A recent article (A Clockwork Orange: 60-year-old teen slang that still shocks - BBC Culture) recalls A Clockwork Orange, the dystopian satirical black comedy novel by Anthony Burgess published sixty years ago. Set in a near-future society that has a youth subculture of extreme violence, A Clockwork Orange presents a youth (sub)culture whose droogs, or mates, speak in Nadsat, from the Russian word meaning 'teen'. This is the name of the invented slang in which the main character Alex narrates the novel. When Alex talks about his intention to "tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood," the meaning is clear enough. Nadsat is also used as a language of resistance, which establishes the droogs as a counter-cultural group: it allows them to communicate in a way that is clearly demarcated from the standard English of law enforcement agents and scientists.

the language bubbles of subcultures

Linguistic programming

Like George Orwell with his 'Newspeak' in Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949), Burgess aimed to create a new fictional language to depict a dystopian future. Looking back on A Clockwork Orange, Burgess wrote: "The novel was to be an exercise in linguistic programming, with the exoticisms gradually clarified by context." A Clockwork Orange anticipated both the hedonistic, liberal sixties and the violent, disillusioned seventies, elements that are often quoted and referred to in popular art forms. Many songs have been inspired by the novel, including 'Ultraviolence' by New Order and 'Horrorshow' by the Libertines. Paul Cook, the drummer of the Sex Pistols claimed that he had only read two books - a biography of the Kray Twins and A Clockwork Orange while the manager of the Rolling Stones wrote the sleeve-notes to one of their albums in a version of Nadsat.


In post-war (WWII) youth (sub)cultures slang has been, and continues to be, a distinctive differentiator, whether along the horizontal or vertical age axis, as much as speaking Japanese marks one out as Japanese and Dutch as Dutch. Or a sixteen-year-old and a sixty-year-old, wrinkles excepted. I remember reading Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (published in 1993) when I was probably on the wrong side of the age divide but, having studied deviance among young adults as a young adult myself, I felt I was close enough to be able to get along with the jargon. Written entirely in a form of colloquial Scottish English, employing both phonetic spellings of words for an accented effect, as well as Scottish slang, it required a different approach. "The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah was jist sitting their, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice the c*nt. He was bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video." I found myself actually reading it aloud to try to empathise. It helped having Scottish (non-addict) friends with a similar brogue. Still, the language used is a differentiator for this subculture of a heroin addicted gang.

Social signal

The street slang of urban gangs gained attention and notoriety, especially in the city slum areas of Los Angeles and New York, not only through the violence reported on news broadcasts but just as much in movie and TV series portrayals as well as by rappers either side of the millennium. In Finegan and Rickford's Language in the U.S.A., slang is defined as "usually deliberately chosen over more conventional vocabulary to send a social signal - to mark informality, irreverence, or defiance; to add humor; or to mark one's inclusion in, admiration for, or identification with a social group, often a non-mainstream group." Slang is "vocabulary with attitude" (2004: 375). In 50 Cent's song 'In Da Club', there are many words that may be new for a native speaker: shorty 'lady', Benz 'Mercedes-Benz', x 'ecstasy', ho/hoes 'whores', homie 'friend', pimp 'a man who controls prostitutes', holla 'a loud utterance', shawty 'friend', crib 'house', ya 'you' and yo 'your'. In 2003, CNN published a news item explaining that a high court judge said that when he tried to understand the lyrics of a rap song he could not guess the meaning of the words. The judge affirmed that the rap language was somehow related to English but that it was "for practical purposes a foreign language".


And now I seem to be surrounded by a constant influx of short-lived cool (already outmoded as an acceptable descriptive, I'm sure) words that rapidly go viral until superseded by a new favourite. Like 'adulting', a verb form used by millennials to describe any and all duties associated with being a bona fide grown-up - from as paying taxes to washing your car, changing diapers and having 'adult' concerns. And nowadays the GOAT is everywhere. Originally an acronym for Greatest Of All Time, and used in sports broadcasting to describe athletes since the 1990s, it even pops up in hip-hop tracks. And the word that prompted this blog as much as any other: woke. I needed to look it up! There's a whole #WokeBae phenomenon happening. The word has its roots in an Erykah Badu song, "Master Teacher." The New York Times Magazine describes it thus: "Think of 'woke' as the inverse of 'politically correct.' If 'P.C.' is a taunt from the right, then 'woke' is a back-pat from the left." The more woke one is, the more sympathetic and knowledgeable one is about a topic or type of person.

It's as if there are pockets or bubbles of subcultures flying around me in all directions - I'm on the outside looking in. While language continues to be so fluid and there is so much still to learn, I think the work I do will remain challenging and enjoyable long into the future. In my teens things used to be 'hip', then became 'cool' and 'chill'. What's next I wonder.

- Chris