionary had been discovered within his vast archive held by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, an educational charity in his hometown of Manchester.
Anna Edwards, the foundation’s archivist, told the paper that the surviving fragments were found at the bottom of a large cardboard box, stored underneath old bedsheets—where no one thought to look.
There, they discovered hundreds of 6×4 slips of paper, each containing a single entry. There were 153 As, 700 Bs, and 33 Zs. Among the entries are abdabs (“a fit of nerves, attack of delirium tremens, or other uncontrollable emotional crisis”) and abortion (“anything ugly, ill-shapen, or generally detestable”).
Burgess’s publisher, Penguin Books, commissioned the dictionary. The writer took it as far as he could before calling it day. He is noted as saying, “I’ve done A and B and find that a good deal of A and B is out of date or has to be added to, and I could envisage the future as being totally tied up with such a dictionary.”
Alas, the perils of language include the fact that so long as it lives, it continues to develop and grow, and can become something of a virus, never satiated.
The foundation is now working with Jonathon Green, a lexicographer of slang, who has dedicated more than 17 years of research to his own book, Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Chambers).
Green told The Guardian, “Slang is a very slippery customer … I get the feeling that Burgess thought it was much easier than it actually is … Smart as he was, with an understanding of linguistics and language, I don’t think he could have allowed himself to do a second-rate [dictionary].”
As a lexicographer, Green has a distinctive vantage point to approach the dictionary, offering a critique of Burgess’s efforts, which he will speak on at length on July 4 as part of the foundation’s conference Anthony Burgess: Life, Work, Reputation, which runs from 3-5 July.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be real. It’s innate. A great book deserves a great cover—as A Clockwork Orange reveals with every reprint. Crave has prepared a slide show of the crème de la crème.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.