Election lingo Australia goes to the polls in a federal election next year—somewhere around the April-May-June mark. But there is no doubt that the major parties are already in election mode, and everything they do is done with one eye on this looming election. With that in mind, here is some “election lingo”…
· “ballot”: Why do we call elections “ballots.” Well, this comes from the French ballotte and means “balls” (you can see “ball” surviving in our English word). The reason is that the oldest form of secret voting (secret ballot) was done with balls. Every person qualified to vote had two small smalls (one white and one black) and each person placed one of the balls in an urn. If the white outnumbered the black the matter was passed, if the black outnumbered the white it was lost. In some English gentlemen’s clubs this is how people nominated for membership was chosen. In that case even one black ball was exclude them from membership.
· “psephology”: This is the science of studying and analysing elections. It comes from the ancient Greek word psephos meaning “pebble”—and works in exactly the same way. The Ancient Greeks conducted the same of ballots using small pebbles.
· “hustings”: This word came into English from the Viking tongue Old Norse. If’s easy to forget that the Vikings did not just conduct raids on England—they settled, and controlled a large part of England for many years. The result is a number of Viking words in the English language—including this one. In Old Norse a gathering or assembly or council to make decisions was called “The Thing.” (The parliament in Iceland is still, to this day, called “The Thing.”) If it was an assembly or council in the house of a chief it was called a “house thing.” And that expression “house thing” was corrupted into our word “hustings.”
· “candidate”: Our word “candidate” comes from a Latin expression candidatus meaning “clothed in white.” It seems that men running for election to the Roman senate in the ancient world wore white togas. Hollywood has given us the impression that all ancient Romans wore white togas all the time. No so. But it was the dress of the man running for election—the “candidate.”
· “canvass”: Why is trying to get votes called “canvassing”? This one has the linguists baffled their best suggestion is that the verb comes from the action of putting things into a canvass sheet and (with one person on each corner) tossing them about to sort them out. The fabric is called “canvas” (with on “S”) and the action is called “canvassing” (with two “Ss”).
· “pork barrel”: This is an American expression. The picture is of a candidate at the local polling booth with a barrel of salted pork using the food the bribe voters. To the best of our knowledge no such thing ever happened. But it was used in a short story published in 1863 (by Edward Everett Hart). A decade later, by 1873, it had been picked up and used as the labelled for using government spending to local areas to get votes in that area.
· “calithumpian”: We don’t think of this as use this as a an election term, but as a joking name for a non-existent religion. But this odd word started life (in America) as the name for bands of noisy people who were paid to disrupt political meetings (the earliest “rent a crowd”). They would go to a meeting shouting, banging drums, and playing trumpets. The word probably comes from “thump”—the verb for the action of hitting or banging a drum.
· “gerrymander”: This means to rer-draw the boundaries of electoral districts so as to favour one party over another. If all the booths that are likely to vote for Party X are group into one (odd shaped) district then all those votes will only elect one member (with a huge majority)—whereas if they had been scattered in the surrounding districts they might have elected a number of members (each with a smaller majority). This was first done in 1812 in America when Governor Elbridge Gerry was governor of Massachusetts. In redrawn electoral boundaries one voting district was so oddly shaped that a critic said that it looked like a long, thin, lizard called a salamander. But since it had been approved by Governor Gerry it wasn’t a salamander but a “gerrymander.”
Christmas words On Sky News Peta Credlin asked me to explain some Christmas words. Here’s what we talked about…
Boxing Day—why is December 26th called “Boxing Day”? Well, this comes from an old English tradition in which a box containing a gift was given to servants or the needy. The tradition required that the village squire and his family would, on the day after Christmas, box up left-over Christmas food and goodies and distribute these among the village poor.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh—Why do we give gifts at Christmas? Well, this can be traced back to the wise men giving gifts to the infant Jesus. We are not told (in the Bible) exactly how many wise men there were—but we assume there were three because they brought three gifts. These wise men were mathematicians, astronomers and astrologers. They were the scientists of their day. And they came to Jesus by “following the science” (to use an expression popular today). The three gifts they brought were: gold—which we know (and this symbolized the Jesus’ kingly role); frankincense—a whiteish yellow aromatic resin used to anoint priests (symbolizing Jesus’ priestly role); and myrrh—a resin from a tree native to parts of Africa valued for its medicinal qualities as a mild pain reliever (symbolizing the painful death Jesus was die on a Roman cross).
Calendar—In the 6th century a monk named Dionysius Exiguus was given the task of straightening out the calendar that had been used throughout the Roman Empire up to that time. The problem was that years were numbered by the reign of each emperor (“Year such-and-such in the reign of the Emperor Joe Blogs”). This meant that with each new emperor you had to go back to year one. Dionysius Exiguus worked out how to start from Year One and keep on counting—he started from the first Christmas, the birth of Jesus, as his starting point and counted on from there. He got his calculations slightly wrong, and forgot to allow for year zero, but his work (counting from the first Christmas) is why your calendar has the number on it that it has.
Angel—This word comes from the Greek word for “messenger” angelos. The Bible says that just as in the material dimension there are sentient beings (us!) so in the spiritual realm also there are sentient beings (angelos) who can cross into our dimension bearing messages—and they played a role in the first Christmas: telling Mary about her pregnancy, assuring Joseph everything was okay; and telling the shepherds that the birth of Jesus was good news for all people.
Happy holidays—This vapid and meaningless expression was born in America (first recorded in the Philadelphia Enquirer on December 5, 1863). It is odd that it should come from the United States which has been a culturally Christian nation for so long. In the 20thcentury it was enthusiastically adopted by those who wanted to pretend that Christmas did not have Christian roots.
You can buy a copy of my little booklet "Christmas Words Unwrapped" here: Christmas Words Unwrapped – matthiasmedia.com.au
Cark (or Kark) To die. This can be used of people or of things, as in: “My computer has carkedit.” It appears not to be an old word, the earliest recorded usage being 1977. But where does it come from? Well, the Australian National Dictionarysuggests from the mournful cry of the crow – a carrion bird. This usage is recorded from a little earlier: from 1936 there are descriptions of crows carking (or cawing) as they feed on a dead carcase. However, there is a much older English word cark which, from the 14th century onwards, appears to have meant: load or burden. (In origin it’s related to the word charge.) To be carked, then, was to be burdened with care, burdened with worries and troubles. Now, if we see death as the ultimate burden that crushes the life out of a bloke that could be the source of our word cark (rather than the cry of the crow). It’s a possibility, anyway.
Barnaby’s word National Party leader Barnaby Joyce has stirred up the social media possum by inventing a new word. His new word is “denearing.” The context is as follows. Barnaby said: “There’s a denearing sneer towards the member of Flynn. There is a denearing sneer towards the people of the great city of Gladstone and the people of Central Queensland.” So what did he mean? Was this a slip of the tongue? Or a slip of the mind? Here’s my guess – Barnaby meant “demeaning.” That is a perfectly respectable word that has been around for along time. It’s recorded from 1315 and came into English from Norman French. It’s basic meaning is showing a certain type of behaviour. In this case Barnaby was clearly sending the message that some people spoke in a way that demeaned, or dismissed, or disregarded others. That, I think, is what he meant. Unfortunately that is not what came out. The writers of the Hansard record of parliamentary debates were clearly puzzled and so substituted something else entirely. They chose “derisive” as the word that Barbaby was searching for. And they may be right. Hansard drafts are circulated, so this may be Barnaby’s own correction. But I prefer to think that by “denearing” he was reaching out for the word “demeaning.” Next time I bump into him I’ll ask.
Strollout The Macquarie Dictionary has announced is choice for the Australian Word of the Year—“strollout.” This (an obvious play on “rollout”) is a reference to what was seen (at the time) as the Morrison government’s slow rollout of vaccines. The word was put into circulation in May this year by Sally McManus, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. She credits her colleague Liam O’Brien, with having coined the word. I have some worries about this choice (even though it reinforces the earlier choice by the Australian National Dictionary Centre). My first concern is that this is partisan politics. This word comes from the trade union movement, is aimed at a conservative government, and is clearly meant to support the union movement’s political arm the Labor Party. That is very partisan politics indeed. My second concern is that I would question how widely used the word was in 2021. It was certainly used by Labor Party politicians to sledge the government. And those portions of the media that are vocal supporters of the Labor Party may have done the same. (Although, to be honest, I don’t believe this has been used much in the media at all, except in quotations from partisan politicians.) A third concern is that one of the roles of the Word of the Year is to pick an expression that is likely to become a longstanding component in the Australian Language. But it’s unlike that “strollout” which have a very long life. Already Australia’s excellent record in controlling the virus is making “stollout” look outdated. There is a federal election due next year, and I’m sure the usual Labor Party hacks will trot out this word “strollout” occasionally during the campaign. But once that campaign is over it will die a death. What do you think? Is “stollout” a good choice? Or not?
And I think this choice compares poorly with the “Word of the Year” choices from other dictionaries:
The Oxford English Dictionary chose “vax.”
The Merriam-Webster chose “vaccine.”
And the Collins Dictionary chose a tech term “NFT” (non fungible token)
Captain’s pick This term began in the world of sport where it was used to describe a player inserted into a team at the captain’s personal discretion. As such it was know around the English speaking world. Then in Australia, and only in Australia, it became a political expression. In 2013 Prime Minister Julia Gillard decided to support former Olympian Nova Peris for pre-selection as a senate candidate. ABC News on January 22nd of that year reported: “Prime Minister Julia Gillard has asked Labor’s national executive to endorse Australia’s first indigenous Olympic gold medallist Nova Peris as a candidate for the next federal election… Ms Gillard said on Tuesday she had made a captain’s pick and asked Ms Peris to join the Labor Party and run as a Northern Territory senate candidate.” Gillard’s move was controversial because [a] it caused a sitting Labor senator (Trish Crossin) to lose her senate seat, and [b] Peris was not even a member of the Labor Party when Gillard picked her. The expression has remained part of our political language and is used whenever a prime minister exercises their personal preference for an appointment, overriding the normal selection processes.
Argy-bargy Why is a vigorous argument called an argy-bargy? The argy part comes from the word “argument”. It seems an old slang term for an argument is an argle(that’s a 16th century term). You could, in those days, talk about argling with someone. This word is probably a combination with (or confusion with) “haggle”: if you put “argue” and “haggle” together you get argle. Over time this came to be repeated in the form argle-bargle. This form is around by the early 19th century. Argle-bargle probably emerged just because colloquial English likes rhymes and repetition. Then argle-bargle was shortened into arGee-barGee – because adding the “e” sound to the end of words is a common way to shorten them. Finally, the “g” was softened and we got the expression we’ve got today: argy-bargy (this form finally emerging in the late 19th century). It’s a long journey from a 16thcentury argle to a 21st century argy-bargy but that’s the story of the word.
Blended words Many new words are created by blending a couple of existing words. Here are some recent examples of newly formed words, created by word blending. There is “slacktivism” – describing those who are too slack to be activists. (You know the sort: they’ll get around to doing something to protect the environment – eventually.) Then there’s “bollotics” – a combination of “bollocks” and “politics” and describing political correctness gone to a nonsensical extreme. Another is “brandalism” – describing the action of vandalising company logos and advertising brands with spray painted graffiti. And have you ever met a “touron”? This word names a particularly obnoxious or irritating tourist. “Touron” is a combination of “tourist” and “moron”. That’s how word blending works. Perhaps you’d like to have a go at it, and come up with some useful new blended word of your own invention. If you cook up something really creative, email it to me here at Ozwords.
Canberra Australia’s national capital. Brian Kennedy, in his book on Australian place names, says Canberra comes from an Aboriginal word said to mean “meeting place.” But Shane Mortimer, an Aboriginal elder of the Ngambri people, says the place and the people (the earliest inhabitants) shared the same name. Hence the area where Canberra now stands was originally called “Ngambri.” But the new settlers in the 1820s found this hard to pronounce so they anglicised it into “Kamberri.” And that’s the name that appears on documents from 1832. Then in 1913 the wife of the then Governor, Lady Denman, declared the new capital of Australia to be called Canberra. From “Ngambri” to “Kamberri” to Canberra – that’s the journey. As for meaning, “Ngambri” meant the cleavage between a woman’s breasts because the land lies between what are now called Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain. A related expression is Canberra bubble: This means the idea that federal politicians, bureaucrats, and political journalists are living in a self-obsessed world, closed off from the rest of Australia (the ‘real’ Australia). This expression ‘Canberra bubble’ first appeared in 2001 but the attitude it names has probably been around for as long as there has been a federal parliamentary press gallery. The use of this expression increased from 2015. ‘Canberra bubble’ was used by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to help define his politics and to distance himself from the political turmoil of 2018 and the years preceding that (Turnbull getting rid of Abbott and then Turnbull himself being removed). Here is a quote from Scott Morrison on the subject: ‘The Canberra bubble is what happens down here, when people get all caught up with all sorts of gossip and rubbish, and that’s probably why most of you switch off any time you hear a politician talk’. ‘Canberra bubble’ was chosen by the Australian National Dictionary as their Word of the Year for 2018.
NFT Collins Dictionary has just announced its Word of the Year—and it is just three letters—“NFT.” Those three letters stand for Non-Fungible Token. For those still baffled, here’s a definition: “noun a unique digital certificate which uses blockchain technology to certify ownership, authenticity and scarcity of a digital asset, such as a digital image, video, tweet, domain name, etc.; non-fungible token.” Now that may all make perfect sense to you, but it is almost a foreign language to me, so let’s see if we can translate. “Fungible” is not a new word. It’s been around since at least 1649, and the Oxford says it means something “that has been contracted for: that can be replaced by another identical item without breaking the terms of the contract. More generally: interchangeable, replaceable.” So, a $50 note is fungible because any $50 note is the same as any other $50 note and is worth exactly as much. But a unique work of art is, by contrast, “non-fungible” because there is only one of them. Let’s say you own an original painting by Russell Drysdale (I pick him as an example because I love his paintings). If someone destroys it (by accident, let’s say) and offers to replace it they can’t—it’s “non-fungible”… it cannot be replaced by something else, even something of the same value. Now, in ways I don’t really understand the same principle applies to trading on the net. It is, it seems, possible to hold digital tokens that (unlike crypto-currencies) are not interchangeable, not replaceable. Such tokens are “non-fungible.” If you’re a tech head you may be nodding now and muttering, “Ah, yes, all that makes sense.” But I remain puzzled as to why the Collins Dictionary folk think this expression “NFT” has become such a common expression that is should be considered the “Word of the Year.” Do people talk about NFTs all that much? Is there a circle of traders who are muttering the expression NFT almost every day? That may be so, but I remain outside that circle, and I remain surprised that NFT is regarded as being so common and so important. If I have missed something here, please email and explain. Collins—who have chosen this one—give their definition as follows—NFT: “the abbreviation of ‘non-fungible token’, the unique digital identifier that records ownership of a digital asset which has entered the mainstream and seen millions spent on the most sought-after images and videos.”
Posh There is an old myth about the origin of the word posh. He said that poshcomes from “Port Out, Starboard Home”. Supposedly these letters (P-O-S-H) were stamped on the tickets of the upper class passengers on ships sailing from England to the colonies. Sorry, it’s just not true. If it was, tickets printed like that would have been found. The real source of the word posh is thieves’ slang – they used “posh” to mean “money” (especially a halfpenny or any coin of small value). They, in turn got the word “posh” from the gypsies – it’s part of the Romany language meaning “half”. Because it was used in Romany names for a number of coins (half a crown, halfpence etc) the thieves who mixed with gypsies took it to be their word for money, and adopted it as such. And it was from the thieves’ slang use of “posh” for “money” that our modern usage derives.
Wokescold The Macquarie Dictionary has put out its shortlist of contenders for this year’s “Word of the Year.” You can see the complete list here: 2021 Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year shortlist (media-macquarie-wspdigitalproduction-com.s3.amazonaws.com) And at that same site you can cast your vote in the “People’s Choice” category by choosing your three favourites from the list (I have already done so). However, I have an objection to the definition they provide for one of the words on their list—wokescold. They say that wokescold means: “to rebuke (a person) for having beliefs that are perceived to be accepting of prejudice or discrimination.” That strikes me as seriously mistaken. A “woke” person is one who believes that they know the truth about the world and what is going on. The views held by the “woke” are usually the standard green-left views, which they advance by shouting slogans while displaying no interest in defending or discussing their worldview. In fact, they are inclined to write off as beneath contempt anyone who dares to disagree with them. And that’s what wokescold really means: “to rebuke (a person) for having beliefs that are perceived to be unacceptable to the ruling elite in the marketplace of ideas.” Of course, the “woke” will use expressions such as “prejudice” or “discrimination” to label anyone who dares to challenge their thinking—but then they will refuse to debate or discuss the actual content of such beliefs. The world of “wokeness” seems to me to be a blinkered world marked by a narrow, closed mind. The alternative to “wokeness” is to consider it possible that there are traditional values and beliefs worth preserving, that individual freedom matters (including the freedom to disagree), that democracy matters, and that civility in public discourse is important. Now, of course, I could be quite wrong, and the definition offered by the Macquarie team could be quite right. I am open-minded on the subject and ready to consider the evidence and the arguments for or against their definition. What do you think?
I before E Recently a reader wrote to ask me about the old spelling rule of “I before E except after C.” He pointed out that there are many exceptions to this rule, so, he asked why bother? And where did it come from? Well, back in the days when teachers actually cared about (and tried to teach their pupils) correct spelling this rule was coined as mnemonic device to help children remember a generally useful principal. It never was universal, and it was always more a guideline than a rule. Because it was never a universal pattern there are many exceptions (e.g. science, their, height, weight, and quite a few others). In her brilliant Style Guide Pam Peters points out that it works much better if it is expanded a little to say—"I before E when it sounds like ‘ee’.” In that form it is a much more useful guideline, but there are still exceptions: “belief”, “grief”, “piece” and others. So she then suggests an even more refined extension of the rule—we could teach the children: “I before E when it always sounds like ‘ee’.” The problem is that there are still a few exceptions (caffeine, protein) but not nearly as many. Mind you, I doubt that the education system cares much about spelling these days. During the HSC exams I read a report saying that students would not lose marks for incorrect spelling, except of proper nouns (people’s names). So those who are meant to teach the next generation seem to have given up on spelling.
Quantum The word quantum is often used these days to mean huge or large, as in “quantum leap”. But the word has a history. It began in English (around 1567) as a derivation of the old Latin word for “quantity.” So the quantum was just the amount of something, large or small. But then along came the scientists who started using it to mean very small amounts, specifically “a minimum amount of a physical quantity which can exist”. So, not just small, but very, very small. This became something called “quantum theory” in physics – a theory of matter and energy based on the concept of quanta; spec. the branch of physics that was developed from the ideas in Planck’s paper of 1900 and Einstein's of 1905 in relation to atomic structure, and later evolved into quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. No, I don’t really understand all that stuff either. All I know is that it is now wrong to use quantum to mean something really big. Australia’s chief scientist Cathy Foley recently wrote a piece for The Australian about “quantum computing”—which (as far as I can understand) is a computer at the level of the molecule. Apparently the shrinking of computer power which began with transistors is about to shrink even further, and the computers of the future will switch from 1s to 0s within a molecule—presumably creating circuit “boards” too small for the human eye to detect. What that will bring remains to be seen, but in the meantime us lay people can avoid the mistake of treating quantum as something huge.
Which and That A reader has asked me to sort out the correct uses of the words which and that. Should we say “the rain which fell overnight…” or “the rain that fell overnight…”? Which and that each have their distinctive functions in the language—the problem is that these functions can sometimes overlap. In her definitive and authoritative Cambridge Guide to English Usage Professor Pam Peters writes: “which often provides an alternative to that in reference to things.” So do we talk about “the kiosk which was opposite the hotel” or “the kiosk that was opposite the hotel” (to use Pam’s example)? She goes on to say that the experts have been arguing about his since the 18thcentury (and that makes it a bit difficult for us lay people). It all hinges (it turns out) on what are called “restrictive clauses” and “unrestrictive clauses.” (Are your eyes starting to glaze over yet? Hang in there—I think this will make sense.) When the group of words (the clause) we are looking at is really clear and specific (fairly precisely defined) we call it a “restrictive clause.” In the example I gave at the start of this explanation is restrictive ( “the rain that fell overnight…”) because it’s talking about a specific and identifiable bunch of rain. With those “restrictive clauses” the experts recommend using “that.” If you can clearly identify and specify what you are talking about use “that.” If, however, what you are talking about is broad and not specific (e.g. “Rain which causes erosion tends to be…”) then the experts recommend using “which.” Does that make sense? That with restrictive (the clearly specified) and which with the unrestrictive (the general or broad). But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you) although that’s what the experts recommend they admit that even good writers often don’t follow this rule. The great Henry Fowler admitted that “It would be idle to pretend [this is] the practice of either most of or the best writers.” The other thing to bear in mid that is restrictive statements are far more common that unrestrictive ones. So, what does it all boil down to in practice? Most of the time you are safe using “that.” Try to stick to the rule of only using “which” if you are making a broad, general, non-specific statement. (By the way, which and that both apply to things, not people. For people use “who / whom / whose” etc. Avoid using which and that of people. Say “The person who…” rather than “the person that…”)
Wronglish Recently I was talking to ABC Newcastle and they introduced me to the expression wronglish—meaning English used wrongly. Many of the expressions that come under this heading include those we have discussed with Peta Credlin in recent weeks, and that have turned up on the Q and A page of this website. But some of them are just plain fun. For example:
The person who likes “advocardo” with his salad
Or who says thaat in the middle of the road is the “medium strip”
Or who tells me that “a leper never changes his spots” (which lets the leopards off the hook)
The same chap, just returned from overseas, complained of “jet flag”
Then there “excalator” for that familiar moving staircase
One colleague walked out of the manager’s office muttering “It’s like talking to yourself through a brick wall” (a bit difficult, I would have thought)
The same colleague once complained – “I wouldn’t trust him with a 40-foot pole” and then the brain clicked into place and he added, “Or…or… touch him with one either.”
Then there’s “One foul swoop” instead of “one fell swoop” (“fell” is an old word meaning “wild”)
And how about: “We’ll burn that bridge when we come it” (which collates two different English idioms)
Then there’s a bit of mangling in “up and Adam”
Those things sold at MacDonald’s can be called “handburgers”
“Doggy world” instead of “dog eat dog world”
And “ears dropping” instead of “eavesdropping”
I’m sure you can think of many other examples of wronglish– feel free to share your favourites, and I’ll run them on the Q and A page.
Rain bomb (re-visited) The recent downpour of rain along the east coast of Australia has been labelled in newspaper headlines as a “rain bomb.” This is, clearly, highly melodramatic language intended to convey a picture of a massive, devastating explosion. It appears to be a new invention. It’s not listed in the major dictionaries – it’s missing from the Oxford English Dictionary, the big American dictionary the Merriam-Webster, and from the Macquarie and the Collins. None of them have rain bomb. I talked to Sky meteorologist Tom Saunders who tells me it is a real expression—meaning a wet microburst or macroburst; a downdraft produced by a thunderstorm. In other words, a fairly localised and brief event (if I’ve understood Tom correctly). And that means it was a wildly inappropriate label for a large, east coast weather system. And raises the question of why this new and unfamiliar expression was used. Here’s my suggestion—the climate alarmists now have the habit of trying to make all weather events as alarming as possible. That means they have to hype up the language—from climate change to climate emergency to climate crisis. That’s why they labelled the 2019 bushfires “unprecedented”—when, in truth, there had been worse bush fires in the past. Hence, we can no longer have merely “heavy rain” or even “torrential rain” it now has to be a “rain bomb.” What these people have learned from the pandemic is that if they can keep the population frightened enough they can get away with imposing anything—no matter how unpopular or undemocratic. And “rain bomb” is them putting this lesson into practice.
Hanlon’s Law You are, I’m sure, familiar with “Murphy’s Law” which states “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong!” But have you come across “Hanlon’s Law” before? It’s a new one on me. “Hanlon’s Law” states: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” Very clever: but where does this one come from? Well, the “Jargon” website says there’s a very similar remark in a story published in 1941 by one of the giants of American Science Fiction: Robert A Heilein – who calls it “the devil theory of sociology”. “Hanlon” is supposed to be a corruption of “Heinlein”. And he probably got the idea from Alfred Korzybski – the founder of something called “General Semantics”. Whoever though of it, it knocks all conspiracy theories on the head with one blow: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” In other words, it wasn’t a conspiracy, it was just plain incompetence.
Turducken Writing in The Sunday Times British journalist Camilla Long this week described Meghan Markle’s now notorious letter to her father as “the most preposterous turducken of a literary endeavour ever created.” The letter is currently before the British courts with the Mail on Sunday appealing against a judge’s decision that their publication of the letter violated Meghan’s privacy and copyright. The latest evidence (from a royal aid) is that she expected the letter to be leaked and published and chose her words for that purpose. But how does that maker her letter a “turducken”?—a word I’ve never come across before. Well, it’s a real word (you’ll find it in the full Oxford English Dictionary, with the earliest citation from 1982). “Turducken” is a poultry dish that consists of a de-boned chicken, stuffed inside a de-boned duck which, in turn, is stuffed inside a partially de-boned turkey. So used as a metaphor how does this describe Meghan’s carefully constructed letter? Well, the point is to suggest that Meghan made a show of writing to her father in a letter which had one purpose stuffed inside another, inside another. It looked like a turkey (a letter to daddy) but as you cut into it, it became clear that there were other birds inside—carefully chosen words to make her look good to the public to whom she expected it would be leaked; and inside that fuel for a legal action once it was leaked! I think it is a brilliant metaphorical use of this rare word “turducken”—and one which tells us all we need to know about the Duchess of Sussex (and probably increases the sympathy we feel for poor Harry).
The Laptop Class Nick Cater, the Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre, has coined what I think is a brilliant new expression “the laptop class.” This is his vivid and colourful label for the global cognitive elite David Goodhart writes about in his book Head, Hand, Heart. Nick has used “the laptop class” in his columns in the Australian to name those who are glued to their laptops in the same way the less advantaged are glued to twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok on their phones. The “laptop class” are often to be seen flying around the world (usually in business class), laptops open, busily writing their next report paper or conference address. They were notable for dominating COP26—which probably explains why these climate obsessives carefully avoided addressing one topic: air travel. There was no proposal to limit international airflights to half their pre-covid number or to ban private jets. When they suggest those we’ll know the “laptop class” is serious about making a personal contribution to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. In the meantime, they just want to pass resolutions that will make life harder for everyone else. At the height of the pandemic Nick Cater pointed out that the “laptop class” was keen on extended, tough lockdowns—which caused them no economic or psychological pain, while inflecting great difficulty on the “precariat” (workers with unsteady incomes). So, congratulations to Nick Cater: it’s a brilliant expression which neatly nails down the division in today’s society—the “laptop class.”
You know… A reader wants to know why so many Aussies punctuate their conversation with the pointless expression “you know”. And there is research suggesting that “you know” is the most recurring irritating statement in dealings between businesses and customers. This phrase has been around for a while (I can remember it back in the 60s). My theory is that “you know” is an abbreviation of the phrase “You know what I mean?” and serves three functions. First, it can be an appeal for some sort of indication of understanding or agreement from the listener. Second, it can be a thought pause – a couple of words that fill the space while the brain is grasping for the next bit. But most often (and thirdly) it’s simply a habit – what one lexicographer calls “a verbal tic”. And just like “ums” and “ahs” verbal twitches such as “you know” can be removed from your speech with a little effort (you know?).
Sunny Jim I have been asked to find out where we get the expression Sunny Jim from. A good question! Well, a bit of research has produced the following answer: Sunny Jim turns out to be the name of an energetic character created to promote an American brand name breakfast cereal around the beginning of the 20th century. The cereal was called Force and the advertising slogan said: ‘High over the fence leaps Sunny Jim – Force is the food that raises him’. It appears that the Force Food Company ran a competition to find a suitable character to promote Force. The competition was won by an American schoolgirl, a Miss Ficken (Christian name unknown). The doggerel appearing in the advertisements about Sunny Jim was written by Miss Minnie Hanff for the Force Food Company. (That company name, by the way, gives a whole new meaning to the expression ‘force feeding’.) By the way, Sunny Jim was invented in 1903.
Toe the line Recently an Australian journalist (who shall remain nameless, in order to protect the guilty) wrote that a rebellious politician was being compelled by his party to tow the line. This suggests that the pollie in question was being made to grab hold of the rope and join the tug-of-war team. Wrong. The correct expression is toe the line, meaning "stand with your toes exactly on the line". This expression first appeared in the early 18th century and there are two possible lines it might be referring to. One is the starting line in a foot race. The other is a line drawn on a parade ground, or the deck of a ship, where the ordinary foot soldiers or able seamen are required to line up for inspection. The second of these two alternatives is almost certainly the correct one, since the meaning of the expression is "fall into line" or "obey the party line".
Rain bomb Have you noticed this unusual new expression being used by the weather bureau to label the wet weather that has inundated the east coast lately? They are calling it a rain bomb. Now, I don’t know about you – but this is the first time I’ve heard the expression rain bomb. It appears to be a new invention. It’s not listed in the major dictionaries – it’s missing from the Oxford English Dictionary, the big American dictionary the Merriam-Webster, and from the Macquarie and the Collins. None of them have rain bomb. According to Google rain bomb is a colloquialism – and if so, why is it being used in an official weather bureau statement? I have tracked down a definition of rain bomb – and here it is: “A wet microburst or macroburst; a downdraft produced by a thunderstorm.” Does that make you feel much more enlightened? In the past the meteorologists at the bureau have talked about heavy rain, or even torrential rain, but now they appear to have decided they need more dramatic language and have given us this rain bomb – clearly intended to suggest an “explosion” of rain. Is it just my imagination, or is weather language becoming not just more dramatic, but almost hysterical? Is this part of hyping us all up to be in a state of panic over the world’s weather? I’ll let you decide.
FurphyIn Australia a false or unreliable rumour is a furphy. The earliest recorded use is 1915, and, indeed, it seems to come from the diggers of the First World War. The firm of J. Furphy and Sons operated a foundry at Shepparton in the late 1800s. One of their products was a water cart. These water carts were used by the Australian Army in World War I and (inevitably) became the place where diggers gathered and gossiped. The name Furphy was prominently printed on the back of each water cart, and became the name for the unreliable gossip exchanged there. When soldiers start swapping stories – especially about what the brass have got planned for them, where they’ll be shifted next, and when they’ll get some leave – they are bound to get it wrong: and, hence, to spread furphies. The word scuttlebutt has an identical origin. It means much the same (“idle gossip”). On a sailing ship the scuttlebutt was the cask (or butt) of drinking water stored on the deck near the scuttle (or hatchway) where sailors gathered to exchange gossip. Remarkably parallel stories behind those two words: scuttlebutt and furphy. By the way, each Furphy water cart had the following words of wisdom on the side: “Good, better, best: never let it rest, until your good is better – and your better best.” That’s the kind of motto our grandparents lived by (and it didn’t do them any harm, either).
Voice of As a bit of language the expression “Voices of…” is neither confusing nor particularly new. However, this is the label that has been adopted as a political campaign slogan – and, as such, has taken on a new meaning. Writing in the Daily Telegraph James Morrow says that social media analysis has revealed that many of these organisations called “Voices of…” (fill in the name of your local electorate) springing up across Australia to campaign against coalition MPs have close ties to radical groups such as Extinction Rebellion. He says that the “Voices of…” label chosen by these groups is deceptive – an attempt to make it look like a grass roots local movement. Hence, there are warnings that voters might be tricked into supporting “fringe socialists, anarchists, trots and bots.” Those last two expressions are a little odd, so I should explain that “trots” means “Trotskyites” and “bots” means robot calls that try to appear to be human rather than automated programs. As an example of his argument James Morrow wrote that “Voices of North Sydney” (one of these groups) was founded by Andrea Wilson a long-time environmental activist—who recently shared a meme on her Facebook page suggesting that climate change is caused by “corporate ecocide” and is as bad as the Holocaust. That last expression is most unfortunate, because it always gives offence to the Jewish community and Holocaust survivors and their families. There is another rather nice new expression to describe what this “Voices of…” movement is trying to do – it is called “Astroturfing.” As you know “Astroturf” is fake grass, so “Astroturfing” is trying to pretend that a movement is a “grass roots” movement when it’s not.
Climate lexicon Collins dictionaries have published a useful online guide to the lexicon of all the climate talk at COP26. Here are some of the items from the list (although the comments are mine):
Climate change is not in itself alarming. The climate of Planet Earth has been in a constant state of change for as long as this planet has existed. Historically the climate has swung between ice agesand interglacial periods. The last major ice age peaked 25,000 years ago, and the interglacial period we are currently in began some 10,000 years ago. So, climate is usually measure in very long time periods. That has now changed and climatologists are looking at periods as short as 30 years and trying to detect long term patterns from that much shorter range of data. Hence the inclination to talk about climate emergency or climate crisis. This language is an attempt to change by 2050 weather patterns that would in nature take thousands of years to change.
The older expression for the current weather patterns was global warming—but this has been dropped because the planet is in a natural global warming phase since then end of what the climate scientists call “the little ice age” (which ran from around the year 800 to around 1800). The focus is now on change that is anthropogenic (that is, caused by human activity).
There is also now a new type of fiction that dramatizes stories on this issue. It is being called cli-fi (short for “climate fiction” and a play on the name sci-fi for “science fiction).
For people who want to cut down on their own carbon emissions (a crazy expression, since carbon is a black solid substance—what they really means is carbon dioxide emissions) the Swedes have coined a word for being proud to take the train rather than flying: tågskryt (literally ‘train boasting’; pronounced roughly ‘toe-skrit’). Its counterpart is flygskam (‘flight shaming’), which took off in Sweden in 2019 and together with tågskryt caused quite a spike in train use.
You can read the Collins version of the climate lexicon here: COP26 - Collins Dictionary Language Blog