This is the text of a talk I gave at the international Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester earlier in July 2017. It looks at Anthony Burgess’ attempt to compile a dictionary of slang, for which he was commissioned by Penguin books in 1965. As the talk explains, despite his initial committment to the task, it did work out. Brugess abandoned the task, and returned his publisher’s advance in 1966. The dictionary then seemed to vanish. Remarkably, and quite by chance, it was rediscovered in 2012 at the bottom of an old box of the author’s bed-linen.
What follows looks at the dictionary – its slang content and its lexicography – and at Burgess’s own involvement with slang as both reviewer and collector.I would like to thank the IABF and its director Prof. Andrew Biswell for permission to post the talk here.
In 1965 Anthony Burgess was commissioned by Penguin Books to write a dictionary of current slang. Quite why Penguin looked to this respected but still far from spectacularly successful British writer to supply such a lexicon remains debatable. The logical link would be to his novel A Clockwork Orange, with its manufactured teenage jargon Nadsat, which had appeared in 1962. But this had hardly been a best-seller and Penguin would not pick it up for a decade, capitalizing on the notoriety of Stanley Kubrick’s film. In addition the field was dominated by a single lexicographer, Eric Partridge, whose own Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English had appeared in 1937, with its latest revision published in 1961. The one area in which the novelist might have had an edge was in some training in linguistics, a skill which would have made him an exception among slang lexicographers then or previously. His own work, on the other hand, was not marked, other than his invention for Clockwork Orange, by any exceptional slanginess, though like most contemporaries he could use it when necessary and all his fiction makes clear his appreciation of the spoken language as well as its written form. The most likely and immediate stimulus seems to have been the publication in 1964 of his Language Made Plain, something of a ‘quickie’, but nonetheless acknowledged as a dependable guide to linguistics.
According to his editor, James Cochrane:
‘I first met Anthony Burgess when I was editor of the Penguin English Library and I commissioned him to write an introduction to one of the titles in it (I think it was Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.) It was however not me but Penguin’s Chief Editor, the late Tony Godwin, who commissioned him to produce a dictionary of slang. Anthony was not only an admired writer at the time but a renowned lover of words and I would think Tony was aware that he had invented his own slang, based on Russian, for his novel A Clockwork Orange.’
Burgess was indeed a renowned lover of words, quite literally a ‘philologist’. He is a devotee of the dictionary, trusting the lexicographers and admiring their scholarly, disciplined, hard-won creations. I can think of few, if any outside the professionals – and perhaps including them – who wrote of lexicography and its practitioners with such sympathy and understanding. As he would put it in a 1977 review of Katherine Murray’s biography of her grandfather Sir James, editor in chief of the OED, ‘There are naïve people who regard philologists as dull, forgetting that the rogue-god Mercury presides over language.’ ‘Mercury, he noted elsewhere, ‘presides over philology as well as thievery.’
The project, as do so many, began well. Noting correctly that the two ‘big’ letters are S and B, and setting aside the former since ‘the true linguist thinks of “S” as accommodating two different phonemes […] while the “B” entries, initializing unequivocally with the “b” phoneme, present the true superlative of weight,’ he opted to assess the job by tackling B. ‘If I could get through “B” without too much groaning I would take on the whole task.’
Dictionaries, however, are not written that way. Their lexes may be published in alphabetical order but that’s not how they are researched. Like slang itself, the words are undisciplined and turn up as, when and where they like. Only when one’s researches are considered ‘finished’ can they be sorted. Burgess plunged into B and after a month’s work had amassed a pile of slips. The pile was substantial: it seemed to him that he had ‘completed’ the letter. At which point a new word materialized: bovver boots. Burgess, appreciating that this would hardly represent his only oversight, abandoned the ‘impossible’ task.
Love of words, and respect for their user is sadly not enough. Johnson, tongue probably in cheek, had termed the dictionary maker a ‘harmless drudge.’ If Burgess could pass in silence over the adjective, he seems to have found the noun too much. Within a year the slang dictionary returned to sender.
James Cochrane: ‘When Anthony delivered the first pages of the dictionary Tony passed them on to me. The entries seemed familiar, and when I checked them against Partridge’s Slang Dictionary, which I knew, I found that there was indeed great similarity. My supposition at the time was that Anthony, who was a prodigious reader with a remarkable memory, had unintentionally plagiarised Partridge. I reported what I had found to Tony Godwin and that is the last I heard of the project. Years later I became Anthony’s editor, and I believe his friend […] but the slang dictionary was never mentioned. I can only suppose that Anthony decided that researching and writing a comprehensive dictionary of English slang from scratch would take up too much time and the project was quietly scrapped. I don’t know if there was a contract.’
There must have been, since there had been an advance on royalties, although Burgess would claim that he had warned his agent not to take any money up front. Honourably, when the project floundered, he returned it, other than his agent’s 10% cut.
Other than in his own references to his unachieved project, whether in his autobiography or in a variety of book reviews, what might have been entitled Burgess’ Dictionary of Current Slang then vanished for nearly half a century. It was assumed, that Burgess had lost or destroyed his work: there was certainly no listing in any archive of his work.
In summer 2012 I was invited here by Andrew Biswell to talk about Burgess’ own slang, Nadsat; I also heard for the first time of the attempted slang dictionary. At that time it was still missing, presumed dead. I was intrigued. A few months later, in a mail to Andrew, I mentioned the missing lexicon. He wrote back:
‘A few months ago we were clearing out some rubbish in the basement of the Foundation building. There was a large cardboard box which appeared to be full of dusty blankets and bedsheets. These had come […] from Burgess and Liana’s abandoned house in Bracciano. Shortly before we threw away this worthless junk, my colleague Katherine Adamson emptied the contents of the box to make sure that there was nothing of value at the bottom of it. She discovered several hundred typewritten slips, with corrections in Burgess’s distinctive handwriting. Some other papers discovered with the slips confirmed that this was the Burgess slang dictionary.’
This was wonderful. I arranged to visit and take a look. Andrew kindly copied me the text. These comments are the fruits of that trip.
Before turning to the dictionary itself, might I take a moment to look at a larger picture: Anthony Burgess and Slang.
Burgess on Slang
Whatever the ultimate reason for Burgess’s accepting the commission, I can think of no-one so willing to take this subset of English so seriously. Burgess wrote about slang, was regularly quoted about it and of course created his own version for his best-known novel.
He appreciated it – it was one more vibrant aspect of the greater English tongue – but I am not quite sure whether he wholly approved of it. Central to all his comments on the topic was his identification of the register not simply with those at the bottom of the social ladder, which status was forgivable, but also those far down on the literate one, which was not. Slang, read one review, was something that ‘dribbled’; in another he wrote of a text marred by ‘slackness and slanginess.’
He did enjoy its innate rebelliousness. ‘The word “slang”, he noted, ‘suggests the slinging of odd stones or dollops of mud at the windows of the stately home of linguistic decorum.’ Slang was ‘the home-made language of the ruled, not the rulers, the acted upon, the used, the used up. It is demonic poetry emerging in flashes of ironic insight.’ And he understood exactly where this bottom-up language comes from, acknowledging ‘the downtrodden’ as its ‘great creators,’ but he was no revolutionary. He dismissed Black English, as spoken in the impoverished American ghettoes, as ‘a tongue of deprivation’. He was equally uncomplimentary when reviewing a ‘feminist dictionary’, which redefined the patriarchy’s linguistic phallocentricities. But the overall verdict seems to be thumbs down: ‘slang tends to be inhumanly loveless. It lacks tenderness and compassion; its poetry has the effulgence of a soldier’s brass buttons.’
In A Mouthful of Air he referred to it as ‘a pile of fossilised jokes and puns and ironies, tinselly gems dulled eventually by overmuch handling, but gleaming still when help up to the light.’ The phrase ‘fossilised jokes’ seems to have been taken wholesale from the subtitle of Eric Partridge’s slang dictionary in which they are included alongside puns, colloquialisms, catch-phrases and vulgarisms. Whatever he thought about slang, he undoubtedly liked Partridge. The pair were friends, a relationship launched when, tasked with his own slang dictionary, the un-versed Burgess turned to the veteran. The ‘Word King’ offered the neophyte lunch and urged him to ‘cannibalize his own great dictionary to the limit’. As we shall see, there was cannibalism, but it was as much of form as of content.
Burgess and Slang
Such the theory, what then the practice? The purpose-built jargon of Nadsat aside, what sort of slang did Burgess the novelist use himself.
I have found around 300 discrete slang terms in Burgess’ works. I have not, I admit, read all the books so there may be more, and since citations are accepted into my database on a first-come-first-served basis, I have not used every instance I found. He was not, in truth, an exceptionally slang-y author. Of literary writers, Joyce, one Burgess hero, incorporated well over 1000 terms, Shakespeare, another, 500-plus. More important was what dictionaries term his ‘first uses’. Of Burgess’ slang 47 terms had yet to be put in print. Among these are blah, to speak insincerely, boujie, middle-class, play buggery with and the intensifier to buggery (e.g. ‘upset to buggery’), fleapit, a run-down cinema, for the chop, i.e. punishment, kazoo, as in up the…, ligger, a hanger-on, pocket billiards, playing with one’s genitals through a trouser pocket, that’s showbiz, a phrase of resignation, the vinegar strokes which penile thrusts immediately proceed male orgasm. There is also dunnygasper, latrine cleaner (but this and a number of supposed Australianisms, all in Enderby Outside, may be the author’s own work, with a nudge, perhaps, from Barry Humphries’ then still-recent creation, Barry McKenzie).
Few of these appear in the dictionary. This is logical: he abandoned the work in 1966; the slangiest fiction I encountered appeared later. Perhaps, had the project continued, he might have culled his own backlist.
There are 153 slips for A, 700 for B and 33 for Z. Each contains a headword, a definition and sometimes an etymology. There is no consistent dating, although it is included sporadically; there is no attempt to offer a term’s first use. Usage examples, citations, are offered randomly. There are also a number of cross-references, indicating other terms that he either intended to include.
In addition, and unearthed separately from the dictionary slips, is an appointments diary for 1966. This seems as much filled with notes on various on-going projects as actual appointments; it includes a few extra dictionary entries:
Fuck / groupie / do a blag (to get involved with a band) / pasties (nipple covers for strippers) / crimper / have the hots for / trendy / totter / honey-do day / moonlighting / kiddi-adult (allegedly coined at the BBC for programs made for the young but enjoyed by everyone) / freak-out / snowball (a drink) / totter (rag and bone man).
This is tantalizing but, as things stand, beyond pursuit. Their existence, however, does underline the type of slang he saw as valuable.
I offer, on screen, some of the initial entries. In format, selection of material and display of information they are typical of all that follow.
We must be fair: these slips represent raw text, as yet unedited and presumably still subject to Burgess’ revisions. And Burgess is above all a novelist, certainly not a lexicographer. As an otherwise unavailable example of Burgess’ work, especially in a field for which he is not otherwise known, it remains fascinating. Even this attenuated text makes him one of the very few creative writers to stray into lexicography. (The 19th century slang collectors W.E. Henley and C.G. Leland were both poets; the only recent contender would be Julian Barnes, who put in a brief spell on the second edition of the OED).
But to take it on its own merits, of the slips that exist, we have little choice but to be harsh. As a dictionary this is unpublishable – if only on the obvious grounds of its lack of material pertinent to 23 of the 26 necessary letters. Size matters in lexicography and Burgess just hasn’t amassed enough examples. Even for A, which in English, standard or slang, is one of the shorter letters, 153 entries is not going to cut it. Partridge is good for 1500. As for B, my own database currently offers 6,500 headwords. An unfair comparison, perhaps, but 700 barely scratched the available surface.
In terms of format Burgess’ lexicography is undisciplined and as such lacks the authority now expected from ‘the dictionary.’ We do not know what might have happened had he followed on with the project but what we have is a work very much in progress.
So let us move on and ask a second question of Burgess’s work: if the dictionary is unresolved in terms of form, what of the content?
In the context of slang collection at the time, typified by that of Eric Partridge, his work is very much of the prevailing type. It is discursive, unashamedly personalized, layered with subjective assessments, jokes and editorializing. This was once accepted, even expected; Johnson and Webster made it wholly clear what type of man had selected the terms and was writing their definitions. But even with slang this was fading. Partridge had been savaged for such failings, notably in the US. Dictionaries were meant to be disinterested.
They were also intended to confer authority. Even slang ones. Though what you want from a standard English lexicon is not what you want from a slang one. It may be otherwise for the OED, but my own experience is that no-one ever consulted any of my books to check a spelling.
Write it down and the word moniker, meaning a name, boasts some twenty alternatives; but who cares. What the users of slang dictionaries want are the stories that lie behind the words. The etymologies. Burgess was a story-teller; to quote Andrew Biswell once more, ‘his etymologies strike me as tending towards the creative end of the spectrum.’
It interests me that the polymathic Burgess, whose knowledge of language was so extensive, and who, unlike many fulltime lexicographers, and especially those of us who focus on slang, had in addition a working knowledge of linguistics, was happy to echo his mentor. Something, Partridge suggested, was always better than nothing, and Burgess backed him up. ‘I maintain,’ he says, ‘as Eric always did, that it is better to guess than to be silent.’ And adds, ‘This is amateurish, but it is human.’
Not only that. If one is offering readers what is meant to be an authoritative work, a dependable linguistic tool as I see the dictionary, then this is not merely amateurish, but downright misleading.’ Something’, however alluring, is often the falsest of friends. I doubt that Burgess would have condoned, as do swathes of the internet where relativism rules and authority is condemned as ‘elitist’, the statement that fuck comes from the acronym ‘fornicate under command of the King’, and add a wholly specious anecdote as alleged proof. (The etymology is in fact from various germanic verbs with roots in fik-, fak-, fuk-, fok– that mean ‘move back and forth’.)
Yet such is the dangerous road on which Partridge and he were willing to tread. It may be less fun, but the safest dictum is that pronounced by the OED etymologist Anatoly Liberman: ‘better no etymology at all than a bad one.’
Of course Burgess was not a lexicographer, but a creative writer. It is from this, I believe, that sprang his a willingness to embrace guesswork. If one’s life is centred on invention, then why should etymologies, especially when they can play host to such alluring inventions, be excluded from one’s creative skills. He may also have felt that slang, by its nature, could loosen the rules. But I think he knew better, and the poor image of such guesswork among orthodox etymologists may even have undermined his desire to carry on with his lexicon.
I am in no way accusing Burgess of stupidity, or the pigheaded proselytizing of popular myths. This was a man who had written a handbook of linguistics and many etymologies are irreproachable. He understood lexicography, ‘the heroism, the sheer dedication and slog’ but if he too had just such qualities, they were for elsewhere. It is perhaps because Penguin, and their author, realized that there was just too much to do, that the dictionary was abandoned.
Dictionaries, even supposedly disinterested ones, invariably carry a subtext: the mindset of the individual who edits them. This is patently true of Burgess’ book which reflects both the age in which he worked and that of the author himself – he was then 49. Like Partridge he includes a great deal of military uses, picked up presumably at first hand. His attitude to sexuality, and thus the terms he includes, is very much that of the barrack-room.
Burgess also echoes Partridge in his relative limiting of what was the increasingly dominant slang of the period: that of America, and specifically of American teens, who in turn had picked their lexis up from what were then termed Negroes. He offers a very British, even English vocabulary and such Americanisms as appear – e.g. big shot – had long since been assimilated. This is slang Brexit-style. It’s largely home produce and if there were funny foreign ingredients, they had to bow to the dominant linguistic recipes. Teenage slang does appear, but usually with a dismissive comment. Yod Crewsey, as yet unwritten (slangy himself as a blend of yob and cruisy, effeminate), had been noted in embryo and Burgess was unimpressed. Beatniks and hippies are noted and there also some terms from the burgeoning drug culture.
Let us take a few specifics. Or generics, since the technique they reveal seems representative of a greater whole. The terms arse, writer’s block, bo and the Beatles.
Therein, and in many other entries, lies the real problem. What makes the dictionary as it stands unpublishable, had Burgess decided to continue, is not that he might have missed out certain words (I’m sure that if he had decided to give it the time required he would have realised how much he had to find – and would have found a good deal more than we have) but that there is no sense of his understanding slang as a lexical concept and the dictionary as a tool for understanding language in this case a given, if slippery subset thereof).
I have asked ‘what did “slang” mean’ to Burgess, and essayed an answer, but terms like writer’s block are not slang; proper names like the Beatles are not slang. Meanwhile one cannot, as in arse, begin a definition with the statement ‘I need not define’. Nor throw in personal assessments (‘Arse is a noble word; ass is a vulgarism’). Nor add a punning joke, in French, to one’s comments on bo. Nor to mention a piece of linguists’ jargon that requires its own sub-definition. Here, once more, AB was too easily led by Partridge, who all too often fell into personal commentary although he did steer clear of linguistics.
If one looks at the other a-terms, we still come up against the same problem: the query as to whether, everything he considered ‘slang’ was in fact so. Of the dozen terms three are simply abbreviations and would not qualify. It is possible in this that he adopted Partridge’s self-created remit, extending slang to ‘unconventional English’. But the terms are still not slang. There is also the problem of jargon – usually from the Services – or localisms. The phrase ‘it can’t be bad’ may have been ‘heard in Duke of York, Chiswick, W.4. all through 1966-67’ but is that enough to qualify?
It would help if we had a little more back-story. As Mr Cochrane explains, there seemed to be no contract and we also lack a proposal and it is hard to know quite what Burgess was intending. Much of the material seems contemporary, or at least culled from the previous quarter-century. But there are chronological shifts: Burgess includes the beast of two backs, but his example comes not from Shakespeare, first to put it in print, but Aldous Huxley, who slightly tweaks it. Like the alphabetical order, the defining and the etymologising, and the varying percentage of auctorial commentary, there was much to be worked out.
You take the job, you create the format, it’s time to fill those empty slips. Next stop research. A dictionary isn’t just plucked from the air. There is a certain circularity: you make a list of headwords and read to find examples; reading brings new headwords, and so it goes. So where and how does Burgess assemble those barely 900 terms.
There are few citations as such although he offers many short examples and notes the books from whence he derived them: the army, a certain amount of Lancashire, the sniff of the barmaid’s apron in a variety of Soho and Fitzrovia pubs. There is little from his years in East although he spoke the relevant languages well. Taken as a whole it represents that homegrown slang, coined and used by the white working-class, that began to fade during World War II and has since been subsumed by America. It is, as suggested, a very British slang.
Andrew Biswell notes that ‘He includes several items of slang from his own novels, citing himself as the published authority. I do not know how far this would be regarded as good practice in lexicographical circles.’ For instance, at aye-aye we have a few lines from Honey for the Bears. The citation works and Burgess was hardly without precedent. Samuel Johnson, after all, was perfectly happy to rewrite even the greatest literary exemplars if their texts failed to serve his Dictionary’s purposes. The original OED, when lost for an example of some new coinage, would make one up. In any case,
Burgess’s work has provided both standard and slang citations to both the OED, some 12 examples including eff-all, pop art and Nadsat’s droog, and to my own slang dictionary, where I cite him for such terms as leadswinger, knocking shop and shufti, these mainly from Enderby Outside, 1985 and The Doctor Is Sick). If he couldn’t use his own texts, then who could.
So did he plagiarise Partridge, ‘unintentionally’ or even otherwise. As I have said, the veteran slang collector, doubtless secure in his own reputation, gave the beginner permission to take anything he desired. This was generous, it was also realistic. Partridge had done it himself – his own major dictionary had been commissioned as an update on an earlier slang lexicon, that of John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, which had appeared between 1890 and 1904. This is how dictionaries are made.
The nature of lexicography permits, even demands, a judicious use of what has come before. A truly ‘new’ dictionary, starting with nothing prior to the words that were being coined while the author was researching, would be very strange. One must look back and incorporate accordingly. And if one sits down, as Mr Cochrane did, and checks off Burgess against Partridge, and makes the necessary comparison, then one finds that if the same terms emerge, it was because such words were part of slang, not because Burgess was stealing them. Looking down those words Burgess tackled, there are overlaps: bexandebs, from the ‘typical’ Jewish names ‘Rebeccas’ and ‘Deborahs’, is in Partridge and copied by Burgess, though what the older man termed ‘easy-going young Jewesses’, the younger revised as ‘prostitutes’. Nor did the two men invariably overlap. We lack the time to go through word-by-word, but such inclusions as balls in brackets (bow-legged) and arse-fucker (a sodomite) are Burgess-only. To have balls on you like a scoutmaster, which one feels Burgess would have relished, seems restricted to the older author. As I say, we don’t have the time.
In the end Burgess’ work on his slang dictionary must remain an artefact rather than a practical endeavour. In workable terms he had hardly begun, and those portions that he did attempt, are sadly, sometimes wincingly unresolved. We might wish that he had continued, that he had abandoned all the competing demands on his time and abilities. On the other hand, judged by the seventeen all-consuming years gestation of my own work, would we really have wished to have missed everything from 1966 to 1983, which among all else would have effectively put paid to Earthly Powers.
Yet what we do have remains fascinating, and not just for a professional slang collector. It is to see, however briefly, one who was willing to put his money where most prefer to offer only their mouth. In addition, and while I may be wrong, I also sense that for all the necessary labour, Burgess was enjoying his foray into hands-on lexicography. There is drudgery, how not, harmless or otherwise, but slang’s wondrous collections of words and phrases, its irrepressible if often repetitive self-invention – there are after all, only so many themes and slang, rendering audible human nature at its most human – continues to ring the pertinent changes. I could not do my job were I not to enjoy it; I believe that Burgess enjoyed what he was doing too.
I have not, I fear, been very kind. It has not been my intention. Let me, at least in by slang’s standards, make some amends.
Partridge, so he claimed, didn’t much enjoy slang’s lubricities. This must have been tough: sex alone, whether in action or the bits that perform it, is good for 10,000 terms. One senses otherwise with his self-ordained successor. Included in the 1977 novel Abba Abba, is the author’s translation of a poem by the Roman dialect poet Belli. Like one of Thomas Urquhart’s magnificent lists created for his mid-17th century translation of Rabelais, Burgess took the original and came up with this fine, and very slangy synonymy:
Here are some names, my son, we call the prick:
The chair, the yard. the nail, the kit, the cock,
The holofernes, rod, the sugar rock,
The dickory dickory dock, the liquorice stick,
The lusty Richard or the listless Dick,
The old blind man, the jump on twelve o’clock,
Mercurial finger, or the lead-fill’d sock,
The monkey, or the mule with latent kick.
The squib, the rocket, or the roman candle,
The dumpendebat or the shagging shad,
The love-lump or the hump or the pump-handle,
The tap of venery, the leering lad,
The handy dandy, stiff-proud or a-dandle,
But most of all our Sad Glad Bad Mad Dad.
Slang lexicography has had few adherents. A few score names in 500 years. Anthony Burgess had far bigger fish to fry and did so with great skill. We, the drudges, should be flattered that even for so brief a moment, he joined our number.