Language

This is a book about the role of English speech in the creation and spread of British colonialism in Australia, about the eventual disintegration of this imperial speech and its values in the colony now transformed into a nation, and about the emergence of the ‘colonial voices’ of the title ...

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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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Nothing, it seems, is too small to have its own history. As academic disciplines such as the history of ideas have grown and prospered, popular non-fiction has followed suit, offering the history of a word, a concept, a technology. This has proven to be a highly effective method of opening up the processes of culture for closer inspection, and for revealing the contingent or motivated roots of what we now take for granted. It has become an appealing and often lively way to write cultural histories.

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The popularity of his ABC radio program WordWatch gives Kel Richards the licence to publish a second volume of definitions of words and phrases and ‘terse verse’. Word of the Day 2: Wordwatching reads like an exact transcript of Richards’s radio program, complete with off-the-cuff comments.

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Amanda Laugesen’s Convict Words is a dictionary of the characteristic or salient words of early colonial discourse, the lexis of the convict system and transportation, which survived until 1840 in New South Wales, 1852 in Van Diemen’s Land, and 1868 in Western Australia. It is not immediately clear what sort of readership is envisaged for the book. It would not occur to many people interested in Australian colonial history to address the subject through the words the actors in that history used, and the book does not directly answer most of the questions the enquirer might have in mind, unless of course it were convictism itself. As for word-buffs, the limited range of the target lexis – convict words in this narrow sense, and not necessarily Australianisms – may not have suggested itself as an engrossing topic.

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It isn’t difficult to establish conversational tone in writing. And since a column about language and usage ought to be a conversation, we’ll go for that tone. Let’s start with a workout for a current, overused device. There’ve been three of them before this sentence: four now. You’ll find them if you look (Five.) Yes, we’re looking at the conversational contraction, and it’s time to stop counting.

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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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If, as Dr Johnson opined, a lexicographer is a harmless drudge, what does that make a lexicographical reviewer? A potentially harmful drudge perhaps. Who else feels the need to consume a dictionary whole in one indigestible sequence?

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It is impossible to know who first said, ‘Get your end in!’ but that is probably the only normal colloquialism of ours left out of this beaut (if you’ve got about forty bucks) book.

Clearly, G. A. Wilkes has had his end in; we all have, haven’t we? But Australia’s greatest saying is not included. Perhaps it is Welsh.

I’m buggered if I could have summoned up the bloody patience to wade through valleys and dusty quagmires of books, newspapers, dead pamphlets, had-the-gong magazines and no-longer-with-us snippets, fragments, skerricks and dust of deceased smartarsedom.

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Do you know the meaning of (or do you use?) ‘white leghorn day’, ‘five finger discount’, ‘beating the gun with an APC’? When a woman ‘chucks a bridge’ what is she doing? Have you come across ‘scarce as rocking-horse shit’, or ‘easy as pee-the-bed-awake’ or ‘tight as a fish’s bum and that’s watertight’ or ‘The streets are full of sailors and not a whore in the house has been washed’? These expressions and plenty more are discussed in Nancy Keesing’s Lily on the Dustbin. Slang of Australian women and families.

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