Viddy your slovos*
Happy birthday, A Clockwork Orange. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess’ classic novel. What’s interesting about this book isn’t what happens to the narrator Alex (a Mozart-loving, milk-drinking teen) and his cronies: it’s how the story is told.
Burgess wrote the book completely in ‘nasdat’, the gang’s slanguage. Nasdat is a mongrel that Burgess created by mixing Russian and Slavic words with Cockney street slang, German, kid-speak and old English:
‘You could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencorom or one or two other vesches.’
Peet? Vellocet? Is this brand naming for hair-removal cream? No. It’s actually Alex talking about mixing drugs. Don’t worry though, it gets easier. From about five pages into the book, something strange happens. You start to understand this gobbledygook. You become acclimatised to nasdat.
It’s an example of how sometimes we can surprise ourselves with what we understand.
The best writers invent. Shakespeare created his own words when he couldn’t think of exactly the term to fit and Tolkien wrote whole passages in Elvish. Okay, so maybe Burgess was less an inventor and more a multilingual borrower, but the theory is still the same: your readers aren’t stupid, so challenge them.
Well, maybe don’t go full-out nasdat and invent a language, but making your reader reach for the dictionary is no bad thing. The odd unfamiliar word can refresh a whole piece of writing.
*Watch your words