While reading a recent Ken Follet novel, I came across the following, spoken in a gay bar set in early sixties London:

"I am queer as a clockwork orange, a three-pound note, a purple unicorn, or a football bat."

Previous to this, I had thought that "clockwork orange" was a phrase made up by Anthony Burgess to describe something that is impossible as a title for his 1962 novel.

Checking further, I found that Burgess had actually borrowed this phrase from something he supposedly overheard in a pub.

From the 1986 introduction "A Clockwork Orange Re-sucked"

I don’t think I have to remind readers what the title means. Clockwork oranges don’t exist, except in the speech of old Londoners. The image is a bizarre one, always used for a bizarre thing. “He’s as queer as a clockwork orange” meant he was queer to the limit of queerness. It did not primarily denote homosexuality, though a queer, before restrictive legislation came in, was the term used for a member of the inverted fraternity.

(my emphasis)

Ngrams would seem to indicate that the phrase was never used before the publication of the novel.

Does anyone know the origin and first use of this phrase? I suspect the answer is hiding behind a pay-wall.


I should warn everyone that anything that references directly to Burgess´ explanation is suspect: like many authors of fiction, he is a notorious prevaricator who often has difficulty differentiating between his novels and reality. A recurring theme in his books is the "unreliable narrator". He is in a class with Len Deighton, Mark Twain, Geoffrey Chaucer, Vladamir Nabakov, Agatha Christie and Jack Higgins in this regard.

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    Wow. My mind is just a little bit blown right now. Having never read the novel or seen the movie (yes, I’m that guy), I am only familiar with the title itself, not with any of its context. I had always instinctively understood it as orange being a postpositioned adjective, i.e., it was referring to an orange clockwork, a clockwork that is orange in colour. Now you’re telling me I’m all wrong and it’s an orange that’s clockworky! I need a moment… Jan 8, 2017 at 21:49
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, I had the same impression even after reading the novel in high school in the sixties and seeing the movie in the seventies. If I had not seen that Follet quote, I would never have picked up on it. Alas, Follet also seems to fall into the "unreliable narrator" clasification. Jan 8, 2017 at 22:30
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    @JanusBahsJacquet No fruit was harmed in the making of this motion picture.
    – Jasen
    Jan 9, 2017 at 8:56
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    Good to see you include Twain in the list of unreliable narrators. Alas, too many give some of his suspect and supposedly historical utterances far too much credence and significant harm has resulted. Jan 9, 2017 at 12:31
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    I also thought that "orange" was an adjective in the title, for many, many years. Something about the English-ness of the phrase makes it extra confusing to American ears, I think. Jan 9, 2017 at 16:09

4 Answers 4


Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-like: 6,000 Curious & Everyday Phrases Explained (2004) offers this discussion of the phrase:

(as) queer as a clockwork orange The title of the novel A Clockwork Orange (1962; film UK 1971) came, according to its author Anthony Burgess, from a Cockney expression. 'queer as a clockwork orange' (i.e. homosexual). This had been in use since the mid-1950s, Paul Beale states in Partridge/Slang, though few others had heard of it. Perhaps Burgess simply got the location wrong as the phrase was reported from Liverpool in Shaw & Spiegl, Lern Yerself Scouse (1966): 'E's as queer as clockwerk oringe' — 'He enjoys being hugged after scoring a goal' (this was a year or two after Burgess's novel was published, of course). Another attempt at explaining the title has been that Burgess worked for many years in Malaysia, where the word 'orang' means 'human'. As to the title's relevance to the story—which has no overtly homosexual element—this is debatable, unless 'queer' is taken just as 'odd' and without the sexual meaning. The following passage from the novel hints at a possible reason for the choice of title: 'Who ever heard of a clockwork orange? ... The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen.' The book describes an attempt to punish its criminal hero, Alex, by turning him into a 'mechanical man' through forms of therapy and brainwashing.

A version of Lern Yerself Scouse appears (without attribution) on a Geocities page, where the entry for "E's as queer as clockwerk oringe" appears under the subheading "At the Football Match."

The Paul Beale reference is to Eric Partridge & Paul Beale, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984), which has this entry:

queer as a clockwork orange (, as). 'Homosexually weird (precedes film of the same name): Royal Navy: 1960s' (Peppitt). The film title is A Clockwork Orange, based upon Anthony Burgess's notable novel, also so titled—a strange an moving book, published in 1962 {P.B. the phrase has been in low gen. and Services' use since the mid-1950s.} In a letter, 1971, A.B. told me, 'I first heard the expression ... in an East End [of London] pub, and there was a time when the BBC used to put on Cockney plays that made use of that juicy trope.'

The Peppitt mentioned in this entry is Lieutenant Commander Frank L. Peppitt of the Royal Navy Reserve. His information seems to be based on recollection rather than on contemporaneously recorded examples.

Jonathon Green, Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) has this brief entry:

queer as... ...a clockwork orange 1 {1950s+} extremely odd. 2 {1970s} ostentatiously homosexual

This entry is interesting in several ways, starting with its assertion that the expression dates to the "1950s+" despite Green's assertion elsewhere (see JOSH's answer) that "the first recorded citation [of the complete phrase] comes as late as 1977." It is also intriguing that the original meaning Green ascribes to the phrase is simply "extremely odd." And third, it asserts that the "homosexual" sense of the phrase arose in the 1970s, whereas Rees states that Lern Yerself Scouse cited that sense of the phrase in 1966.

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    Johnathan Green appears to contradict himself. The Chambers Dictionary entry is from 2008 while the Slang Lexicographer extract is from 2012. Should we ask him to clarify his view on this point? Anyway other sources suggest a possible earlier usage of "clockwork orange", it is a pity they provide no hard evidence.
    – user66974
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:33

It appears that, despite many sources say that it is an old Cockney slang phrase, "as queer as clockwork orange" was actually never used before Burgess novel, probably a variant from "as queer as chocolate orange":

Queer as a clockwork orange:

  • Burgess took his title from a little known Cockney expression from the 1950s, 'as queer as a clockwork orange' that is, homosexual, which may derive from the phrase 'as odd as an orange'.

(Expressions & Sayings)

From: The International Antony Burgess Foundation:

  • The title of the novel, A Clockwork Orange, derived from, Burgess claimed, ‘ a phrase which I heard many years ago and so fell in love with, I wanted to use it [as] the title of the book. But the phrase itself I did not make up.

  • The phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” is good old East London slang and it didn’t seem necessary to explain it. Now, obviously, I have to give it an extra meaning. I’ve implied an extra dimension. I’ve implied a junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet — in other words, life, the orange — and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I’ve brought them together in a kind of oxymoron’.

But according to other sources there was almost certainly no such expression and the lexicographers and slang experts Eric Partridge and Jonathan Green found no trace of ‘As queer as a clockwork orange’ before Burgess.

From: The Phrase Finder:

  • "queer as a chocolate orange' was in use as a slang phrase prior to its influnence on the title of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange,1962, later a film by Stanley Kubrick. Another variant was 'as soft as a chocolate teapot', which alluded to soft, i.e. effeminate men.

From — Slang Lexicographer by Jonathan Green:

  • The phrase queer as a clockwork orange, which means eccentric or bizarre, and can be applied sexually or otherwise, was sourced by Anthony Burgess to late World War II when, as a serving soldier, he heard it in the mess. I am quite willing to believe him:

  • the phrase is cognate with similar slang similes such as queer as a coot, first ascribed to his acquaintance Julian McLaren Ross, queer as a three dollar bill, queer as duck soup, a coinage of the 1930s and oldest of all queer as Dick’s hatband, which seems as impenetrable a construct as Burgess’s borrowing and has been recorded in this sense since at least 1835 (meaning ‘below par, or ‘out of sorts’ it goes back a further half-century).

  • As I say, I wish to believe, but…the problem is that we have no proof. Despite the resources of the Internet, and other than in scholarly articles that quote Burgess himself, the first recorded citation comes as late as 1977, in a glossary appended to a book designed to help policemen battle with the contemporary world.

As a matter of fact Burgess was fascinated by words and often played with them:

  • As he characterised Partridge, Anthony Burgess was himself over and above all ‘a lover of words’, a quite literal philologist, revelling in their complexity, their variety and their potential for manipulation. His own vocabulary, of course, was impressively wide-ranging. The briefest glance at some reviews offers hogo, mantrip, protonym and malefit: hardly standard and there is much more.
  • I can't find "queer as a chocolate orange" or anything like in Google books before 2000, either. Jan 8, 2017 at 23:21
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    @PeterShor Neither do I recall the expression, from my time living in London in the 1960s. Queer as a five bob note was the usual way of referring to a homosexual (Five bob = five shillings. The lowest denomination note was 10 shillings. Lower than that was coinage). The only context in which I have ever heard the term Clockwork Orange is that of Alan Burgess's novel. And from what I remember it is not concerned with gays.
    – WS2
    Jan 9, 2017 at 0:44
  • @WS2: I think you mean Anthony Burgess.
    – Robusto
    Jan 9, 2017 at 3:13
  • @Robusto You are right, apologies - Anthony Burgess.
    – WS2
    Jan 9, 2017 at 9:36

Okay, so I'm probably stating the obvious but going back to the chocolate orange: the very popular English candy, Terry's Chocolate Orange, was created in 1932. (One in five children got them in the Christmas stockings, eventually.)

Shaped like and tasting somewhat like an orange, it's wonderfully absurd...even queer. I can certainly see this phrase having been in use decades before Burgess--even as he says in one account--heard it during WWII. And of course the simple mishearing & shock of discovering yet ANOTHER absurdity in the phrase... (I think of Dylan Thomas'language play with ivy/ivory.)

  • Yes, if Burgess were in a crowded bar and heard someone say "queer as a chocolate orange," chocolate could easily have been misheard as clockwork, or perhaps first as clocklet. Put clock anything next to orange, and Burgess would find his way to a concept that fit the theme of his novel, which coined other new words and phrases: droog, horrorshow. BTW, Cas. I tried to delete that comment but the OP had already deleted his question.
    – Zan700
    Jun 22, 2022 at 3:20

I read a reference to the phrase "clockwork orange" in the classic British fantasy THE OWL SERVICE by Alan Garner (Collins, 1967, p.48). In this instance, Gwyn (a young Welshman of unstated age) is responding to an odd and facetious remark made by his young English mate, Roger: 'Man,' said Gwyn, 'You're as daft as a clockwork orange.' THE OWL SERVICE won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award a short five years after the Burgess novel.

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