Language

In one of the indelible memories of my life, I take in a room drained of sunlight – late afternoon, early evening – and the blotchy font of a 1990s Picador paperback edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I feel a slipping sentence: ‘In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.’ The words move and there is movement and ‘a buckle of noise’ and ‘the first drops of rain’.

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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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Language like the weather, is something that everybody wants to talk about, itemise or complain about. All of us have our views about this or that departure from a supposed norm, this or that barbarous neologisms, this quaint local usage, that oddity of pronunciation. Many of us, too, can be as cranky about language as we are about our interpretations of the weather. For myself, I should like to see the apostrophe abolished, as being something which causes much confusion and error while doing virtually no good; but I am sufficiently conventional to use it, after all. In the upshot it’s not worth a cracker kicking against all the pricks. Let the apostrophe live out its natural life.

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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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In the early nineteenth century, Sequoyah, a Cherokee man living in Alabama, developed a fundamentally new system of writing Cherokee, which had until then not been a written language. Sequoyah’s system – properly a syllabary rather than an alphabet, in that it represents the eighty-five syllables used in Cherokee – is fascinating, innovative, and remains in use today. But in what order did those fabulous syllables go? Sequoyah provided a chart, but the missionary Samuel Worcester quickly rearranged it to suit English alphabetic order. Language was power, and ‘alphabetic order’ proved not to be neutral.

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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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The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all our lives, and little else has featured in the media for weeks. Unsurprisingly, this has led those of us who work with words to track the language of the pandemic (coronaspeak) closely. Here at the Australian National Dictionary Centre (temporarily WFH, of course), we have been compiling a database of the words emerging from the pandemic; from anti-lockdown protest to zumping (being dumped via Zoom), the Covid-19 isolation lockdown has generated its own vocabulary.

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Kate Lister (historian and curator of the website Whores of Yore) writes in her foreword to Sounds and Furies that language ‘is a powerful agent of social control, and dictates the acceptable, the feminine, and the well behaved’. Slang lexicons have long served to objectify women in all sorts of ways. It is not surprising, she argues, that Green’s Onl ...

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