The dystopian universes of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, and Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, are marked by many thematic similarities. They both focus on pervasive corruption in society’s political and social institutions. Additionally, both stories feature the distinctive presence of various subcultures, marked by not only an habitual trend towards violent criminality, but also by a vivid, slang-based linguistic identity. These future-shock stories provide us with an intriguing window through which to view our culture’s relationship to linguistics, which is also defined by a chronic prevalence of slang in our daily speech patterns.
In attempting to decipher why these two authors chose to include a slang-argot for the criminal elements existing in their stories, and how these motivations are connected to the possible reasons for the genesis of various slang expressions in our own reality, we must examine a number of different things. First, we must probe what the term slang actually means and what type of speech it is referring to and what are the contextual circumstances where it typically emerges. Secondly, we must understand what the central motivations are behind slang language creation (which in our investigation will fall under slang serving a social purpose or slang promoting simplification). Finally, we must attempt to unearth a correlation between the motivations for slang creation usage and generation in the real world and with the potential reasons for why Burgess and Miller believed it essential to integrate their own invented argots into critical scenes from both novels.
While the term slang does not have any sort of tangible academic authority in chronicling the linguistic patterns of a population, it is generally invoked by those seeking to describe the experience of employing terms and expressions that are non-standardized and informal. As Richard Spears describes it in his American Slang Dictionary, slang is an “umbrella term” referring to language that one often utilizes in various social circumstances where the speaker does not feel pressure to align their linguistic proclivities with those that are officially articulated or understood as being a part of the “standardized” linguistic canon. Also, the use of slang often obtains a higher degree of specificity through its ability to be identified as synonymous with various segments of the greater population. “The term slang has been used to refer to the specialized vocabularies (cant, jargon or patter) used among criminals, drug users, students… food workers, military personnel and so on and on.” (Spears ix). However, Spears brief attempt to articulate the meaning of the word slang, while allowing us to understand how slang expressions are endlessly propagated by the countless subcultures and subgroups that exist in our society, does very little in the way of furthering our understanding of just what slang is. Or, to be more precise, and as Spears recognizes in his dictionary’s introduction, this definition of slang does not allow us to easily differentiate between slang and other words associated with the particular language of a subculture. “Other such labels, with other meanings, include dialect, obsolete, substandard, vernacular, and vulgar.” (ix).
So what exactly is the conceptual schema that can be utilized to create a definitive definition for what can be classified as slang terminology? Also, how do these particular words or expressions differ from words that would be classified as a component of one’s dialect or vernacular form of language? Well, there actually seems to be no clear consensus about what actually can be considered slang expressions and not simply lumped under the other classifiers. Mr. Spears addresses this in his dictionary and states there are a variety of different interpretations of just what can or cannot be deemed as a slag expression. In one segment of his dictionary’s introduction Spears discusses and defines what is meant by a ccolloquial expression. Through this definition he is able to offer one perspective that might assist in developing at least a partial understanding of how the term slang can have a highly malleable meaning. “Slang and colloquial are similar in that they are thought of as more indicative of spoken language than formal written language. In fact, some people might consider slang to be a special variety of colloquial speech.” (xiv).
While Spears is incapable of providing us with an empirical definition for what exactly constitutes slang-based expression; he does provide us with one perspective of how we can interpret slang in its relationship to colloquial speech. Also, Spears addresses one particular form of speech that cannot be considered synonymous with slang: the form of speech known as an idiom. “Slang is not the same as idiom. Idioms are phrases in which the meaning of the phrase is not the same as the expected literal meaning of individual words in the phrase, such as with sitting on a gold mine.” (xv). Spears points out that it is highly possible for slang phrases to possess idiomatic attributes. However, slang and idioms differ because the purpose of slang is to stress informality while the purpose of idioms seems to be focused on conveying an expression or idea that is not meant to be interpreted in a literal fashion by the listener.
It can almost appear that the sheer amount of different methods at work for the creation of slang-based speech is in itself innumerable. However, upon a closer investigation, one can typically see unifying trends running throughout many of the different methods that constitute the creation of new slang terminology. Most of the methods utilized for the inception of slang-based terms can be defined as promoting simplicity in language or serving some sort of social or ideological purpose. The creation of certain slang appears to lend itself to the process of simplification, that is, the slang word allows for the speaker to convey their thoughts or intentions through a minimalistic style of speech. Linguistic methods that are involved with the creation of slang expressions to promote simplicity include: “Blends, such as fantabulous. Parts of two words are combined to make a new one.” (Spears xiii). As Spears outlines, the process of blending the morphemes of two different words allows the speaker to create a slang expression that is arguably imbued with a greater level of intensity yet is more concise than actually articulating the two separate words.
This method is similar to a method that Spears refers to as the extension or exaggeration method, where the slang-speaker is capable through the harnessing of the slang expression to convey a multi-faceted concept through a single word. “Extensions and exaggerations, such as Bambi, annihilated, animal. The basic standard meaning is extended or exaggerated for effect. These examples mean any deer, devastatingly drunk, and a crude and rude male.” (Spears xiii). Now, the underlying motivation for why someone would harness this form of slang is blatantly obvious. It allows for one to add color to their linguistic patterns while also practicing the art of brevity in their speech. An even more dramatic example of slang serving the process of simplification is one that is pervasive in our current cyber-space obsessed culture: the art of the abbreviation, (OMG standing for Oh my god and BRB representing the phrase Be right back). Since the advent of the Internet age these slang abbreviations are typically far more resonant through cyber-communication. Still, it is not entirely uncommon to hear these abbreviated expressions actually be verbally articulated as a means of expediting the flow of face-to-face conversation.
However, some of the motivations for the creation of slang language appear to be far more difficult to ascertain. They don’t project the idea that the slang is designed around the process of simplifying communication but there also doesn’t appear to be a viable social purpose that the integration of the slang-argot can serve or support. For instance, slang can be created through the invention of an entirely different expression that is supposed to be representative of a more concrete or officially recognized word. (“Moolah” for money).
The other motivation working diligently behind slang creation, which seems to significantly differ from the previously discussed motivation of simplifying communication, is slang that serves a social or ideological purpose. This is integrally connected to the purpose of establishing solidarity or identity amongst those who speak the same language or prescribe to the same moral structure of philosophical doctrine. However, slang is not only a tool implemented for fostering solidarity amongst members of a subculture. In many cases slang is tailored by criminal populations as a means to obfuscate the actual meaning of their expressions and assist with avoiding persecution from the legal authorities of society. “Some slang terms, often called cant, were never intended to be understood by the general public. Some in-group jargon, such as with drug users, pickpockets… is meant to disguise what is being said so no outsider can understand.” (Spears xi). In addition to slang being utilized to instill speech with a cryptic or ambiguous meaning slang can also instill a less obscene impression when spoken in public (euphemisms) or slang can reflect a subculture’s collective and personalized relationship with a particular experience (such as the youth culture’s relationship with chemical substances produced a myriad of different slang terms for these various substances).
Considering the fact that slang is ubiquitous and pervasive in nearly all levels, cultures, and populations of the human race, in order to understand this linguistic phenomena, one must examine with an even higher level of specificity regarding how slang is embraced by relatively small fractions of larger communities. In the realm of the criminal argot, which are what our two fictional literary examples choose to concern themselves with, we witness a direct correlation between the linguistic proclivities (regarding slang usage) of the fictional youth criminal and with the criminal underworld that operates in the real world. For instance, slang, which we have established is a critical component of everyday speech in an informal context, represents what is, to many, a critical component of individual’s tendency to “…code-switch- automatically alter their speech patterns.” (Mauer, 11). As linguist David Maurer suggests through his book, Languages of the Underworld, slang is an example of one shifting their linguistic proclivities depending on the contextual circumstances and that criminals employing a slang-based argot between members who are known to belong to the same criminal subculture is something that habitually occurs. However, the reasons for why it occurs are not always what individuals belonging to mainstream society might believe. “Argots, while secret or semi-secret, are mainly used by members of the in-group who have knowledge of the sociolect of the subculture. However, when a professional criminal converses with a member of the dominant culture he avoids the argot and, insofar as he is able, speaks the social dialect dictated by the social framework in which he has found himself.” (Mauer, 11). So, it would seem that according to Mauer, slang-based linguistic choices are utilized to often establish solidarity. They are expressed to confirm membership and foster a sense of belonging to the subculture itself.
In Frank Miller’s near-future dystopia, the author depicts that the central motivation for an aging Batman’s resurgence is the emergence of a sprawling youth-based street gang called “The Mutants,” which propagate horrific acts of violence throughout the metropolis. This literary example is pertinent to our investigation of the potential motivations behind subcultural slang-based argots because the mutants employ their own language throughout the story, some of which is nearly indecipherable to the reader who clearly cannot possess membership to the subcultural group. In one sequence a young girl, who has brashly appointed herself to be the new Robin to the newly arisen Batman dons what appears to be appropriate garb for Mutant-gang members and approaches two Mutant sentries in an attempt to gain their trust and perhaps ascertain information that could assist with the dynamic duo disrupting the criminal group’s activities.
The reason for why this sequence in the graphic novel is appropriate to include in this investigation of slang-based linguistics is because in order to potentially connect with the two Mutant sentries Robin must do more than simply assimilate to the Mutant identity through her clothing choices.“We Mutants! We Slicer-Dicers!” (Miller, 95). This exclamatory statement, uttered after the disguised Robin articulates something that insinuates her uncertainty regarding the sentries membership to the Mutant subculture, is a passionate response from the sentries to which Robin coolly responds, “I’m sure that’s why you at th pipe. I don’t shiv.” (95). Both of these rather alien expressions (“slicer-dicers” and “shiv”) are uttered at numerous points of the graphic novel which seem to suggest that they are integral components of the Mutant-argot. It would appear then that, much more influential to the goal of establishing trust with the two sentries, is the fact that Robin can beautifully replicate the slang that is associated with the Mutant population, rather than her exterior clothing facade.
It is through this act of manipulative and deceptive code-switching that Robin is capable of establishing the solidarity that, as we previously determined, plays a major role in why individuals structure their speech the way they do. Robin provokes the Mutant sentries to feeling as though they need to once again establish their credibility within the Mutant population (“slicer-dicer” is indicative of the function of the Mutant gang member, and is, in a sense, self-explanatory). Also, by Robin being capable of responding within the confines of the gang’s linguistic parameters, (with “shiv” meaning “joke”), she solidifies her own membership and is able to exert her own influence. This literary depiction of slang appears to adhere to one of the two reasons behind slang creation, with the actual articulated slang expressions serving a social purpose and allowing for Mutant members to reinforce their subculture’s social stratum.
The other literary example that serves as an excellent subject for an examination of the potential motivations behind slang-based speech is Anthony Burgess’s chilling dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange. Similar to Miller’s Gotham based criminal gang, Burgess’s own band of misanthropic thugs, who are led by a charismatic anti-hero named Alex, employ a slang-argot that seems to serve the social purposes of promoting identity, solidarity and homogeneity but also include terms whose purpose seems designed solely around obfuscation of meaning and the enhancement of brevity in communication. The slang argot that pervades the linguistic patterns of the novel’s droogs is a literary invention by Burgess, who possessed an ardent fascination with linguistics in addition to writing prose. The argot is labeled “Nadsat” in the story and is basically described as being a weird conglomeration of English with Russian influences. As a highly distinctive form of slang-language, which can be, in many instances, interpreted as a form of pidgin language, “Nadsat” epitomizes the social and psychological pathology of the gang members in Burgess’s story. The language form is almost entirely associated with individuals who are marked equally by their youth as they are by their criminality. In fact, the title of their slang-based language actually is derived from the Russian suffix for ‘teen.’
In one of the novel’s first sequences, which are constructed as a brutal chain of violent anti-social activities, Alex’s droogs confront another youth street-gang subculture. It is pertinent to address the language the Alex employs in these sequences, which is heavily infused with the Nadsat-argot. Through his language use Alex immediately establishes the identity of himself and his droog accomplices and is able to quickly convey the social intention that his gang currently possesses: to kick some rival gang butt. “Well, if it isn’t fat stinking billygoat Billyboy in poison. How art thou, thou gloopy bottle of cheap stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly, thou.” (Burgess 19). By articulating the sentences in this fashion, heavily saturated with slang-slights, Alex is able to accomplish two different social intentions simultaneously. He produces a message that is incredibly inflammatory in its content and also serves as an announcement for the identity of the gang. Billyboy is capable of discerning who will be eventually accosting him, because, as Alex’s language indicates, the speaker of this message possesses a firm grasp on the structure of the Nadsat-argot and speaks it freely, which is something that the more mainstream members of society refrain from doing.
In addition to the Nadsat-argot being utilized to convey a social message certain words of the argot are designed around obfuscation. These particular words appear rather infrequently in the text but usually pertain to gang-members discussing more illicit activities such as the word “vellocet” referring to street drugs such as amphetamines or the term “rozz” which is used when discussing the activities of policemen. Finally, there are also terms that don’t fall into either one of the two categories that we have established and addressed throughout the majority of this analysis of slang-based linguistics. One such expression is “steaky wake,” which seems to be derived from how a child might articulate this expression.
Through our examination of the definition of slang and the potential motivations for why individuals construct slang-argots it would appear that a majority of the motivations for slang generation can be grouped under the mantles of simplification, obfuscation, and social purpose. These motivations appear to be brilliantly exemplified through human invention in both our tangible reality and in the realm of literary expression. The linguistic identities of the street-gangs existing at the heart of both Frank Miller and Anthony Burgess’s dystopias add a shocking level of depth to an already intoxicating portrait of disintegrating futures. These gangs use their slang-argots to establish solidarity within the ranks of their members and also to evade potential threats from the authorities. Their use of slang also suggests something about our own world and our relationship to linguistics. As language is essentially temporal in nature and is always fluctuating as the decades go by there is no way of knowing what changes we will see to common slang usage or to the more standardized linguistic canon. However, as these two literary examples point out, language is developed for many reasons and the changes that we have witnessed to common slang patterns is clearly only a starting point for where informal language patterns and proclivities will proceed in the years to come.
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. New York City, NY. 1986.
Maurer, David. Language of the Underworld. The University Press of Kentucky. Lexington, KY. 1981.
Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. DC Comics. New York City, NY. 2002.
Spears, Richard. American Slang Dictionary: The Ultimate Reference to Nonstandard Usage, Colloquialisms, Popular Jargon, and Vulgarisms. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. New York City, NY. 2006.