Civilisational moment Recently there was a major conference in London called the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (or ARC for short). At that conference there was a warning that Australia (and Britain and America and the rest of the western world) is facing a ‘civilisational moment.’ The idea behind those words is that we are facing a tipping point. The current war in the Middle East is a war between civilisation and savagery. And it is not just being fought in the Middle East—it is being fought here, on our streets and in our suburbs. There are noisy demonstrations here in Australia celebrating savagery and hoping that civilisation is defeated. These frightening demonstrations began the day after the barbaric attack on Israeli civilians on October 7. Long before Israel launched any counter action these crowds were chanting ‘gas the Jews’ in front of the Sydney Opera House. The Jews are the ‘canary in the coalmine’—the warning signal that something is going wrong. When they come for the Jews first they come for us next. And there is an explosive epidemic of anti-Semitic Jew-hatred sweeping Australia (and the rest of the western world). When the balance tips from civilisation to savagery it happens in a moment. The pressure builds (as it has been doing for many decades now) until it finally tips over. The word ‘civilisation’ means ‘human cultural, social, and intellectual development’—and for well over a thousand years western civilisation has been based on the Judeo-Christian worldview. This is now being turned on its head by the raging savagery that is seeking to replace it. Everything that was good is being called bad, and what was bad is now called good. The Judeo-Christian worldview said two things. First, that we live in a two-storey universe, that above and beyond the material world we can see around us is the spiritual realm which is the source of life, and of the moral compass that should guide us, and to which we are answerable. And second, that life is about others, not just about us. Both of these are now rejected, and we are being told that it is morally good for Hamas to kidnap a nine-month-old baby and hold him hostage because he is a ‘Jewish colonizer’ and should be punished. That’s savagery. That’s being paraded on our streets. Unless we speak up the ‘moment’ will come, the tipping point will come, and we will be plunged into a new dark age. More tomorrow.
More WOTY The ‘Word of the Year’ season continues. You may remember that Collins Dictionaries chose ‘AI’, we chose ‘no’, the Macquarie Dictionary chose ‘cozzie livs’, and the Australian National Dictionary Centre chose ‘Matilda.’ Now the big American dictionary, the Merriam-Webster has joined in with their Word of the Year choice—‘authentic.’ They say that, in part, they chose ‘authentic’ because of the intrusion of AI in creating pretend videos that could fool anyone. (One of their runner-up words is ‘deep-fake’). The Merriam-Webster people go on to say: ‘Authentic has a number of meanings including “not false or imitation,” a synonym of real and actual; and also “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”’ They add that Authentic is what brands, social media influencers, and celebrities aspire to be. Elon Musk made headlines when he said that people should be more “authentic” on social media. This still strikes me as a slightly odd choice for Word of the Year, but the Merriam-Webster people tell me it has a lot to do with how often the word ‘authentic’ was looked-up on their website in 2023. As for the runners-up—in addition to ‘deep-fake’ there were such words as: ‘rizz’ (the latest, trendy way of saying ‘charisma—meaning appeal or charm); ‘coronation’ (because of King Charles III); ‘X’ (the new name Elon Musk has given to the old Twitter); ‘dystopian’ (the bleak future many young people now say they face); ‘implode’ (which is what the submersible heading for the Titanic did); and ‘EGOT’—a new acronym meaning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony: these are the four biggest awards in America and anyone who wins them becomes an EGOT (pronounce it as one word, not four letters). The Merriam-Webster people say: ‘Lookups for EGOT spiked in February when Viola Davis won a Grammy for her reading of the audiobook version of her memoir, adding to the Emmy, Oscar, and Tony awards she had already received.’ There were two others on the short list: ‘doppelganger’ (meaning a lookalike) which spiked following media coverage of two crimes—one in Germany and one in New York, each involving the murder or attempted murder of someone’s lookalike. And ‘covenant’ (meaning a formal, solemn, binding agreement). Both a movie and a book featured this word in their titles, but it comes from the Bible—from the covenant promise God makes to care for his people. So, there you are—‘authentic’ is the American Word of the Year, standing beside ‘no’, ‘Matilda, and ‘AI.’ And there are still more to come!
Old words Memory plays funny tricks on us. For no apparent reason, just recently I’ve remembered several old words that my late mother used, that appear to have dropped out of the language. I’ll share them with you, and you can tell me if you also remember these old words, and if they really have completely disappeared.
Press—There was a cupboard in our hallway that contained stored linen (bed linen, towels etc.) But my mother never called this ‘the linen cupboard’; she always called it ‘the linen press.’ It puzzled me as a child, and it puzzles me still. The linen was never ‘pressed’ in the cupboard, so where did the name come from? A bit of research tells me this word ‘press’ is an old one Scottish and Irish English name for a ‘cupboard, esp. one placed in a recess in the wall, for holding linen, clothes, books, etc., or food, plates, dishes, and other kitchen items.’ (Oxford English Dictionary). It seems to go back an old Anglo-Norman word for ‘crush.’ So, I guess it first referred to cupboards that were very full, hence ‘crushed full / pressed full’.
Hassock—the footstool you rested your weary feet on my mother called a ‘hassock.’ This is another word that seems to have disappeared. Nowadays is might be called a ‘foot stool’ or (if it’s soft and padded) a ‘pouf.’ But ‘hassock’ (even if it was once widely used) has now gone. It seems that in Old English ‘hassock’ started off meaning ‘a tuft of vegetation.’ Over time this became ‘unkempt or bushy hair’ which in turn became ‘a thick, firm cushion’ (also called a ‘kneeler’, used for kneeling on during prayers at church) or (says the Oxford) as a foot-rest. Has this use now disappeared?
Tea—the main evening meal of the day was always called ‘tea’ by my mother. Never dinner. The word ‘tea’ came into English in the 1500s. By the 1700s it was being used to mean a meal at which tea was served. That sounds to me like afternoon tea (or ‘high tea’ at the Ritz). However, the Oxford English Dictionary adds this note: ‘Now usually a light meal in the late afternoon, but locally in the U.K. (esp. northern), and in Australia and New Zealand, a cooked evening meal; in Jamaica, the first meal of the day.’ Isn’t that interesting? In Jamaica they call breakfast, tea! But there you are—we once had breakfast, lunch and tea. But this seems now to have gone. (Mind you, I seem recall my mother calling the midday meal ‘dinner’—am I remembering correctly?)
So, are those usages familiar to you? Do you still use them? Do the younger people around you ever use them? Or are these part of the changing landscape of English that has been swept away forever?
Macquarie WOTY The team at the Macquarie Dictionary have announced their Word of the Year for 2023—and it is (drum roll please)… ‘cozzie livs.’ Don’t pull a face like that! I can see what you’re up to. And, on this occasion you are quite justified— ‘cozzie livs’ (according to the Macquarie team) is an abbreviation of ‘cost of living.’ Really? Has any living, breathing, human being ever uttered this expression? Perhaps at your place you go around complaining about the cozzie livs all the time. According to the judging panel (three Macquarie Dictionary editors plus two of their regular contributors David Astle and Tiger Webb) ‘cozzie livs’ is a humorous play on ‘cost of living’ and is a ‘colloquialism’ (I think we’d worked out that last bit for ourselves). Well, I look forward to seeing ‘cozzie livs’ start appearing in print in our daily newspapers, or hear it spoken by callers on talk-back radio, but I won’t hold my breath. I think it has two problems (in addition to no one actually using it!)—first, it is not an obvious shortening of ‘cost of living’ and, second, it doesn’t really roll off the tongue. The runners-up this year were: ‘blue sky flood’ (‘a flood in low-lying areas caused by the flow of floodwater which has made its way from higher ground after the cessation of substantial rainfall’); and ‘algospeak’ (‘a form of coded language used on digital platforms in which words, such as those relating to sex, violence, etc., which would be triggers for a site’s moderation rules to shadowban a user or remove a post, are replaced, by convention, with innocuous words which are sometimes similar in sound or form, as seggs for ‘sex’ and unalive for ‘dead’ or ‘kill’). The people’s choice award for this year went to: ‘generative AI’ (an artificial-intelligence application which is capable of producing new content, such as text, images, videos, etc., through use of machine learning). It’s starting to look as if a lot of geeks voted this year! Our Word of the Year for this year is ‘no’ (chosen by 61% of Australian voters) and the Macquarie’s word is the equally political ‘cozzie livs’ (which is producing dire polling results for the Albanese government). What do you make of it all?
Assassination Recently the world marked the 60th anniversary of the assassination of the President John F. Kennedy. There have been feature articles in newspapers, documentaries on TV and a bunch of the famous conspiracy theories have been taken out of the cupboard of history and given another airing. However, one of the most interesting aspects of this whole, tragic, event (at least for a Wordie) is the word itself: ‘assassination.’ Both he noun ‘assassination’ and the verb ‘to assassinate’ appear in English in the early 1600s. I was once asked what the difference is been ‘assassinate’ and just ordinary murder. The difference appears to be the importance of the person killed. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions. The first says, ‘To murder (a person, esp. prominent or famous person) in a planned attack, esp. with a political or ideological motive.’ And second seems to spin off this and say that ‘assassinate’ can also mean, ‘to murder (a person) on behalf of another, esp. as a hired or professional killer.’ Although I have my doubts about the second definition—it seems to me unlikely that the word ‘assassination’ is often used outside of the killing of an important person. If we trace this word back to its beginnings we discover that an ‘assassin’ was originally a member of a Muslim sect called the Nizari, founded by Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ in the late 11th cent. and was renowned for murdering political and religious adversaries. The story that has long been associated with the ‘assassin’ is that it is a corruption of ‘hashish’—the claim being that the members of this sect got themselves high on hashish as a preparation for committing their murders. The Oxford has some doubts about this origin, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary says the word ‘assassin’ comes from the Medieval Latin word assassinus, which itself can be traced to the Arabic ḥashshāsh—and this Arabic word means ‘worthless person,” or, more literally, “hashish user”.’ So, although no one suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald was high on hash, it seems this is the source of his hideous action.
FLOTUS The Merriam-Webster people tell me that there has been a recent spike in people looking up the expression ‘First Lady.’ The spike was caused by the recent death of Rosalynn Carter—wife of former President Jimmy Carter. Merriam-Webster defines ‘First Lady’ as ‘the wife or female partner of the chief executive of a country or jurisdiction.’ They say it can also be written in lowercase (first lady), and has additional meanings, such as ‘someone who is not the wife or female partner of a chief executive but who fulfills the public duties of a First Lady’ or ‘the leading woman of an art or profession.’ So it would be possible to talk about, for instance, the ’first lady of musical theatre’ or of whatever. That usage seems to go back to the 1700s. But as far as I can see the wife of the President has only been known as the First Lady (with capital letters) since around 1870. And if you ever watched West Wing you may remember that the name for the First Lady around the White House is FLOTUS. This strange acronym began about the same time that the President came to be called POTUS. Both of the acronyms come from obvious phrases: POTUS mans ‘President of the United States’ and FLOTUS then, obviously means ‘First Lady of the United States.’ I was once told (by a journalist colleague who had been a White House correspondent) that both of these grew up because those acronyms appeared on the White House switchboard to show the switchboard operator which lines belonged to which phones. The POTUS acronym is recorded from 1895 (when the very first phones were introduced in the White House), but FLOTUS does not appear in print until much later—1983. By the way, if you read any of the obituaries of Rosalynn Carter, she appears to have been one of the truly great First Ladies that America has produced.
Gaslight Every so often I am asked what it means to ‘gaslight’ a person—or to be accused of ‘gaslighting’ someone. The Merriam-Webster people define the word in this exhaustingly long way: Gaslight, as a verb, is defined as “to psychologically manipulate (a person) usually over an extended period of time so that the victim questions the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories, and experiences confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and doubts concerning their own emotional or mental stability.” That’s rather wordy. By the time you’ve got to the end of it you might have forgotten the start of the sentence. So let me give you a little history to make it clearer. In 1938 an English writer named Patrick Hamilton wrote a play called Gaslight. This was turned into a British movie (with the same title) in 1940. Then four years later the great George Cukor turned it into a big Hollywood movie starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. Boyer plays the villain who marries women for their money. He has murdered his first wife, and is now trying to convince his second wife (Bergman) she is going mad. What all that boils doing to is that ‘gaslighting’ means ‘trying to deceive someone by persuading them not to trust their own brain.’ Some would say that’s what Albanese did in the Voice campaign—try to persuade ordinary Australians not to trust their own brains. Aussies could see that Indigenous Australians could be helped without changing the constitution. That was just logical. Reasonable. Did Albanese tried to get voters not to trust their own reason? Was he ‘gaslighting’ them? (You may very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.)
Hogwash When Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared on the American TV news show “Meet the Press” (on the NBC network) he was asked if Israel was breaking international law in its war on the terrorist group Hamas. His answer was one word: ‘hogwash.’ This word is probably not heard as much these days as it once was, but we understand what he meant when he used it: ‘nonsense.’ ‘Hogwash’ has meant ‘nonsense’ since at least 1870—and this meaning was coined in America. But before then (long before then) ‘hogwash’ had other meanings. From around 1450 ‘hogwash’ was used more or less literally to mean ‘kitchen refuse and scraps (especially in liquid form) used as food for pigs; pigswill.’ So hogwash was never the (muddy) water pigs were washed in, but rather the pigswill they were fed. The Oxford English Dictionary adds the note that this is ‘chiefly historical’—in other words, ‘hogwash’ is never used to mean that these days. Then from around 1610 ‘hogwash’ was used as a kind of insult meaning ‘any liquid for drinking that is of very poor quality, such as cheap beer, wine, etc.’ That metaphorical use makes sense: ‘Hey bartender! What did you put in this? It tastes like pigswill!’ But the third meaning of the word (worthless, ridiculous, or nonsensical ideas) is less obvious. If what is coming out of your mouth is a string on nonsense words or incoherent arguments, why should I label your words ‘hogwash’? Perhaps the connect is lack of value. Pigswill is stuff discarded from the kitchen as scraps or leftovers—it’s worth nothing. And if the argument or comments you are putting up just don’t fit reality, are totally worthless, perhaps that’s why get labelled ‘hogwash.’
Matilda More of the latest “Word of the Year” reports—this time from the Australian National Dictionary Centre (the good people who produce the Australian National Dictionary and the Australian Oxford Dictionaries). They have chosen as their Australian Word of the Year for 2023—Matilda. They say they chose it because of its rich history and the revival our soccer stars have brought to it. Mark Gwynn explained that, ‘as an editorial team … we're looking to highlight a word that has been significant and represents something about Australia each year.’ Mark then went on to say, ‘basically where the team’s name comes from, matilda meaning a swag, as in Waltzing Matilda, is one of the reasons we chose the word.’ As you know, the Matildas finished fourth at the World Cup in August, and nearly two million people packed grandstands across Australia and New Zealand to watch them play. At the time I did some research into ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and reported that it appears to have first turned up in Queensland in the late 1800s—brought here by German migrants who were itinerant bush workers ‘on the Wallaby Track.’ The ‘waltzing’ part was just a poetic way of saying walking (or slogging) along those dry bush tracks. Richard Magoffin did a lot of digging on this, and he said ‘Matilda’ was the nickname they gave to the swag they carried. It is certainly a name of German origin, and according to some sources the name ‘Matilda’ means ‘warrior woman’—which certainly seems to fit our Matildas soccer stars. The Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, Dr Amanda Laugesen, said, ‘it’s only since the mid-1990s that the women’s soccer team has been called the Matildas, but after this year’s World Cup, the word has once again cemented itself in the Australian lexicon.’ And it has produced spin-off expressions, such as ‘the Matilda effect’—meaning lots of girls took up playing soccer. I think it’s an excellent choice for Australian Word of the Year—but is it singular or plural? ‘Matilda’ or ‘Matildas’? Mark Gwynn says it’s both: ‘The plural form is the team, the singular form is a member of the team.’ As I said, this is an excellent choice (not as good as the Australian Word of the Year you chose—‘no’—but pretty good, none the less).
Dictator At the APEC conference in San Francisco President Joe Biden caused some astonishment when he went off script and called China’s Xi Jinping a ‘dictator.’ You might remember the look of agony on the face of Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken when Biden came out with his frank remark. Of course, what Biden said was perfectly true. President Xi is a dictator. But apparently at these international conferences everyone is supposed to pretend that this is not the case. That’s what horrified everyone. Biden is an old man who doesn’t care if he bluntly speaks the truth. So, good on him for that! The word seems to come straight out of Latin. Back in the days of the Roman empire a magistrate appointed with plenary powers during a time of emergency could be called a ‘dictator.’ It comes from the Latin word ‘to speak’ meaning that this magistrate’s word was law—whatever he says goes. (By the way, ‘plenary’ in this case means ‘complete powers.’) Then by the 1500s the word ‘dictator’ was being used to mean ‘any absolute ruler.’ These days it means, in particular, the opposite to democracy. Why anyone attending the APEC conference would want to pretend that Communist China is not the very opposite of democracy is beyond me (except that I understand they don’t like it being said out loud). But occasionally it is nice to have everyone discomforted by an uncomfortable truth.
Macquarie’s WOTY Word of the Year season continues. At the Macquarie Dictionary they not only have a definitive choice from their judges, they also have a place for a ‘people’s choice’ WOTY. And you can cast your vote now at the Macquarie Dictionary website. At that site they’ll ask you to pick your top three choices. Here are the Macquarie’s 20 finalists that you’ll need to choose from:
algospeak a form of coded language used on digital platforms in which words, such as those relating to sex, violence, etc., which would be triggers for a site’s moderation rules to shadowban a user or remove a post, are replaced, by convention, with innocuous words which are sometimes similar in sound or form, as seggs for ‘sex’ and unalive for ‘dead’ or ‘kill’.
angry water carbonated water.
Bazball an aggressive style of play, especially of the batting side.
[named after NZ former cricketer Brendon Barrie (Baz) McCullum (born 1981), who, as coach of the England test team from 2022, trained the team to play in such a manner]
blue-sky flood a flood in low-lying areas caused by the flow of floodwater which has made its way from higher ground after the cessation of substantial rainfall.
bopo body positivity.
boreout a state of demotivation or dissatisfaction in one’s job, brought about by a lack of interesting work. [BORE + modelled on BURNOUT]
bridesmaid suburb any of various suburbs which surround the most expensive or sought-after suburb in a particular area. [from the notion that a BRIDESMAID supports and is secondary to a bride, the centre of attention at a wedding]
cozzie livs cost of living.
crash blossom a phrase or sentence, especially in a news headline, that is ambiguous due to its wording or punctuation. [from such an ambiguous headline in the newspaper Japan Today in 2009: ‘Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms’]
doof stick a long pole topped by a placard, decoration, etc., used as a location marker for a group of friends at a dance or music festival.
debt-trap diplomacy a strategy, employed by a country or other institution, of lending to a foreign nation in order to increase political leverage, as by imposing conditions which the borrower is unable to fulfil, thereby forcing them to accept political or economic concessions in lieu of repayment.
doorway effect a psychological phenomenon in which a person’s short-term memory is disrupted when they cross some kind of boundary, such as moving from one room to another.
generative AI an artificial-intelligence application which is capable of producing new content, such as text, images, videos, etc., through use of machine learning.
gravy day 21 December. [in reference to this date in the lyrics of How to Make Gravy (1996) by Australian singer Paul KELLY]
hostile architecture a style of architecture for shared public spaces which utilises design features that discourage unwanted behaviour, such as anti-homeless spikes or benches with armrests, to prevent people, especially the homeless, from lying down and sleeping.
rizz charisma. [shortening and respelling of CHARISMA; popularised on social media from 2022]
scrotox a botox preparation for the scrotum, especially as used for cosmetic purposes to make the skin appear less wrinkled, and to reduce sweating.
shadow work the practice of identifying and accepting one’s repressed or unacknowledged behaviours or traits, thought to improve self-awareness and self-realisation.
[popularised by Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist, CG Jung]
skimpflation a reduction in the quality or availability of a product or service despite the cost to the customer remaining the same, as by reducing the number of service staff or the frequency of a service, or by using lower-quality ingredients in a product.
YIMBYa person who desires or petitions for developments such as new prisons, hospitals, airports, military installations, homes for the disabled, etc., to be built in the vicinity of their home.
Some of these strike me as a bit obscure to really count as a possible WOTY—but you make up your own mind, and cast your vote.
Cheers How do you sign off at the end of your emails? This becomes an issue for a number of reasons. First, because emails are not really letters and the old sign-offs at that we used to use look a little odd. And second, because times are changing and younger (cooler or busier) generations have no time for old fashioned courtesies. There was a time when it would have been normal to close with ‘Yours Sincerely’ or ‘Yours Faithfully.’ Those days, it seems, are gone. The UK’s Barclay Bank surveyed several thousand people on this subject. They found that ‘Kind regards’ and ‘Many thanks’ are winning out over the older salutations. Younger workers, they found, might use ‘ta’ or ‘Speak soon’ or TY’ (as an abbreviation of ‘Thank You.’) US language learning app Preply ran a survey and found that in America most people favour a simple ‘Thank You’ or ‘Thanks.’ However, as the countless people who’ve received emails from me will know, I prefer the simple, one word salutation ‘Cheers’ at the end of my little messages. One recipient of my emails once asked if I was using an Americanism when I wrote ‘Cheers.’ I suppose this was because of the long-running, popular American TV sit-com Cheers. But I was surprised by the question, because I’ve always thought of ‘Cheers’ as being very British. I noticed how widely it was used—and with such a wide range of meaning—on the old British TV cop show The Bill. The Brits, I realised, used ‘Cheers’ to mean ‘goodbye’ or ‘thanks’ or a bunch of other things. I think I adopted it because of this flexible British usage. And it’s only one syllable, which it a good thing in emails. Writing about this topic in The Australian Nikki Gemmell said that ‘Cheers’ is her personal favourite because it’s ‘casual, warm and friendly.’ I agree. Absolutely. So ‘Cheers’ it is. What are your thoughts about email language?
Daggy If something (or someone) is daggy then it (or he or she or it) is out of date; ugly; useless; something you don’t want and don’t want to know about (“What a daggy haircut!”; “What a daggy sheila!” etc.). This is sometimes shortened to dag—a person or thing can be “a dag”. Originally dags were the locks of wool clotted with dirt and faeces around the hinder parts of a sheep. The word is recorded with this meaning from 1731, and may have originally come from the English county of Kent. This wool on a sheep’s rear quarters was often dirty with mud and excretia that attracted flies. To protect sheep from the resulting “fly strike” the animals would be “crutched” (the daggy wool being shorn away from their private parts). Because of its unpleasant associations daggy was gleefully taken up by Aussie English was a way of saying the sorts of colourful things noted above. And there have been lots of variations in its usage. For instance, a “daggy person” might simply mean a slovenly person, and a “daggy room” an untidy room. And according to the Macquarie Dictionary “rattle your dags” is a colloquial expression meaning “hurry up”. As for the original Australian use of ‘daggy’, the Australian National Dictionary reports its first appearance in print was in the Maitland Mercury in 1887. The meaning of ‘unkempt, scruffy, messy’ is recorded from 1967 (in the notorious Sydney newspaper the Kings Cross Whisper); and the later meaning of ‘unfashionable, not stylish’ appears in print from 1982. But—here’s my question—is it still used today? Does the younger generation of Aussies still use this colourful word? Or has it died? Have you heard it in use—especially from the younger mob? Let me know.
Cooee When two things are far apart, why do we say they’re “not within cooee of each other”? Cooee was originally a call used to attract attention in the bush. The first part of the word is long, and the second part has a rising tone (“coooooooo—WHEE!”). It’s of Aboriginal origin, coming from the Dharruk people who lived in the west of what is now Sydney. It’s first recorded in 1790 in John Hunter’s journal. Because of the peculiar carrying quality of this call, it was adopted by white settlers for the same purpose—attracting attention in the bush (sometimes over considerable distances). And because cooee works, as a call, over distance it became a reference to distance, as in the expression “not within cooee” meaning not within hailing distance. In Queensland there’s a place called Cooee Bay (near Yeppoon). It’s not a big place—population around 900. It is on what is called the ‘Capricorn Coast’ of Queensland (close to the Tropic of Capricorn), bounded on the east by the Coral Sea. Cooee Bay Post Office opened on 18 September 1961 by Don and Edna Schabe who had previously owned the Cooee Bay General Store. There is a memorial to Don Schabe in the park for his contribution to the Cooee Bay Progress Association. You get the picture don’t you?... it’s not a big community. However, Cooee Bay capitalises on its name by holding an annual “Cooee Calling Contest” with winners judged on the loudness and length of their cooee. The record is in excess of 20 seconds. It was set by Mrs Clarice Sanderson, of Bauhinia, in 1987. In addition to the place, there is also supposed to be a bird called the ‘Cooeeburra.’ That’s according to A. W. Reed in his (usually reliable) book Aboriginal Place Names. He says ‘cooeeburra’ is a Queensland Aboriginal word. But I have my doubts. It looks to me like something a white fella made up, by combining ‘cooee’ with the last bit of ‘kookaburra.’ If any reader has an information about a curlew called a ‘cooeburra’ please let me know!
Barrack According to The Dictionary of Cricket ‘to barrack’ means ‘to shout sarcastic or abusive comments about the performance of a team or player’. But this word appears to be an ‘auto-antonym’ – that is, it can also have the opposite meaning of barracking for a team (by shouting support or encouragement). There are a couple of suggestions as to the source. One is that it comes from an Aboriginal word borak meaning ‘to poke fun at’. However, the Australian National Dictionary disputes this idea and suggests that barrack is more likely to come from an English dialect word that originally meant ‘to brag or boast’. Is it possible that both are true? Could it be that barracking for a team (shouting encouragement) comes from the old dialect word for bragging, while barracking in the sense of ‘shouting abuse and ridicule’ comes from borak? It is, I suppose, possible – and it would explain the two opposite meanings of barracking. Oh, and there’s an urban myth that needs to be disposed of here. I heard a cricket commentator on ABC radio repeat the old story that barrack comes from the proximity of Victoria barracks to playing fields, and the cheering and jeering soldiers were called “barrackers” from which the verb to barrack developed. This is almost certainly untrue. If this story was correct then the term “barrackers” would have to be recorded before the verb to barrack – and it’s not. “Barrackers” is first recorded in 1889 and the verb in 1878. And the tale about the nearness of the Victoria Barracks being the source does not appear until 1944 – so it’s almost certainly yet another urban myth; a bit of folk etymology.
Multicultural The word ‘multicultural’ is recorded from 1935—but (at first) it was not applied to a whole society. In its earliest use it seems to have applied to an individual who had grown up in more than one culture. Later (from 1959) it was applied to unusual situations such as Quebec in Canada—a francophone province in an anglophone country. Only from the mid-60s was it applied to ‘states that were multicultural or multiracial.’ In 1973 the Whitlam Labor government imposed a multicultural policy on Australia—without it ever being an issue at an election (we weren’t ever asked if we wanted this). The policy encouraged migrants to retain the culture of their source country rather than integrate. Some readers may remember Al Grassby as Whitlam’s colourful Minister for Immigration launching the policy. Immigrants who took out Australian citizenship were encouraged to not think of themselves as just ‘Australians’ but as ‘Greek Australians’ or ‘Lebanese Australians’ or whatever. The result has been the importation of ancient rivalries and even hatreds into Australia. The angry mobs waving Palestinian flags and chanting ‘gas the Jews’ on our streets may be the end product of Whitlam’s policy of ‘multiculturalism.’ (There is room for debate about this, and others may interpret the situation differently.) However, there is an alternative. There was a time when people mocked the notion of a ‘monoculture’ as if that was something bad. But I can’t see how an Italian or a Frenchman (growing up in those rich cultures) could somehow be accused of being ‘narrow’ because they are ‘monocultural.’ The real alternative is what our poet Les Murray (in his classic The Boys Who Stole the Funeral) called ‘the common pot’—to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits. That is a monoculture—but a rich, deep and rewarding monoculture. Perhaps this is a debate that Australia now needs to have.
Hate speech Hobart City Counsellor Louise Elliot has been ordered to face a tribunal of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission. She is accused (by Commissioner Sarah Bolt) of ‘inciting hatred of transwomen.’ Counsellor Elliot is accused of doing this at a rally by saying: ‘transwomen… remain biological men.’ What worries me as a wordsmith is the charge of ‘inciting hatred.’ The position of ‘transwomen’ (meaning people with XY chromosomes who now identify as women) is disputed. This is important because utterances don’t fall into two simple categories of true and false. There are at least four categories: true, false, disputed, and opinion. It seems to me that Louise Elliot’s words come under either the third or fourth of those categories—either a disputed matter, or a matter of opinion. When people disagree about disputed matters, or matters of opinion, that is what it is—a disagreement. To call a disagreement ‘inciting hatred’ is an abuse of the English language. To see my point, look at what the pro-Hamas demonstrators are chanting in the streets: ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘F--- the Jews.’ That is inciting hatred. Taking part in a disagreement over whether or not it’s possible for a person to change their biological gender is just that—a disagreement. It is not ‘inciting hatred’—it is not ‘hate speech.’ Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Sarah Bolt is cheapening the language and devaluing important words. Once she empties the word ‘hatred’ of its real meaning, what language does she have left to label real hatred? If someone in Hobart should call for Jews to be killed Sarah Bolt will be stuck for words. She can’t call it ‘hatred’ because she has cheapened that word by applying it to a trivial disagreement. It’s time to start saving the powerful words for the big moments when they’re really needed.
Islamophobia Every time Anthony Albanese or Penny Wong condemn anti-Semitism in the same breath they condemn Islamophobia. Why? Is there any evidence of Islamophobia in Australia? Are there angry mobs chanting ‘gas the Muslims’ or ‘F--- the Muslims’ in our streets? This bizarre attempt by politicians to equate the vicious Jew-hatred of anti-Semitism (that we see on the news every day) with a non-existent Islamophobia suggests people who are not dealing with reality. The word ‘Islamophobia’ first appeared in the Journal of Theological Studies back in 1923 where it was condemned. It then largely disappeared for more than 50 years only to reappear in another academic journal (the International Journal of Middle East Studies) in 1976 in this sentence: ‘What makes the task difficult, perhaps impossible, for a non-Muslim is that he is compelled, under penalty of being accused of Islamophobia, to admire the Koran in its totality.’ Writing in The Wall Street Journal Matthew Hennesey said that: ‘Islamophobia isn’t real’—meaning the word is used to silence anyone critical of the Islamic worldview. If he’s right, ‘Islamophobia’ is being bandied about to stop us being critical of mobs shouting ‘from the river to the sea’—a call for the abolition of the Jewish homeland of Israel so that Palestinians can control all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Our politicians want us to ignore the reality that Islam is both a religion and at the same time a political ideology seeking power. And they try to stop us seeing this by telling us to avoid ‘Islamophobia.’ When out political leaders play such games we are living in strange times.
The A List Two of my most regular correspondents are to be found in the first letter of the alphabet—Aileen and Adam. They come from different sides of the continent, but both ask excellent questions about words. So here are some of the words they have asked about recently. Firstly, a list from Aileen (with my answers):
Muddle—Came into English from Dutch around 1450. Nowadays it means, ‘to put in disarray.’ But when it first came into Englis it meant ‘To bathe or wallow in mud.’ So ‘muddle’ really does come from ‘mud’—and from the confused mess you get when everything is covered in mud.
Delphic—Making predictions, or prophesies, about the future—especially obscure or mysterious ones. From ancient Greece and the so-called ‘Delphic oracle’ hence, relating to the obscure and ambiguous nature of the responses of the Delphic oracle. So, when the RBA says something about the future of interest rates that makes little sense, they are uttering ‘Delphic’ prophecies.
Petit Fours—These are (as you know) small fancy cakes, biscuits, or sweets, usually served with coffee after a meal. This expression appeared in French in 1803 and was borrowed into English in 1875. ‘Petit’ means small while the second part seems to come from an old French word fornage meaning ‘the process of baking.’
Shyster—Originally meant a lawyer who practises in an unprofessional or tricky manner—but it now means anyone who is tricky and deceptive with or without a law degree. The Oxford says, ‘of uncertain origin.’ But an early meaning of the word ‘shy’ was ‘disreputable’ so it may well come from that.
And here is Adam’s most recent list of words he has asked about (again with my answers);
Thick as thieves—Thick was used to mean 'closely allied with’ in the 18th century. If you said 'Bill is thick with the boss' it might not be understood today, but it once meant that Bill was cosying up to the boss. 'Thick as thieves' is based on the assumption that thieves support each other--e.g., one man stealing while another man acts as lookout.
Saving face—From Chinese, where the similarity between the pronunciation and meaning of the words ‘lose’ and ‘save’ are used to create a phrase with an entirely new meaning. The phrase means ‘to protect [your own/someone else’s] face from harm’ in Chinese, and with the translation of popular Chinese proverbs into English the expression became common elsewhere.
Taking no prisoners—In a military context it means 'to kill all enemy combatants; to take no prisoners of war'. (Recorded from 1579). Figuratively is means 'To be ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising; to be merciless.' This usage has been around since 1915.
Ditto—We say 'ditto' to mean that you have exactly the same opinion as someone else. The word 'ditto' came into English in the 1600s from an Italian word meaning 'already spoken.' Behind the Italian is the Latin 'dictum' (speech).
So, my thanks to Aileen and Adam for their ‘A list’ of good questions.
Hatred This is a word I never wanted to write about. And to be honest, it’s a word never thought I would need to write about. But when images flash around the world of an angry mob on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House screaming ‘gas the Jews’ this is something we can’t avoid. The word itself is very old—going back to the 1200s. It comes from the Germanic roots of Old English—so it has been part of the English language for as long as there has been an English language. There are closely related words in other Germanic languages—such early Scandinavian, Old Icelandic, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Middle Low German. You get the picture. This word has been part of human life and language from way back. And it has always meant exactly the same: ‘A feeling of intense dislike or aversion towards a person or thing; an emotion in which such a feeling is experienced; loathing; hostility; malevolence.’ (Oxford English Dictionary) And let’s be honest—‘hatred’ is something that simply baffles a lot of Australians. A group of us were sitting around after church yesterday trying to work out why there is this intense hatred of Jews. It’s very old. The book of ‘Esther’ (in the Old Testament part of the Bible) records the first serious attempt at the complete genocide of the Jewish people. It happened in 539 BC in the Persian empire (under an emperor named Xerxes). The ancient nation of Persia became the modern state of Iran. But we thought that after the holocaust such hatred was impossible. Never again, we thought. Then October 7thhappened. Is it that people hate others who are more successful than they are? Jews are indigenous to the land that is now the state of Israel (the Jewish homeland). They lived there more than 3,000 years ago. So why are they hated for living there now? The chant ‘from the river to the sea’ is a demand that Israel be wiped off the map. If anyone demanded that Australia be wiped off the map we would be baffled by such hatred. A reader of Ozwords tells me that in Germany they refuse to use the word ‘anti-Semitic’ instead they call it ‘Jew hatred.’ But where does such irrational, savage, barbaric hated come from?
Bandicoot The bandicoot is an Australian marsupial mammal. Most bandicoots weigh less than one kilogram. Their coarse fur is chiefly brown or grey, and they have a long, narrow head and sharp teeth. However, while the animal is a native, the word is not. The name comes from India, being a corruption of a Telegu word pandi-kokku, literally “pig-rat” which is applied on the sub-continent to a large rat. The Indian animal is very different from the Australian one, so how the transfer of the Anglo-Indian name occurred is a bit of a puzzle. There must, I guess, be some resemblance, even though the Indian version is a large destructive rat, and the Aussie animal is an insect eating marsupial. (In case you’ve forgotten, a marsupial is an animal with a pouch for carrying the young.) However it happened—once bandicoot had arrived it became widely used as part of the Aussie vernacular in a number of expressions: (1) “As bald as a bandicoot” means remarkably bald—which bandicoots aren’t, so it makes no sense. Recorded from 1870. (2) “As bandy as a bandicoot” means, as you might expect, remarkably bandy-legged. (3) “Like a bandicoot on a burnt ridge” means all alone; lonely and forlorn. Sometimes in the form ‘as lonely as bandicoot’—recorded from 1905. (4) “As miserable (or as poor) as a bandicoot” means excessively miserable (or poor). This one is very early—from 1828. (5) “As balmy as a bandicoot” means mad; loony; completely insane; sub-clinically neurotic. Sometimes this is ‘as silly / crazy as a bandicoot.’ And it’s recorded from 1901. You get the feeling that Aussie English rather likes the sound of the word, don’t you? Mind you, some words are just funny sounding words—and ‘bandicoot’ is a lovely, funny sounding word.