Language

At a dinner party recently, the conversation turned to how our language gives away our age. No more so than in the use of slang, proposed one guest, who suggested that each person’s use of slang, like a favourite pop song, is frozen in time from their teenage years. Take, for example, terms for something considered ‘wonderful’. The theory goes that if someone still says swell, tickety-boo, or snazzy, chances are they were teenagers during World War II. Boomers, those born after the war until the mid-1960s, are the most likely to use super duper, wild, or far out. Someone nearing fifty, a Gen Xer, is probably the most likely to say brill or wicked. Millennials and Gen Z would be the ones saying crunk, wig, and slaps.

... (read more)

Picture, poem, or puzzle? The Chinese written character has been one of the most enduring obstacles to and catalysts for intercultural appreciation. When, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wanted to demonstrate the relative backwardness of Oriental thought, he could find no better exhibit than the form of its writing. Attached as it was to ‘the sensuous image’, the putatively pictographic Chinese character forfeited access to the conceptual abstraction that afforded European thinkers their passports to the ‘free, ideal realm of Spirit’.

... (read more)

A deadpan comedian maintains a straight face or an even tone while delivering ridiculous content. As a performance of humourlessness that makes people laugh, deadpan registers tensions in contemporary culture. Comedy is among the most popular modes of entertainment and social commentary: the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, for example, is Australia’s largest ticketed cultural event, with attendances of up to 770,000. But over the past few years, criticism of comedy’s traditional reliance on stereotypes and its misogynistic and homophobic industry conditions has intensified as high-profile comedians (Bill Cosby, Louis C.K.) were denounced or tried for sexual misconduct and as a new generation of ‘woke’ comedians have engaged with a resurgent cultural earnestness, often disparaged as ‘PC humourlessness’.

... (read more)

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.

... (read more)

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.

... (read more)

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’.

... (read more)

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.

... (read more)

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’.

... (read more)

‘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.

... (read more)

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. 

... (read more)