August 2010

Arts & Letters

Infinite Anthology

By Les Murray
Arthur Delbridge (seated) with, from left, David Blair, John Bernard and Susan Butler, 1981. © National Library of Australia
Adventures in lexiconia

Here is a brief sample of words I have submitted to Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary over the last two or three years:


pobbledonk – scarlet-sided banjo frog. Large robust frog common in swamps in coastal Queensland and New South Wales.

kiddy-fiddler – child molester, paedophile.

paste – pastry, in the usage of some Australian regions up into modern times. Comes from Lowland Scots and Northern English dialects and is attested as far back as the 12th century.

rooibos – Afrikaans “red bush”, an aromatic shrub from which a caffeine-free infusion is made, termed red bush tea, very popular in Southern Africa.

doctoring – (cf. “under the doctor”) seeking frequent medical treatment or other medical help, e.g. “He’s been doctoring for years.”

Corymbia – new sub-genus of eucalypts, comprising most smooth-barked species; Eucalyptus gummifera becomes Corymbia gummifera in new botany.

Archie – (military colloquialism) World War I anti-aircraft gun or gunfire of same.

tramp stamp – tattoo pointing to erogenous zones, suggestive of sexual availability. Classic position is on lower back, at jeans line.

GORD – acronym for gastroesophageal reflux disease.

gregarize – said when a solitary green grasshopper turns red to yellow, exudes serotonin and begins to swarm.

jardin – oil, or more recently polymers, added to emeralds to disguise cracks. Produces a coralline appearance under the microscope.

dirty – two fresh meanings: lucky (e.g.) “Won the Lottery? Geez yer dirty!” and Aboriginal: countryside overgrown with shrubs, grass etc. is said to be dirty when in need of burning off.

squib – a fake bullet wound (film term). An older meaning was to duck something, out of cowardice.

bit with a snake – bitten by a snake. Irish conflation of with and by, from Gaelic le. Still heard in my region.

petrichor – aggregate of natural oils and terpenes on dry ground; gives off an exhilarating loamy smell when wetted by rain. Said to trigger reproductive cycle in aquatic creatures, fish etc. Discovered by Drs Joy Beard and RG Thomas at the Australian National University in 1964.

Where I was born, in the coastal hills of New South Wales, everybody milked cows for a living or drew timber to the mills. Most houses were unpainted with no pictures on their walls or radios to turn song into muzak. Arts were storytelling and ballroom dancing, though World War II at its height put a crimp on the latter. We, my parents and I, used to walk a mile down the paddocks to Grandfather’s on a Sunday to listen to the war news on his wireless. I learned the looming names of islands to our near north, out of which Japanese soldiers might surge, and I was impressed by the posh, almost religious tones of the newsreaders, with their BBC accents full of words like advarnce. That national broadcasting accent would be swept away within the next ten years, thrown into the landfill with hoary British textbooks full of otters and snowy yuletides. The ABC would be turned on to a sober new national confidence that spoke what are known as General and the more precise Cultivated version of our local English. Our family had moved into the General Australian accent over the two or three generations since we stopped speaking Border Scots, but our men regularly spoke broad Australian with neighbours who didn’t like putting on any sort of dog. Or any but the American twang in which Western and pop songs were just beginning to be sung, driving out the older bush ballads.

I was an only child, and as my parents’ poverty deepened through droughts and the stubborn meanness of our landlord, I was not allowed to have other children come and play; our local bush school would only reopen when I was nine. Pop songs did not interest me. I was arrested by the Psalms and the steely eloquence of our Free Kirk ministers. And by swearing. My father was a former bullock driver and fluent in tremendous profanity when stirred. Later I would call this the Black Poetry and play variations on it. I could never fully match the Biblical cadence he was prone to. When a redback spider bit him on the foot, it hurt unmercifully “for seven days and seven nights”. My dad was not an educated man, but he was witty, with wondrous timing and a fey imagination, at least until my mother’s death when I was 12. That muted his spirit almost into the grave for decades.

Language was plentiful in my world, but it came from adults or from reading. I read my mother’s school prize books, especially the eight-volume encyclopedia, I read comic books and the Alfa-Laval cream separator manual – l’écrémeuse, for it was in French, from Quebec. When I joined the other 15 bush kids at Bulby Brush Public School, I read its tiny library in weeks: the best book was Mawson’s account of his Antarctic expedition to the South Magnetic Pole in the early 1900s, toiling over the crevasses and the sastrugi on a diet of boiled dog livers that poisoned him and his companions with an excess of vitamin A. After my mother’s death, our existence sank to a sad Huck Finn level, even as books lifted me into unreal feudal fantasies, able to couch a lance but not to use an urban letter box.

At 18, at the end of school, I had just fallen in love with two powerful muses, philology and poetry. During university it was touch and go which one would shape my life. I was writing odd poems, but also devouring the “teach yourself” grammars of many languages and ransacking the Fisher Library for texts in them. In the event, the philology lasted ten years. One day, when I was a scholarly and scientific translator at the Australian National University in Canberra, I read a crucial sentence by a famous German linguist who, when asked how many languages he knew, ruefully answered “Kaum meine eigene!” – hardly my own. I saw that my knowledge was in each case shallow and hesitant, and that no matter how deeply I went into each modern language, I would be only privately discovering things other people already knew, whereas with poetry I had the chance of discovering, in public, things no one had previously known. I might penetrate the mystery of home and why it was allowed so little dignity. Shortly afterwards, I headed off to Europe and a total dedication to verse-writing which has never flagged.

Even before I got out of translating, I’d developed a passion for the old part-Scottish farm terminology we’d spoken to each other in my region. It went some way beyond farm usage too, especially in the deep drawn-out o we often used in words such as God, log, dog, gone: the dorg is gorn. No other Scots Borders vowels survived, but a cow’s udder was her elder (also the title of a member of the Free Kirk Synod), a milking shed was called the bails and agen meant “by the time that” (agen he gets home, the job’ll be finished). A fessloe was an ulcer, the iron power offtake of a horse’s collar was termed the hames, which also meant a complete mess (“I made a hames of my best suit” – Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds). A cattle grid was a ramp, as in Ireland. A poddy was a calf, and a bilious stomach felt squawmish. All of these terms were still in use a hundred years after settlement on the NSW north coast, and they mingled with other common words not usually heard in other districts – though muttai, Aboriginal for a maize cob for eating, and the Scots press for a school cupboard were widespread. From forest work came dozy for termite-ridden, snig chain and climbing board, calabash for a steel loop to distribute the pull of chains. Since the settlements of poor people, the fishing villages and weatherboard sawmilling camps, were typically the scene of intermarriage between Aboriginal and white, it would have been strange if we had not picked up any Aboriginal words, the harmless small bandi-bandi snake and the banana-tasting puddenie fruit. More unequivocally Aboriginal were bullrout, a freshwater fish armed with a poisonous dorsal fin, the dooligarl or hairy man of worldwide mythology, and the gugri, a small slab hut for lighting a fire to heat branding irons and similar. That turned out to be the ancient local word for “house” or “shelter”. Emaciated animals, including humans, were called poor and the same word was a kind of title added to the names of the very ill and the dead. Not all words that looked Aboriginal were Aboriginal in origin: the village of Bundook bore the Hindi name of a rifle, doubtless lent by some veteran of the British Indian Army. Pipi, Maori for a freshwater mussel, would have been a similar case.

In the 1960s, Professor Alex Mitchell, the man who persuaded the ABC to broadcast in Australian accents, became founding vice-chancellor of Sydney’s new Macquarie University. He was joined there by Professor Arthur Delbridge, first proponent of what would inevitably be called the Macquarie Dictionary, in honour of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who reigned at Sydney Cove throughout the teens of the nineteenth century and was the first colonial proconsul to see his antipodean Devil’s Island as the precursor of a nation. The old governor always dearly loved to see his name on a map or any large venture. Now the moment had come for a dictionary based on our national dialect and usage, for it had been apparent for years that English was a polycentric language fed from a myriad decolonising sources. An Australian magpie was a singing bird, a non-larcenous shrike resembling the Old World bird only in its black-and-white livery, and while utility had as its second definition in American and British dictionaries the meaning of household supplies such as fuel, power, telephone and water, in Australia the word meant a motor car with its rear seat and boot replaced by a carrying compartment, the whole lighter and less powerful than an American pickup truck; in time, our utility truck would become a ute even on official rego (registration) papers, and yet bear no relation to any American native tribe.

The designer of the Macquarie still had to walk a tightrope. For folk with a respect for our culture and achievements so far, it would be essential to stress the Australianness of the work. For those, still numerous then even at home, who equated Australianness with slang and slovenly English, they would stress the book’s comprehensiveness and respectability. An early advertisement catches the balance of the enterprise:

The Macquarie’s Australian character …

The Macquarie contains many words which reflect the uniqueness of the Australian way of life, many of which appear in no comparable dictionary. Beanbag, alf, home unit, brickfielder, bombo, wool cheque, boat people and surf club are examples

and its international content

The Macquarie is also a comprehensive modern dictionary containing international words which have recently come into our language. Words like urban renewal, cheque-book journalism, drogue target, intellectual property, buzz word, chirality and dinkus.

In fact dinkus, a small drawing intended to break up a page of type, is said to have been invented by an artist on the Sydney Bulletin magazine in the 1920s. But the first edition of the Macquarie in 1981 sold 50,000 copies in three months, a huge sale on our small domestic market. This proved that people were prepared to accept their own national lexicon. Suddenly the great Australian epithets seemed no longer to be mate and sheila, but award wage and after sales service. And after sales was where the new book perforce had to go, turning from a one-off like the Australian National Dictionary, a highly scholarly register of Australianisms, to an institution with children’s versions, atlases, illustrated editions, Macquaries for every need, every user, every pocket. So far, there have been five editions of the main volume since the first in 1981, all of them edited by Susan Butler, arguably one of the world’s great lexicographers. She has always preferred Dr Johnson as an ancestor of her book over Noah Webster’s polemical model.

To me, from the very start, words were poor people’s treasures, infinite in variety and potential at no cost. Combining them came later, extracting their colours and music. I spoke them in tongues around the hills. As well as their loom and resonance, I became fascinated by their etymologies and all the cultural freight they carried. As I see now, I had turned to my foreign languages for more of that, rather than for communication. I had wanted to see and hear and pronounce all of language, get it into my mouth and my bones. When the new national dictionary came out, I reviewed it in exuberant terms, saying that it re-centred our language in the country where we actually lived. I then began, shyly at first, to pester Susan Butler with postcards suggesting items for inclusion in future editions. She was unfailingly polite about my sometimes ungainly advocacies, and gradually a good many of them began to filter into the ever-evolving text. My rural and Scots items went in first, but always a few unrelated ones drifted in too. I was not much of a checker, always: I would exult over some discovery and fail to notice that it was in already. That happened with gross motor, which had replaced physical education in our schools. Other items pointed to poignant bits of history: the 20-odd places called Irishtown in the nineteenth century suggested to me reservoir-villages to house labour employed on neighbouring pastoral properties. Irish immigrants were the working underclass back then. Just about all of those villages have long since changed their names. The whipping side of a sheep, in shearer’s parlance, was the right-hand side, the last to be shorn, but it had a bloody history, as the side receiving most punishment when a right-handed flogger lashed a triced-up convict. Shearers carried that memory in their traditions. Free traders, split bloomers for wearing under the voluminous skirts of the nineteenth and earlier-twentieth century, came from Nancy Keesing’s splendid Lily on the Dustbin, a compendium of urban and feminine language. Occasionally I would tease out a knot of comparative idiom: bushed, for instance, meant “tired” in American speech and was taking over from the Australian meaning of “lost” or the Canadian one of “suffering from camp fever”. Wedge, in my dialect, was often used as a verb to mean forcing the pace, but in youthful costume it was used to signify a lump of fabric in the groin, sometimes causing camel toe, or genitals outlined through tight clothing.

The Macquarie always had a corps of volunteer word-catchers, as well as its expert consultants. Not having a field of specialised vocabulary, I have always felt insubstantial alongside experts in, say, prison talk or theatre language, botany or marine creatures. Miscellaneous items of vocabulary simply crossed my ken and were submitted before I could forget them again: rippy for dangerously jocular, überveillance, invented by two social scientists of the married name Michael for the e-tagging of humans which may be imminent on the horizon, koro from Japanese, meaning a fear that the penis will retract into the belly and cause death. Not an ethnic joke: TB in the abdomen is very prone to cause such retraction; it is a grave symptom.

It was interesting to watch how the dictionary has evolved. Etymology, for instance, was weak in the early editions, but had since improved markedly. Borrowings from European immigrant sources has been sparse, in the first postwar immigrant period. This changed with the opening of the “Cuisine Age”, coulis of this, infusion of that; it was by way of the kitchen that Australian speech became truly international. Words began to flock in from South Asia and the Pacific Rim and soon they went far beyond food. The realities of international sport began to emerge: doosra recently caught my eye, a Hindi cricketing term for an off-spinner’s googly that doesn’t break toward the bat, but off to leg. That one comes just before dosa and dosha, which most modern Britons will already know.

I was sad when biographical entries came into the dictionary; they seemed bound to take up a lot of space with vanities and celebrities. With their historical dimension, however, they do tend to restore a sense of Australia as a community, with a core settlers’ history that for a while was bitterly fought over. The Culture Wars of the last few decades have been treated by the Macquarie with an unusual equanimity, the rhetoric all simply calmed into lexis. Arranging the representation of underlying topics and emphases of any reference book is a mystery that belongs to its editors and its public; get it wrong, or allow it bias, and the book is apt to founder. The facts of normal Australian usage have always been the gyroscope of the Macquarie, and must have served thousands of foreigners and immigrants (migrants, as we oddly term them) as a guide to the familiar oddities of a new country: informal as a deliberately invalidated vote in one of our now unique compulsory ballots, electorate for a constituency, footpath for pavement. Even watertable, in the country, for a roadside gutter. Authenticity in novels and film requires no less. I still recall the German translator who didn’t know a Digger was a soldier and used the term for an excavator.

A couple of years ago Susan Butler very kindly invited me to come and be a consultant on her beloved dictionary, observing how she and her otherwise all-female team go about constantly upgrading it. I carp at tiny points of usage, and am set small jobs, pruning out entries which may have become otiose, or which never took off. Most recently I checked a large vocabulary of Australian soldiers’ vernacular from 1914 to 1918, in preparation for a commemorative volume honouring the centennial of the Great War. I was to eliminate, with the aid of a War Memorial wordlist, all terms from that war which had never really caught on with the Diggers, or survived for long afterwards. “Strafe” was a surprising excision. I also left out cark sucker, which a few of the first AIF may have picked up from the first Americans but none had dared to bring home to Mum. The Macquarie doesn’t indulge the Fescennine unduly, but doesn’t fear it either. Some years ago Sue innocently started to speak of the then-popular epithet fuckwit in an ABC radio interview, and a pulled plug filled the studio with bland music. It is fascinating to watch definitions shrink and expand, and hear the reasons why words may be held over till they perform better, if ever. One perennial problem is with commercial brand names, which may eventually become accepted words, as kleenex has done, and Coke in the sense of Coca-Cola has not, though Coke-bottle lenses are an entry. When I submitted Incabloc, partly in order to find out just what part of the watchmaker’s art it referred to, it proved to be a proprietary treatment to protect sealed movements, and so not eligible, though doona, a former brand name, has got a guernsey in the dictionary for having displaced, in Australia, the earlier French term duvet. Excessive care to exclude commercial names seems to have peeled away many commonly used titles: the humble edge trimmer is not allowed either its Australian name whippersnipper nor its neater British strimmer, though hoover is in as an alternative to our cumbersome vacuum cleaner. Only British migrant women use the hoover. A sign of impending acceptance of a commercial word seems to be the dropping of its capital initial.

My earlier contributions were perennially invalidated by lack of a printed source. I was sometimes to provide one by writing a poem in which the word appeared, but that was too transparent. My problem was one of class: I drew typically from a level of vocabulary seen as lower even than that used in urban Broad speech. The real oral language of country folk had had few literary outings since the late-nineteenth century. Radio and TV regularly got it wrong, and the main audience for that was country women who may have hoped their men would one day lift up their diction. I wrote a long narrative poem, Fredy Neptune, in the rural speech of the 1890s to the 1940s, including enough contemporary German to establish the hero as an Australian-born bilingual. This was praised as a feast of half-forgotten idiom and harvested for the dictionary, but my real allies were the Aboriginal people once widely seen as even lower and more ill-spoken than rural workers, but now rising again in a near-vacuum of respectable renditions of our one real dialect. The classic Aboriginal words in common Australian use had been adopted 150 to 200 years ago; now white people were hearing a distinctive new phonology and words like ganji, policeman (from gangibel), land rights and spirit country, as well as small change such as blackout, a party to which whites are not invited, deadly meaning “excellent” and jar signifying a quarrel. It was beginning to be hard to exclude all this from the national conversation – and if one print-poor group was now to be deferred to, silencing others would grow harder. Black voices were being heard on radio and TV – modern equivalents of print, and I began to argue hard against a purely middle-class dictionary. Not wholly in vain, since the Macquarie’s first beginnings had run parallel with postwar educationists’ debates about equity issues arising from denigration of home dialects. Students way back then were asserted to be in danger of losing their self-esteem in the face of Imperial posh speech. Nowadays some would assert the same of Americanising influences – but borrowings from Hollywood and Rock sociolects, even modish Black talk and electronic jargon, are regularly buried by the speed of the fashions that carry them. People don’t so much adopt as quote items that fly and fade faster than dictionaries can register them. The lack of depth of real understanding of American culture here was illustrated the other day when arrangements to protect President Obama on a brief Australian visit were given the code name Operation Blue Gum. This made a perfect fit with Billy Bluegum the cuddly koala, but it took days for anyone to tell the authorities that Bluegum in Black idiom referred to an indolent African-American person.

A couple of years ago, on ABC radio, the composer Brett Waymark introduced the term audiation, a musical equivalent of ideation. Instead of a constant play of ideas in the mind, Waymark’s word would mean a teeming of tunes and musical structures there. My Nashville cousin instantly took Audiation as the title of his next CD. My own variant is what I call verberation, deriving from verba, words, and only very slightly from verberas, the whipping rods of ancient Rome. Escaping from the disciplines of modern life, words and phrases swim in their definitions and free of them, becoming the molecules of sense and suggestion. They descend through surface consciousness to oracular depths, and return fresh and strange. A whole small constellation of them may rise to initiate a poem. It was for this that I came to love vocabulary, the traffic of one-word poemlets, and why I have always hung around dictionaries and the autistic fodder of lists.

Les Murray

Les Murray was an award-winning Australian poet with more than 30 published collections of work, including Taller When ProneThe Biplane HousesWaiting for the Past and The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray. His work has been translated into ten foreign languages.

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