Anthony Burgess's lost, incomplete slang dictionary re-discovered

Burgess's fascination with slang extended well past Nadsat, the synthetic Russo-English dialect he invented for A Clockwork Orange; his autobiography mentions in passing that he'd begun work on a dictionary of slang but gave it up: "I've done A and B and find that a good deal of A and B is out of date or has to be added to, and I could envisage the future as being totally tied up with such a dictionary."

No one could ever find this strange manuscript, but it was recently discovered by archivists at Manchester's International Anthony Burgess Foundation, at "the bottom of a large cardboard box, packed underneath some old bedsheets," where it had languished because "the box seemed to be full of household objects, not literary papers."

The dictionary is idiosyncratic and a little reminiscent of Blackadder's hilarious incomplete replacement for Samuel Johnson's dictionary (compare: "'a'; impersonal pronoun — doesn't really mean anything" with "'arse'; I need not define"). It's clear from the fragments and Burgess's own account that he didn't really understand what "slang" actually constituted (he included "Beatles" and "writer's block") nor how expansive a category that could be.

What survives are 6×4 slips of paper on which each entry is typed. There are 153, 700 and 33 slips for the letters A, B and Z respectively…

Abdicate – In poker, to withdraw from the game, forfeiting all money or chips put in the pot.

Abfab – Obsolescent abbreviation of absolutely fabulous, used by Australian teenagers or 'bodgies'.

Abortion – Anything ugly, ill-shapen, or generally detestable: 'You look a right bloody abortion, dressed like that'; 'a nasty little abortion of a film' (Australian in origin).

Abyssinia – I'll be seeing you. A valediction that started during the Italo-Abyssinian war. Obsolete, but so Joyceanly satisfying that it is sometimes hard to resist.

Accidental(ly) on purpose – Deliberately, but with the appearance of accident: 'So I put me hand on her knee, see, sort of accidental on purpose.' (Literary locus classicus: Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, 1923.)

Arse – I need not define. The taboo is gradually being broken so that plays on the stage and on radio and television introduce the term with no protest. The American Random House Dictionary … is still shy of it, however, though not of the American colloquialism ass. Arse is a noble word; ass is a vulgarism.

Anthony Burgess's lost dictionary of slang discovered
[Dalya Alberge/The Guardian]