The “woman” word Being questioned during a Senate hearing Professor Brendan Murphy (Australia’s top health bureaucrat) was asked to answer the question: what is a woman? He dodged the question saying: “Look, I think there are a variety of definitions”—adding that he needed to take the question on notice, and have his department prepare a definition. Well, no, any desk dictionary will provide a short, clear definition. The Oxford says “woman” means an “adult female human being”—that’s four words. The Longman gets it down to three words an “adult female person.” But the nervous Professor Murphy has finally come back with his department’s definition—and it runs to 78 words of bureaucratic gobbledegook. Here it is (all 78 words of it)—you can read it if you wish, but I promise your eyes will glaze over before you get to the end: “The frameworks adopted to define a person’s gender include chromosomal makeup, the gender assigned at birth, and the gender with which a person identifies. The Department of Health does not adopt a single definition. Health policies and access to health programs are based on clinical evidence and clinical need for all Australians, regardless of gender identity, biological characteristics, or genetic variations. Our programs are designed to be inclusive and to provide better health and wellbeing for all Australians.” Why can’t someone as highly educated (medically educated!) as Professor Murphy provide a simple, clear, plain definition of the word that covers half the human race? Is it because of a noisy Twitter mob representing a minority of opinions? This attempt to disconnect our language from common sense must alarm anyone who cares about language.
Plushy The soft toys our small grandchildren cuddle up to when they go to bed we call… well, exactly that—“soft toys.” But now in America there appears to be a new name for such a toy—it can be called a “plushy.” According to the Oxford “plushy” has been part of the English language since 1611, but it refers to the surface feeling of soft furnishings (and so on) rather than to toys. The official Oxford definition says: “Of the nature of or resembling plush; spec. soft and shaggy. Also: made of, covered in, or upholstered with plush or a similar fabric.” The Webster’s Dictionary says “plushy” means “having the texture of, or covered with, plush.” But at least one American newspaper has transferred this to mean a soft, cuddly toy. The Seattle Times reported on a small boy who had lost his soft, cuddly dinosaur during an outing in the family car. A little later two friends were stuck in very slow moving traffic when they noticed “something green” on the side of the road. One of them got out of the car and retrieved the small boy’s “plush” dinosaur. And for a newspaper to use the word it must be in wider circulation in America. The lexicographers at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary say that there are two spellings for the word—either “plushy” or “plushie” to refer to soft, stuffed toys. So, is this word used in Australia? Have you come across it? Let me know through the contact page.
That’s easy for you to say! Recently David Durrett, writing on the Quora website, listed what he thinks are some of the hardest English words to pronounce. I was surprised by some of his choices—but here’s his list, see what you think:
• “Squirrel” and “marshmallow” are incredibly hard for German speakers, apparently. • “Rural” would be excruciating for someone Japanese.
• “Worcestershire” (as in the sauce) trips up a lot of native English speakers if they don’t know it is ‘woost-tah-sheer’.
• “Sixths” is hard-- ‘xths’, with a hard ‘k’ sound, followed by a sharp ‘s’, followed by an unbreathed ‘th’, followed by a ‘z’.
• On the other hand, he says, I’ve never heard anyone say the plural of ‘test’ without sounding awkward. This is why so many people will talk about their ‘exams’, if they have more than one test.
• “Strengths” is another good contender.
Well, that’s his list.
I agree with some of what he says (most people say “strenths”—leaving out the “G”). But he’s missed others that I hear constantly mispronounced. For instance, “vulnerable” is often said without the “L” as “vunerable.” And (one that irritates my readers, as I know from my correspondence) “T” is turned into “D” in the middle of “important”—so that it becomes “imporDant”. Since this was pointed out to me I’ve listening to politicians and commentators on radio and TV, and almost all of them make this mistake. Well, that’s a good starter list—what would you add? What words do you hear commonly mispronounced?
Punctuation We live in a world that seems to have largely abandoned punctuation—those small marks between words that help to make sense of a sentence. Text messaging normally contains no punctuation—and in emails (it seems to me) punctuation is being used less and less. Adding to the problem is the apparent failure of the education system to teach punctuation. Why does it matter? Well, here’s a simple example of the difference punctuation makes. Take these words: “Woman without her man would be a savage.” What do those words mean? It depends entirely on how you punctuation that statement. You could take it to mean: “Woman, without her man, would be a savage”—a statement about the savage nature of women without men. Or you could punctuate it to mean: “Woman: without her man would be a savage”—the very opposite mean, that without women men are savages. If you’d like to know more about punctuation, the most entertaining book on the subject is Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (Profile Books, 2003). I remember interviewing Lynne on my radio show when the book first appeared. She is very clear (and very funny) on the subject. Linguist David Crystal says she is too “prescriptivist” on punctuation. But perhaps that’s what we need in a world that has turned its back on bothering to properly punctuate writing!
Spick and span This is a familiar (but when you think about it) quite strange, way to say that everything is cleaned up and neat and tidy. British linguist Rachel Quinn wrote about this recently on the Collins Dictionary website. She said that it seems to come from a Dutch and Flemish word spikspeldernieuw—which I don’t think I would even try to pronounce! The Oxford Dictionary makes the same connection—but doesn’t offer an explanation as to how such an odd Dutch/Flemish word can be transliterated into English—or why this would happen. Did sailors trading to Dutch ports hear the expression and, from the sounds, decide it was a way of saying things where clean and new, so they picked it up and used it? That’s possible I suppose. We can’t be sure. A related expression, that Rachel also writes about, is “Bristol fashion.”—as in “all neat and tidy and Bristol fashion.” Have you ever heard that? I remember it from my childhood. This is a nautical expression and means clean and neat, sometimes newly painted, scrubbed, and polished. This phrase was first recorded around 1830 and refers to the orderly condition of a ship, back when Bristol was a major trading port in Britain. So, when these long winter months are over, you can do a bit of Spring cleaning and, as a result, you can make the old place “spick and span and Bristol fashion.”
Alleged The trial of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rapist has been “vacated” (a legal term meaning it has been postponed). The most important word in that first sentence is the word “alleged”—which we now think of as being “the Lisa Wilkinson word”—since it was a speech she made at the Logies that prompted the Chief Justice of the ACT to cancelled the scheduled trial until some future (unspecified) time. “Alleged” means: “an unproved claim or assertion of criminal conduct.” It has been part of the English language since around 1300 and came from an Anglo-Norman French word that conveyed the idea of “claim.” The legal importance of the word is because of the presumption of innocence that is the foundation of our justice system—meaning that until a person has faced a trial, the evidence against them has been tested in court, and a jury (or, sometimes, a judge alone) has delivered a verdict of “guilty as charged” what said about them is only “alleged” not proven fact. The word “alleged” is taught to all cadet journalists as the most important word whenever they are reporting on a criminal offence that has not yet gone to trial. I remember when I worked as a editor having to stop some cadets from using it all the time! But using it more often is better than leaving it out when it really matters. Apparently, Lisa Wilkinson did not use the word “alleged” when referring to the Britany Higgins matter in her Logie speech. Leaving out the word “alleged” is to pre-judge the outcome of the court proceedings. Lisa Wilkinson is 62-years-old, she has been a journalist all her life. So, it is a bizarre mistake to make (and a bad model for young journalists). With the result that “alleged” is now known as “the Lisa Wilkinson word.”
Race and language According to a report in the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK: “A 'woke' anti-racism Open University training course is teaching academics that the English language upholds 'white superiority'.” I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as an extraordinary claim to make about the English language—the most widely used language around the globe, by all peoples, of all ethnic backgrounds. The report went on to say: “Course material 'white superiority' is ingrained in the 'cultural psychology of the English language'.” As far as could make out, the source of the argument is (1) white people have been far too successful throughout history and around the global (2) this success can only be explained by white people exercising racist oppression against non-white people, and (3) since most white people speak English this language must (somehow) embody the power to exercise racist oppression. (At least, I think that was the logic. It was not all that easy to follow.) None of the links of that chain of logic hold together (that success must mean oppression which must mean the language spoken). And it seems to me this is a distortion of reality that grows out of the insistence of seeing “race” in everything. That is why I have proposed in The Spectator that we need to re-visit the definition of the word “racism.” Early in the 20th century the settled definition became something along the lines of “belief in the superiority of one race over others.” This grew out of Darwinism and the (seemingly logical) conclusion from Darwinian theory that some races are more evolved (superior) and others less evolved (inferior). Those views still exist, of course (and nare still wrong, but I am proposing a larger, wider view that incorporates that, but goes further. I propose we re-define the word “racism” as meaning “making judgements based on race”—whether those judgements are good or bad, positive or negative. This definition is distilled from Martin Luther King’s famous words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” The opposite is, of course, basing judgements on “the colour of their skin”—on their race. When we decline to respect and judge people as individuals based on the content of their character, but instead judge them on the racial grouping they belong to that, I suggest, must be understood as racist. In other words, the writers of this “Union Black” course are the real racists. That, I think, is what the word “racist” now means.
Weather dependent economy This is a phrase (which may well become a familiar idiom in the English language) which I encountered on an American website—but (foolishly) I failed to note which one, so I can’t give you a precise source. The explanation offered for “weather dependent economy” was that if and when much (or most) of our electricity comes from wind and solar we will be in a “weather dependent economy.” According to the argument, battery power has a limited capability—with even huge battery arrays having the ability to hold only a limited amount of power (usually a few hours). This being the case, electricity supply is vulnerable to weather conditions—such the “wind drought” that struck Europe earlier this year and lasted for many weeks. Even an extended period of rain (and overcast skies) such as eastern Australia experienced in Autumn can have the effect of flowing on to the electricity supply, once we live in a “weather dependent economy.” And, the article went on to say, it is the whole economy, not just households, that would feel this—because shops, factories and warehouses are just as dependent on a reliable supply of steady, constant electricity as are households. The point was also made that if and when there is a substantial switch to electric vehicles this concept will extend further, and we will have a “weather dependent transport system” as well as a “weather dependent economy.”
Power words As the reliability and cost of our electricity becomes a major concern a bunch of words to describe this are entering the news vocabulary. Sadly, these new expressions don’t mean much to most of us. So, some digging is needed. Here I can call on the help of my Panel of Experts (i.e., readers of this website). The explanation of base load power comes from Rod from Dilston, Tasmania (only slightly edited for clarity by me):
• Base load power: “Demand is the rate at which electricity is being used by customers, and supply is the rate at which it is being produced. Base load is the lowest possible demand. It is typically the load at 3 AM on Christmas morning. For Australia that is about 18 gigawatts. It is a quantity of power (energy multiplied by time) below which is supply must never fall. So base load is the MINIMUM DEMAND for energy by the customers. Should SUPPLY at any given moment in time be incapable of meeting this demand, the lights go out, as do refrigerators, freezers, cash registers, computers, and production machinery.”
• Load shedding: is also not easy to grasp—according to a tech website it means something like this: “Load shedding is used to relieve stress on a primary energy source when demand for electricity is greater than the primary power source can supply. Most commercial buildings purchase electrical power from a provider. To reduce the cost of power a building operator may negotiate an agreement with the power provider to voluntarily load shed at certain times. During load shedding the building draws power from its secondary source(s) such as on-site diesel generators, or solar panels or wind turbines.”
• Dispatchable power: Dispatchable energy sources are those sources that can be ramped up or shut down in a relatively short amount of time, such as a power plant, that can be turned on or off; in other words they can adjust their power output supplied to the electrical grid on demand. This could refer to a few seconds up to a couple of hours. Reservoir-based hydro facilities, for example, are dispatchable sources of electricity.
All that technical language is making my head hurt. I think I’ll go and lie down for a while.
Parliamentary words Federal parliament will resume sitting next month, for the first time since the election. Paul Turton, who hosts the Drive Show on ABC radio Newcastle, asked me to explain some of the old, traditional words that are part of the “theatre” of parliament. Here’s the list:
• Prorogue—Parliament had to be “progrogued” for the election to happen. It’s an old word (from1455) and means “to discontinue the meetings of (a legislative or other assembly) for a period of time or until the next session, without dissolving it.” It seems to come partly from French and partly from Latin—in both cases the source words having the meaning of “to prolong”—the notion being that the parliament is not dissolved, just put off until after the election.
• Black Rod—When a new parliament opens a man called Black Rod will lead the members of the House of Representatives to the Senate and knock with his rod on the door for their admittance. His title in full is Usher of the Black Rod and he is the principal usher of the Senate. The title comes from the black rod carried by the usher as a symbol of office. The title is apparently first found in the Constitutions of the Officers of the Order of the Garter in the time of Henry VIII. In Australia, Black Rod is (officially) responsible for the administration and security of the Senate and has the power to take anyone into custody who causes a disturbance in or near the Senate chamber.
• Mace—Lying on the desk of the Speaker of the House is a fearsome looking implement called a “mace.” This word comes from 1419 and names sceptre or staff of office, resembling an ornamental version of a real mace—which is a weapon of war. It is viewed as a symbol of the authority of the House.
• Dispatch box—The polished timber box in front of the Prime Minister when he stands to speak to the parliament is called the “dispatch box” and it symbolises a box carrying government papers, or dispatches. So he who stands at the government’s document box—dispatch box—speaks for the government.
• Bowing to the Speaker’s Chair—Members of parliament are supposed to (and usually do) bow to the Speaker’s chair when they enter or leave the chamber. This tradition began when the British parliament met in St Stephen’s chapel and the speaker’s chair stood where the altar had once been.
• Speaker—“Mr Speaker” was originally more a job description than a title. The Speaker was the Member of Parliament who was chosen by other Members to speak for them—that is, to be their mouthpiece or spokesman—particularly in the House’s dealings with the King. The first recorded use of the term “Speaker” (in this parliamentary sense) was 1377 (when the Speaker was Sir Thomas Hungerford).
• The House Will Divide—When a vote is required in the House of Representatives the Speaker announces that “the House will divide.” The Clerk is then instructed to “ring the bells.” The Clerk presses a button on the table in front of them, which activates bells inside the 2,700 clocks throughout Parliament House. The clocks also include two small lights that signal where the division is being called. A red light flashes when a vote is to occur in the Senate and a green light flashes to indicate a vote in the House of Representatives. This is done to alert members of parliament who are not present that a division is about to occur. Usually the division bells are rung for 4 minutes. Once the bells have stopped ringing the Speaker will say “Lock the doors.” Members of parliament who have not arrived before the bells stop are not allowed to enter. The Speaker then conducts the division by asking all those members of parliament voting in favour to move to the right of the chair and those voting against to move to the left, and appoints tellers for the “ayes” and tellers for the “no” votes. The votes are then counted and the names of those voting are recorded.
Literally Great Australian linguist Professor Kate Burridge has written in The Sydney Morning Herald about how irritated people are these days by the misuse of the word “literally.” The background is that “literally” came into English from French over 500 years ago with the meaning of “to the letter”—in other words, exactly. The whole point of “literally” was that it was opposite of “figuratively”—physically true, not metaphorically true. But that is not how people use it, is it? My colleague said “I literally exploded with anger!” Well, no he didn’t. If he had “literally” exploded with anger there would be bits of him all over the room and we’d have to get in the cleaners (and perhaps the crime scene forensic team). That’s the problem. “Literally” has now shifted (especially in spoken English) from being “literal” to being figurative. And it’s not all that new. Kate Burridge wrote: “Going back as early as the 1700s, we can find over-the-top references to people ‘literally worn to a shadow’, ‘literally bubbling over with gratitude’, ‘literally coining money’ and ‘literally rolling in wealth’ (the last one being a description of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain).” In other words, it has now become a general intensifier. And this misuse of “literally” as a vague, fairly meaningless, general intensifier is causing some of us great pain. It’s literally causing my brain to explode (see, anyone can do it!) It becomes another case of “verbicide” (the killing of a perfectly useful word for no good purpose). (“Verbicide”—by the way—I first discovered in C. S. Lewis, but it goes back further than Lewis, to the early 19th century.) As Kate Burridge says, a word that once meant exactness now means the very opposite. It pains me to say it, but I think we may have lost this one.
Forlorn hope We now use the expression “forlorn hope” to mean a vain hope – something that’s certain to fail. But originally, when it first appeared in English in 1579, “forlorn hope” was a military term – applied to a troop or patrol sent as an advance party on a siege in which they were almost certain to be killed. It was a courageous, or possibly foolhardy, or even suicidal, troop of hand-picked men. And used in this original way, “forlorn hope” came into English directly from a Dutch expression verloren hoop (an expression I don’t think I’ll even try to pronounce) – and verloren hoop literally means “lost troop”. I suppose the good news is that today a “forlorn hope” is not usually fatal – just disappointing. It’s probably a while since a recruiting sergeant was heard to say: “Well, would you like to join the forlorn hope, laddie?” (Or course, the smart ones said “’Scuse me sarge, but exactly what is the forlorn hope?”)
First Nations It’s becoming clear that the Albanese government intends to refer to Aboriginal Australians as “First Nations” people. This is a Canadian expression that first appeared in print in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper in August 1980. The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the North American Indian peoples of Canada, considered collectively”; or “A particular community of Canadian Indians, esp. one recognized as an administrative unit by the federal government.” The problem with the expression “First Nations” is the second half of that phrase—the word “nation.” This word comes from a Middle French source word that came into English with the arrival of the Norman French speaking nobles of William the Conqueror. The Oxford suggests that the word “nation” means a political state, while the Collins dictionary says a “nation” is an individual country considered together with its social and political structures. The Macquarie Dictionary says that “nation” means: “a relatively large body of people living in a particular territory and organised under a single, usually independent, government.” So that is the claim for the approximately 250 linguistic and cultural groupings around Australia in 1788—that they were individual countries with their own language, culture and social and political structures. But is that simply reading back into pre-1788 Australia something that was not there? However successful their lifestyle was in that era, were they really “nations” in any linguistically coherent sense of the term? And calling such peoples “nations” today makes even less sense. For example, they cannot sign treaties with foreign powers—only the Commonwealth of Australia can do that. So, why are these word games being played?
Cobber Radio 6PR’s Tod Johnston and I have started a modest little campaign to revive the great old Aussie word “cobber.” When I was a small boy it was still a part of the living language—but as the years have passed it has died out. Mind you, when I said this on a national ABC radio show I had angry phone calls from Tasmanians telling me that “cobber” is still alive and well and used in Tasmania. I certainly hope that’s so—but this colourful little word has definitely dropped out of usage elsewhere. “Cobber” means “friend” or “mate” or “comrade” or “colleague.” When you walk into the office in the morning and see one of your colleagues you could say “Good morning cobber.” When someone does you a small favour you could thank them by saying “Thanks cobber.” It was once a widely used word (used in those sorts of ways) and should be again. The word “cobber” is first recorded in Australian English in 1891 (in a Rockhampton newspaper). The most recent use of “cobber” in the AND is from 2014 from the Burnie Advocate (supporting the theory that “cobber” is still alive and well and Tasmania). Where did it come from? Well, the English Dialect Dictionary lists the verb “to cob” meaning “to take a liking to” as a Suffolk dialect word. So that might be the source. But the evidence for this is described by the Australian National Dictionary as “very limited.” So, the linguists now think it’s more likely that “cobber” comes from an Australianised version of the Yiddish word chaber meaning “comrade” or “friend.” Wherever it came from, it is ours, and it was once a lively piece of Aussie English. And should be again. Will you join our modest campaign to revive it? All you need to do is start using it from time to time in a remark to a friend. Using “cobber” is the way to revive “cobber”—so let’s do it! (It’s a word so Aussie that when you say it you can smell the gum leaves!)
Nomophobia You and I have seen people who (wherever they are, and whatever they’re doing) can’t drag their eyes away from their mobile phones. This addiction has its own acronym these days—FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And the worst disaster they can imagine in life is… losing their mobile phone! That fear has been given the name of its own: “nomophobia.” Of course, this is just the latest in a very long list of phobias (“phobia” comes from the Greek word for fear). There are a dauntingly long alphabetical lists of phobias on the web.) This latest phobia to be added to the list—“nomophobia”—is said to be a contraction of the expression “no-mobile-phone-phobia.” The expression was coined fairly recently during a research study to find out the psychological ramifications and stress levels of mobile phone usage on behaviour, and describes the level of fear generated when a user is unable to communicate through their smart phone. The interesting thing to us wordies is that there is an earlier, identical, expression with a different meaning. “Nomophobia” is recorded from the early 1800s (a bit before smart phones) with the meaning of “fear of laws or rules.” It comes from the Greek word for law: “nomos.” So, if your psychiatrist tells you that you are suffering from “nomophobia” I guess you’ll have to ask: which one?
Sedition Recently the US Congress has been holding public meeting into the January 6th riots at the Capitol building in Washington. Some of those hearings have been televised on prime-time television across America. As a result, the people at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary tell me that “sedition” has become one of their most looked up words in recent weeks. As a result of the hearings members of a group called the “Proud Boys” have been indicted for “seditious conspiracy.” The Proud Boys are described by the dictionary as a far-right group. The lexicographers define “sedition” as meaning: “incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority.” And they go on to say that many people differentiate between this word and treason, which they define as the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign's family. Because sedition is limited to organizing and encouraging opposition to government rather than directly participating in its overthrow, many view it as falling one step short of the more serious crime of treason. One who incites or promotes sedition is a seditionist, or, less commonly, a seditionary. But if “sedition” is nothing more than opposition to the government, what does that make the Liberal Party in our parliament, the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and the Republican Party in the Congress? Surely in all those cases they are trying to overthrow the government?
Foodie words Mary O’Neil, the Managing Editor of Collins Dictionaries, has just released a list of new words added to their dictionary in May. A bunch of them are words to describe different types of Japanese manga (comic books) and anime (cartoons). And a whole plateful of the others are food items. Here are four of the foodie ones:
• Glass noodle—A thin, transparent noodle made from starch and water. Also called: bean-thread noodle, or cellophane noodle.
• Hamburger—This, it turns out, in computer talk doesn’t mean a real hamburger, but a symbol consisting of three parallel horizontal lines (which I suppose is meant to look a bit like a hamburger) and what it means is “menu.” If you click on this symbol it takes you to a menu of options.
• Melt—A hot sandwich containing melted cheese: a tuna melt; (also slang for a meek, submissive, or timid person). This one is already well known in Australia, unlike…
• Panisse—A savoury snack made by frying a batter containing chickpea flour.
Well, yes, “hamburger” on that list doesn’t actually refer to food as such—but it still has a food connection. You can see the whole list here: https://blog.collinsdictionary.com/latest-language/9-new-words-in-collins-dictionary-may-2022
Balls to the wall John Stanley’s panel operator at 2GB, Declan, asked me about the expression “balls to the wall.” I wasn’t familiar with it, so I had to do a bit of research. At first glance I though it might something slightly indecent. But that’s not the case. “Balls to the walls” means “making a maximum effort.” It turns that it comes from the aviation industry. In old time aircraft, and (I assume,) still in many light aircraft, the control stick is topped by a knob or ball. It’s this knob or ball that the pilot grips to move the control stick backwards and forwards. (This is not the set-up on big jet aircraft I am told, only on older or smaller aircraft.) To push the control stick to maximum speed (and the aircraft to maximum lift) the pilot pushes the knob or ball forward as far as it will go towards the instrument panel (which is also, in many older or smaller aircraft, a firewall.) The pilot pushes the “ball to the wall”—hence, making a maximum push. According to one report I dug up this was RAF World War II slang—the command over the radio from a flight leader to his squadron to make speed being “balls to the wall.” However, another source claims this an an American expression. Research continues.
Pudding Madonna King wrote an article for the Crikey website that began with these words: “You always go looking for the proof in the pudding, and that’s what will happen in any analysis of Anthony Albanese’s promised new way of doing things.” Oh, no it’s not. That expression “The proof is in the pudding” is a nonsensical scrambling of an older proverb that makes sense—in the way that this one does not. The original form of the expression was: “The proof of the pudding is the eating.” Now, think about it—that makes. If you want to test whether a pudding is any good or not what do you do? You eat it! Hence, “The proof of the pudding is the eating.” But the corrupted version used by Crikey means nothing… nothing at all “The proof is the pudding” means… well, you work it out, a pudding can prove nothing. What this whole exercise does prove is that people should think before they rattle off a bunch words they don’t understand. With any phrase, or proverbial saying, here is the rule: if you don’t understand it, don’t use it! If you look at “The proof is in the pudding” and think, well, I don’t know what that means but I think I’ve heard people say it… no, no, no! If you don’t understand it what it means and why it makes sense—don’t use it! (That is such a good rule I will include it in my book Kel Richards’s Guide to English Usage… if, that is, I ever get around t writing it).
Emergency The word “emergency” (with various meanings) has been part of the English language since around 1630. Its most common political use today is this one (from the Oxford English Dictionary): “as a political term, to describe a condition approximating to that of war; occasionally as a synonym or euphemism for war; also state of emergency, wherein the normal constitution is suspended.” Last week the South Australian parliament passed a motion declaring that there is a “climate emergency”; and there are state governments that gave themselves “emergency” powers during the Covid pandemic—and are refusing to give up those powers. Now, it seems to me to be a basic linguistic fact that this is a misuse of the word “emergency.” If you want to see an emergency of this sort—look at Ukraine. Nothing like that is now happening on the Covid front or the climate front. Behind “emergency” is the verb “to emerge” and behind that in turn in the Latin word emergentia meaning “to rise up out of water.” The word’s original meaning included the idea of the sudden appearance, or emergence, of a problem. As such it cannot apply to Covid—which has been around for more than two years and for which we now have both vaccines and treatments. And especially this word cannot possibly apply to climate change because (a) we have geological evidence that climate change happens relatively slowly over year, or even centuries; and (b) the climate change lobby has been going about this since at least the 1980s. So there is no “sudden emergence” to declare an emergency!
Codger A reader of this website asks for the origin of the expression “codger” as in “old codger”. Well, it seems the word started out in life as “cadger” – as in someone who cadges off others. And the verb “to cadge” started off as a variation on “catch” but along the way came to mean “beg”, and, hence, a “cadger” was a beggar. This expression was gradually softened into “old codger” – meaning “a crusty old man”. By the mid 19th century it was being used more generally, so that any adult male could be called affectionately “an old codger” (regardless of whether he was financially dependent on his relatives or not). So, even if grandpa has a nice superannuation account he’s living off (and being generous towards his children and grandchildren) he can still be called an “old codger”—so the term is now totally separated from its financial (begging) origins. That’s the history of the word: from a beggar out to catch-all-he-can, to a grumpy old grandfather figure, to any bloke or chap you run into. Early in its history, when the word was still “cadger” it was meant contemptuously, but now it is most often meant affectionately. The Oxford English Dictionary says it had a dialectical and colloquial origin.
Polity In his column in the Weekend Australian Bernard Salt wrote: “Prior to the recent election campaign, I confess, I’d never heard the word ‘polity.’ Surely, polity is a made-up word, I thought. It looks like, and sounds a bit like, potty. At first I thought it was a misprint. Then I realised polity is a real word that has entirely escaped my finely tuned word radar all these decades.” For those who find themselves in the same linguistic boat as Bernard Salt, here’s the story behind “polity.” Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English (which is very good at clarity) says that “polity” means: “a particular form of political or government organization, or a condition of society in which political organization exists.” The word is a borrowing from Latin, and is recorded in English from around 1538. The form of “polity” we live under in Australia is liberal democracy. And like Britain and American it is mainly a two-party polity—where there are only two major parties that can (realistically) form government. During the recent election Clive Palmer’s claim (in newspaper advertisements) that Craig Kelly would be “the next prime minister of Australia” ignored the reality of the Australian polity. Likewise, the teal fake independents who claimed to be able to shape Australia’s climate policy ignored the reality of our polity—namely, that they sit of the cross-bench, do not attend party room meetings of the ruling party (where policy is set) and do not have enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass legislation. In other words, bold claims are often a hoax that ignores the reality of Australia’s polity. There—have I used the word often enough, in context, to make the meaning clear to Bernard?
Platinum jubilee There has been a huge, and joyous, celebration of the Queen’s “platinum jubilee.” Anniversary years have a range of names: a 30th anniversary is called “silver”, a 50th is “gold”, and a 70th is called “platinum.” Jeremy Butterfield, from Collins Dictionaries, explains: We know platinum as one of the elements, with its symbol Pt and its atomic number 78. Its name derives from platina, a diminutive of the Spanish for ‘silver’, plata. In English it was also platina at first but was then changed to the Latinate platinum in line with other elements. But how did Spanish come into this? The story runs as follows. Platinum was unknown in Europe but was known and worked in South America. There, Antonio de Ulloa, an eighteenth-century Spanish scientist, was the first to write about it and named it platina. In 1745, the ship on board which he was returning to Spain from South America was captured by the Royal Navy and he was taken to London as a prisoner of war, Britain being then at war with Spain. Members of the Royal Society were fascinated by the metal and its fame spread. Platinum is unique in being the only Spanish-derived element name. So, what about the “jubilee” part of the current celebration? “Jubilee” takes us back to biblical history where people in ancient Israel celebrated a “jubilee year” every 50th year. The word “jubilee” comes from the Hebrew yōbhēl, meaning ‘jubilee’ but originally it meant ‘a ram’s horn’. These horns were used as trumpets to celebrate the beginning of a jubilee year (once every 50 years, as I said) according to the book Leviticus (in the Old Testament part of the Bible) during which the fields were rested (left uncultivated) and all slaves were liberated.
Punitive damages The lexicographers at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary report that one of the most looked-up expressions over the past week has been the term “punitive damages”. As you would expect, this flowed out the Johnny Depp / Amber Heard defamation trial, in which the jury found that Depp had been defamed on all counts—and award him $10 million dollars plus “punitive damages” of $5 million. They also found that Heard had been defamed in only one of her claims, and awarded her $2 million. The “punitive damages” awarded to Depp were later reduced by the judge to $350,000 because that is the limit imposed by Virginian law. The Merriam-Webster folk say that they define punitive damages as “damages awarded in cases of serious or malicious wrongdoing to punish or deter the wrongdoer or deter others from behaving similarly.” The term (which is also called exemplary damages) has been used in a legal sense since the middle of the 19th century. Punitive, on its own, is an adjective meaning “inflicting, involving, or aiming at punishment.” The expression “punitive damages” is American in origin, first recorded in 1858. And the Oxford English Dictionary offers us a simpler definition: “damages exceeding simple compensation and awarded to punish the defendant.” But no matter how you define it, the case seems to have done no one any good. Both came out of it looking bad, egotistical and out of control.
Transitive / intransitive A verb is a group of words that describe or indicate an action, experience or state. Verbs can be either transitive or intransitive. Those two words are useful tools to help us talk about language and what language does. But my fear is that there is a whole generation that has never heard of these tools, because they came through an education system that didn’t teach grammar. So, briefly this is the difference: a transitive verb has an object (it acts on someone/something), while an intransitive verb has no object. In the statement “John slept” the past participle of the verb “to sleep” is intransitive (it has no object); while in “John punched Jim” the verb “to punch” is transitive (it does something to someone—in this case to Jim, which I’m sure he’d complain about if you’d let him). When I was at school in the Dark Ages (before teaching grammar was banned) I was told to think of a transitive verb as a bridge—it carries the action from here (the subject) to there (the object) on the other side of the river; while an intransitive verb is not a bridge but a tower, standing on the river bank, not taking the action anywhere.
Loose unit During the last election campaign (remember that—seems so long ago, doesn’t it?) Scott Morrison used the expression “loose unit” to describe Anthony Albanese. To my delight this appears to be an Australian coinage. The only dictionary that contains “loose unit” is the ultra-hip online Urban Dictionary which calls it “an Australian slang term.” It dates from 2009, and seems to have been applied in that year to Pauline Hanson. It is (almost certainly) a development of “loose cannon” meaning “an unpredictable or uncontrollable person or thing, esp. considered liable to cause unintentional or indiscriminate damage.” It seems to come from the days of sailing ships when having a cannon sliding across a deck in a storm would be unpredictably dangerous. Mind you, it only becomes common long after the era of sail—although there are mentions in 1889 and 1946 it only seems to catch from about 1973. So how did “unit” come to replace “cannon” in that phrase? Well, this is just my memory, and my guess, but I suspect that it was legendary Sydney radio man Ward “Pally” Austin who started the use of “unit” for “human being”—as in “It’s too much for the human unit, pally!” Whatever its source, “loose unit” was born here—it is one of ours.
Maritality Every so often people at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary draw our attention to a rare word—as they have done with this one: “maritality.” It is not only rare, it is difficult to understand why it was every coined at all, because “maritality” means “the excessive affection (or fondness) of a wife for her husband.” How is that even possible? How is possible for affection (or fondness) to be excessive? Perhaps that’s why it’s rare! The Oxford lists only two citations of the word being used, the first is from 1812. Mind you, there is a balancing rare word that tells the other side of the story “uxoriousness.” This is defined as “the state of a husband being excessively fond of or submissive to a wife.” The source word, “uxorious” (which comes from a similar Latin word) means “Excessively or submissively fond of a wife; devotedly attached to a wife.” Again the question arises of—what counts as “excessively”? Can affection (or fondness, or devotion) really ever be excessive? The lexicographers at the Merriam-Webster add a very telling footnote. They write: “We do not know at what point ‘appropriate fondness’ for a husband or wife crosses the line and becomes ‘excessive fondness,’ so please do not ask us to weigh in on any specific cases.”