Amanda Laugesen

Each federal election brings with it a bunch of promises, attacks, blunders, and unpredictable moments. During the recent federal election we had Anthony Albanese’s ‘gaffe’, Scott Morrison’s undercooked chicken curry, and #JoshKeeper. As usual, the intrepid (and long-suffering) lexicographers and language watchers were hard at work monitoring the language of the campaign.

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The Australian summer was once again a story of Covid. Just as things were slowly reaching a state of ‘Covid-normal’, Omicron came along to present us with new, decidedly unwelcome, challenges. Despite Omicron, our summer did not pass by without one of its most defining features: sport. Many events went ahead as planned, not least the Australian Open tennis tournament.

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More than a year ago, I wrote about how those of us interested in language were tracking the many words and expressions being generated by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, all of Australia was in iso, and we had all turned to the joys (for some of us) of isobaking or learning to crochet. As the pandemic has dragged on, the language generated by it has changed. The Covidspeak of 2021 reflects our concerns about vaccinations, borders, and the impact of the Delta variant (often shortened to Delta or the Delta). The language of the pandemic has shifted to reflect our increasing frustration with slow vaccination rates, multiple and extended lockdowns and border closures, and government decisions and actions taken around these things.

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An email arrived in my inbox recently with an article from the British newspaper The Times. It was an obituary of John Richards, a former journalist and the man who founded the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001. This organisation was dedicated to the protection of the apostrophe, ‘a threatened species’, according to Richards. He closed the Society down in 2019; aside from his age at the time (ninety-six), he concluded that ‘the ignorance and laziness present in modern times has won’.

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A little over a year ago, I was writing about the effects of the Black Summer of bushfires on our language. When Covid-19 hit, suddenly we were collecting the words of the pandemic. Despite the overwhelming focus on the pandemic (and its language) over the past year, the language of climate change has continued to evolve. My column on the Black Summer bushfires touched on the broader vocabulary of climate change and talked about both the language of climate crisis, such as tipping point, mass extinction, and eco-anxiety, and that of climate activism, such as school strikes, climate justice, and climate protests. More recently, however, it has struck me that the language around climate change is also increasingly that of climate grief.

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‘Bad language’ comes in many forms, but, as the title suggests, the focus of Amanda Laugesen’s new book is on slang and, in particular, swear words. She documents Australia’s long and often troubled love affair with this language, dividing the history into four parts: the earliest English-speaking settlements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the period of Federation and World War I; the heart of the twentieth century; and the ‘bad language landscape’ of modern Australia. These four time periods highlight Indigenous stories as well as migrant contributions to the diverse swearing vocabulary of Australia.

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Amanda Laugesen, historian and lexicographer, is director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the ANU. In her latest book, the evocatively titled Rooted, Amanda considers the bountiful history of bad language in Australia. Her column in the December issue of ABR is devoted to the quaint old euphemism. Amanda talks about the inventive ways in which writers and editors have tried to placate the censor while also celebrating profanity. 

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Disguising the words we dare not print has a long and fascinating history. From the late eighteenth century in particular, it became common in printed works to disguise words such as profanities and curses – from the use of typographical substitutes such as asterisks to the replacement of a swear word with a euphemism. When I was researching my recent book, Rooted, on the history of bad language in Australia, I was struck by the creative ways in which writers, editors, and typesetters, especially through the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, sought to evade censors and allude to profanity.

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Language has always been shaped by the times. In today's episode, Amanda Laugesen, Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, reveals how the national vocabulary has been transformed by recession, depression, financial crises, and periods of high unemployment. A list to which we sombrely might add the current pandemic. 

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Financial crises, recessions, and times of high unemployment have periodically affected Australia. They have also shaped our vocabulary. The first recording of the iconic Australian word battler, in the sense of a person who struggles for a livelihood, was in 1896 by Henry Lawson in While the Billy Boils. The ‘swagman, itinerant worker’ sense of battler was first recorded in 1898. The verb to battle in the sense of ‘to struggle for a livelihood’ was first recorded in the 1880s, and in the sense of ‘to seek to subsist while seeking employment’ from the 1890s.

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