Anthony Burgess on Low-Life Language
In his non-fiction book about language, A Mouthful of Air (1992), Anthony Burgess devotes an entertaining and informative chapter to what he calls ‘low-life language’, drawing on the slang dictionaries of Eric Partridge and Jonathon Green in an exploration of ‘the home-made language of the ruled, not the rulers, the acted upon, the used, the used up. It is demotic poetry emerging in flashes of ironic insight.’
Burgess’s interest in slang as a political discourse perhaps comes from his time during the 1939-45 war, when he was stationed in Gibraltar in the Army Education Corps. He remembers how a certain word popular among his fellow soldiers was used to denote frustration:
Why the most pleasurable activity known to mankind, and the organs by which it is procured, should be debased through the use of the basic, or quadrilateral, terms as expressions of opprobrium has never been adequately explained. ‘Fucking’, it is true, can be used as a neutral intensifier in ‘fucking good’ and ‘fucking stupid’, but to be ‘fucked’ or participate in a state of ‘fuckup’ is to be in a state of distress. I once heard an army motor mechanic complain of his recalcitrant engine by crying ‘Fuck it, the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.’ There you have the word used as five distinct parts of speech. To be called ‘a prick’ (though never ‘a penis’), ‘a cunt’ or ‘a twat’ is not pleasant. There is perhaps a fundamental puritanism in such usages, a denial of the holiness of sexual pleasure, which, of course, explains the taboo.
This was a taboo that Burgess enjoyed breaking, and his novels contain much vigorous swearing. Some of the best examples occur in the novel Napoleon Symphony (1974), where he renders the speech of ordinary soldiers in Napoleon’s army as something close to ‘demotic poetry’:
In a way you could see that a man could laugh at the extremes of misery of it, for misery could not easily go any further, three days of it, stumbling through this white sand like hot snow, the dried shit in our breeches, and knowing we were marching on on on only to get cut to pieces with fucking axes and scimitars at the end of it. Man is born free but is everywhere in chains, as that bastard said […] We were like silent ghosts going through that sand, and the only sound was the buzzing of these fucking great black flies. The sky was pure metal, pewter or brass or something, clanking down on your head with no noise, and the sun was like a great round arse shitting fire.
In a review of The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto, published in the Observer on 6 January 1991, Burgess identifies the poetry of lowlife language as being located in its etymology. He writes:
There are some who believe that a knowledge of etymology is helpful to the user of words. This is not so, unless the user be a poet, for it is one of the characteristics of poetry to let swing freely the verbal bell and let often dissonant harmonies ring out. W.H. Auden remembers, or discovers in the OED, that ‘buxom’ has, in its time, meant more than ‘healthily plump or vigorous’ or, increasingly today, ‘large-breasted’. It comes from Anglo-Saxon bugan, to bend. Why a buxom girl should be a bending one is a psychological or glandular mystery, but Auden’s buxom Venus certainly bends.
Burgess spends the rest of the review looking up rude words in the book and discussing what Ayto has to say about them. His tone is suitably didactic and high-minded for what he always regarded as a serious subject:
We now come to the dirtier words. ‘Fuck’ is not one of the ancient Anglo-Saxon quadrilaterals: it is to be found no earlier than the early sixteenth century, though the personal name, John le Fucker, is recorded from 1278: it seems to have got through the net of taboo. ‘Cunt’ named a street in Oxford about 1230 — Gropecunt Lane, later sweetened to Magpie Lane. We cannot grope back further than a putative Germanic kunton, meaning the female genitals. To move from the generative to the excretory, I consider ‘shit’ to have one of the most dignified, indeed poetic, etymologies of them all. The sensation of the splitting of the fundament under the stress of fecal discharge relates the word to the Indo-European root skheid — split, divide, separate – and the Greek derivative ‘schizophrenia’.
Anthony Burgess, A Mouthful of Air (London: Hutchinson, 1992)
Anthony Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974)
‘Words Play Snakes and Ladders’, Observer, 6 January 1991, p. 47.