Language

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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From swaggies to snapback

Amanda Laugesen
Monday, 24 August 2020

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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Ernest Gowers is remembered, if at all, for the writings on the English language which he undertook towards the end of his life. In 1948, at the request of the British Treasury, he wrote a small book called Plain Words. It was intended for the use of civil servants, not all of whom appreciated it, but it attracted a far wider audience, sold in huge numbers, and has never been out of print. An expanded version, entitled The Complete Plain Words, appeared in 1954. Subsequently, the Clarendon Press asked Gowers to produce a revised edition of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926). He laboured on the task for nine years, completing it at the age of eighty-five.

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Coronaspeak: Tracking language in a pandemic

Amanda Laugesen
Tuesday, 26 May 2020

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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Apart from Abbott’s booby (the gannet Sula abbotti, which now breeds only on Christmas Island), all entries on the first two pages of the Australian National Dictionary pertain to race and white foundation. Is this mere chance, or do we here have an instance of the knack of language to trap and reticulate human experience from its very springs? Probably a spot of both. Whatever: how apt that a dictionary of Australianisms based on historical principles should start with words such as Aboriginalabolition act, abscond, and absolute pardon. Absolute pardon is followed by acacia, whose bloom is the emblem of our national besottedness.

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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 ...

Crisis lexicon

Amanda Laugesen
Friday, 21 February 2020

As I write this, Canberra is once again under threat from the Orroral Valley fire south of the city. This comes after a summer of intense and incredibly destructive bushfires and, for Canberra, endless days of smoke haze, followed by a damaging hailstorm. The coronavirus also dominates the daily newsfeeds as a global health emergency takes hold.

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Whither wowser?

Amanda Laugesen
Monday, 16 December 2019

Lexicographers, especially historical ones, are always interested in the way words fall in and out of fashion. But while we spend a lot of time tracing the first usage of a word and trying to figure out its origins, we pay much less attention to when or why a word falls out of common usage.

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One’s last gumtree

Amanda Laugesen
Thursday, 24 October 2019

Sidney (Sid) J. Baker (1912–76) is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in the history of Australian slang lexicography. Born in New Zealand, Baker worked in Australia as a journalist, writing for publications such as ABC Weekly, The Daily Telegraph, and The Sydney Morning Herald. He was also the author of a number of books about Australian slang, one of which is A Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang (1941).

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