10 words from 'A Clockwork Orange' you didn’t know were actually Russian

Actor Malcolm McDowell on the set of 'Clockwork Orange'.

Actor Malcolm McDowell on the set of 'Clockwork Orange'.

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Fifty-five years ago, English writer and linguist Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange, a novel that follows the story of “ultra-violent” teenage protagonist, Alex. Written in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, the book was written using a Russian-influenced slang called “Nadsat” to give what was perceived at the time to be a totalitarian, dystopian feel. Russia Beyond is here to help you make sense of ten of the most frequently used words.

1. Nadsat (‘-надцать or ‘-nadtsatliterally meaning “on ten”)

The very name of the Nadsat dialect used by Alex and his friends comes from the Russian suffix that roughly translates to “teen.” For example, pyatnadtsat is Russian for fifteen, trinadtsat’ - thirteen. Uncoincidentally, the main characters are young adults. They embody a teenage subculture that is not only misunderstood by their adult peers, but seems sinister in its foreigness and politically threatening. It amplifies the undertones of mutual misunderstanding so prevalent during the Cold War, a time in which words were weaponised and meaningful communication was almost impossible.

2. Droog (‘друг' or ‘droog’ meaning ‘friend’)

"There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim”

Encountered as early as the first page, “droog” is perhaps the most famous Nadsat word from the book. “Droog” immediately startles and warns the reader that he or she has entered another world.

The word “droog” gains significance throughout the novel as we follow Alex’s inner struggle that often ends at the expense of his unlucky friends Pete, Georgie, and Dim.

3. Moloko (‘молоко’ or ‘moloko’ meaning ‘milk’)

“…after you'd drunk the old moloko… you got the messel that everything all round you was sort of in the past…”

While Alex and his droogs are fond of a drop of “the old moloko,” it is quite clear from the start that they weren’t just pouring this milk into their cereal. In the famous opening scene in the Korova Milk Bar, their moloko is mixed with “knives,” a mystery liquid that we can only assume shouldn’t have been served to a character who’s supposedly 15 years old.

On a side note, korova is Russian for cow. Makes sense now, doesn’t it?

4. Horrorshow (‘хорошо’ or ‘khorosho’ meaning ‘good’)

I gave him one real horrorshow kick on the gulliver and he went ohhhh, then he sort of snorted off to like sleep…”

The Nadsat word for ‘good’ comes directly from the Russian word for good. Anthony Burgess purposely took liberty mis-transliterating the word, however, so that it would be spelled with the English word “horror.” This is important as its usage throughout the novel quite literally goes from good to bad. Gradually, “horrowshow” acquires an ironic meaning, revealing Alex’s satisfaction with violent films and horrific acts of torture.

5. Gulliver (‘голова’ or ‘golova’ meaning ‘head’)

“I had something of a pain in the Gulliver so I had to sleep.”

Like ‘horrorshow’, ‘gulliver’ is an extremely anglicised version of the Russian word golova, and therefore looks like British slang at first glance. The word is perhaps an allusion to Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels, giving the English-speaking reader a tauntingly false sense of familiarity. Although Gulliver was a giant in a land of pygmies – was this a sly depiction of big, scary Soviet culture taking over the West?

6. Veck/Chelloveck (‘человек or ‘chellovek’ meaning ‘man’ or ‘person’)

“the kick made the old veck start moaning then, and then out comes the blood my brothers, real beautiful”

The phrase molodoi chellovek (young man) is a respectful term of address in Russia. Our antihero Alex, however, abbreviates the term to “veck” to give it a condescending manner. “Veck” itself is not used as a term of address term in Russian, which shows that Burgess veared away from direct Russian translations to make the Nadsat jargon as cryptic as possible.

7. Krovvy (‘кровь’ or ‘krov’’ meaning ‘blood’)

“One can die but once. Dim died before he was born. That red redkrovvy will soon stop.”

In A Clockwork Orange, the word ‘krov’’ is given a “-y” suffix to make the word sound less serious than its original Russian form. Why is this done? Because Alex is an “ultra-violent” maniac and the thought of blood does not scare him at all!

Also, Burgess is nice enough to lend us an occasional hand in understanding Nadsat, especially when the Russian word is slightly more obscure. In this instance, the description of “red red” is a big hint as to what “krovvy” actually means.

8. On my oddy knocky (‘одинокий’ or ‘odinokii’ meaning ‘alone’ or ‘lonely’)

“…your old droog Alex all on his oddy knocky seeking like a mate…”

Burgess is just having fun here. The non-Russian speaker would probably read this as a variant of the English words “odd” and “knock,”only to realise that that makes absolutely no sense! The phrase is, in fact, a hybrid of the Russian word odinokii and the English phrase “on my own.”

9. Devotchka (‘девочка’ or ‘devochka’ meaning ‘girl’ or ‘little girl’)

“’Would you have the goodness to let me use your telephone to telephone for an ambulance?’ The devotchka sort of hesitated and then said: ‘Wait.’”

In Russia, this word is the less diplomatic alternative to the widely accepted devushka (also means ‘girl’). Unless you’re talking to a child, devochka is usually articulated with the brazen grin of a womaniser. At best, saying this will make you seem cheeky, at worst, patronising. For our antihero Alex, the latter is more likely the case.

10. Interessovated (‘интересовать’ or ‘interessovat meaning ‘to interest’)

“’Oh?’ He had gotten me interessovatted now…”

Perhaps the most audacious use of Russian in the entire book, this word takes the entire Russian verb “to interest” and adds an English ending. You’re probably wondering: why would Burgess do that? Doesn’t it just make the word longer? And you’d be absolutely right.

Something about this deliberate attempt to use the Russian language in A Clockwork Orange was deeply threatening to the West’s postwar identity. It shows that Alex and his friends were not even tempted to use English words when it was convenient. More importantly, it offers a brief glimpse into the insecurity Western capitalist countries felt towards Russia and Soviet culture – an insecurity they tried their best to hide.

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