The recent New Yorker science fiction issue, their first ever, included a great essay by Anthony Burgess from 1973, The Clockwork Condition. Burgess discusses his most famous book, A Clockwork Orange, and the “very close film interpretation” by Stanley Kubrick. Most interesting is Burgess’ description of the origin of the title, as well as the various lexicographical connotations of the antihero’s name, Alex:
I first heard the expression “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a London pub before the Second World War. It is an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature, since could any notion be more bizarre than that of a clockwork orange? The image appealed to me as something not just fantastic but obscurely real. The forced marriage of an organism to a mechanism, of a thing living, growing, sweet, juicy, to a cold dead artifact–is that solely a concept of nightmare? I discovered the relevance of this image to twentieth-century life when, in 1961, I began to write a novel about curing juvenile delinquency. I had read somewhere that it would be a good idea to liquidate the criminal impulse through aversion therapy; I was appalled. I began to work out the implications of this notion in a brief work of fiction. The title “A Clockwork Orange” was there waiting to attach itself to the book: it was the only possible name.
The hero of both the book and the film is a young thug called Alex. I gave him that name because of its international character (you could not have a British or Russian boy called Chuck or Butch), and also because of its ironic connotations. Alex is a comic reduction of Alexander the Great, slashing his way through the world and conquering it. But he is changed into the conquered–impotent, wordless. He was a law (a lex) unto himself; he becomes a creature without lex or lexicon. The hidden puns, of course, have nothing to do with the real meaning of the name Alexander, which is “defender of men.”
At the beginning of the book and the film, Alex is a human being endowed, perhaps overendowed, with three characteristics that we regard as essential attributes of man. He rejoices in articulate language and even invents a new form of it (he is far from alexical at this stage); he loves beauty, which he finds in Beethoven’s music above everything; he is aggressive.
The new form of language that Alex invents is Nadsat, which “is basically English with some borrowed words from Russian. It also contains influences from Cockney rhyming slang and the King James Bible. Plus borrowings from the German language, some words of unclear origin, and some that Burgess invented.
The word nadsat itself is the suffix of Russian numerals from 11 to 19 (-надцать). The suffix is an almost exact linguistic parallel to the English ‘-teen’….” Thus, Alex invents and speaks a “teen” language, a common occurrence the world over. By propagating a new language, Alex is unleashing creative destruction of the existing dominant language in his culture, English. But that is just an analog to the real violence he perpetrates on society.
If only Alex had become a linguist or an author, like Burgess, (or a namer?) then perhaps he wouldn’t have been so violent. Then again, we can’t retroactively “cure” literary characters any more than the society of A Clockwork Orange could.
Bonus: A lexicon of Nadast words from A Clockwork Orange.