July 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Word wranglers

By Darryn King
Meet the team behind the Macquarie Dictionary

On a recent Monday, in a corner of Pan Macmillan Australia’s offices in Sydney, the Macquarie Dictionary editorial team was mulling over a new word: schapelle –verb (i). to carry out in a hurried or thoughtless way so that detection is unavoidable.

It was a timely eponym; the previous day, Schapelle Corby had made her return to Australia. The Macquarie team has observed a number of delectable eponymic coinages over the years: do a Bradbury, named for the Australian ice skater Steven Bradbury, who won Olympic gold after his competitors crashed; jeffed, for fired or sacked, named for former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett. There’s another one that Susan Butler, the dictionary’s editor since its inception in 1970, thinks ought to have taken off by now. “I don’t understand why if you say that you’ve been ‘Lathamed’ that doesn’t mean you’ve been abused,” she says. “It’s so obvious. Yet that one hasn’t happened.”

Most Monday mornings, the Macquarie’s editors exchange notes (usually from their phones, having mostly graduated from scrawled-on scraps of paper) about the weekend’s discoveries. They are in a perpetual state of vocabularic vigilance, looking not only for exotic new words but also for transmutations of existing ones.

“We are those people at a dinner party who will hear a word and politely look it up in the dictionary to see if it needs to be investigated,” says publisher Melissa Kemble.

It can be tricky, at said party, to explain the job of a lexicographer. “I don’t use the word lexicographer, for a start,” says executive editor Alison Moore.

“It’s a bit like being a butterfly collector,” says Butler. “You spot one, and you catch it.”

Moore suggests another, less romantic analogy: they are the housekeepers of the language, tirelessly attending to a never-ending mess.

Recently, Moore has been weighing up the variant spellings for the word zhoosh, as in to enhance the appearance of something (close runners-up: zhush, zhoozh, zhuzh), while senior editor Victoria Morgan amended the entries for Australian Defence Force rankings, which had changed. One of the more heated discussions in the office concerned which of the words misanthrope and misanthropist ought to be the headword.

Macquarie’s editorial team comprises just three permanent employees, with freelance editors, proofreaders and consultants pitching in. That’s modest, compared to some operations in the United States and the United Kingdom. “I remember visiting Random House dictionary in the 1980s, and I was so impressed because I saw a door that had a sign on it that said Vice President of Etymologies,” says Butler.

The seventh and latest edition of the Macquarie Dictionary was released earlier this year, its 4-kilogram bulk dispersed between two volumes for the first time. It contains 2300 new words, which together provide a glimpse of the zeitgeist, or the decline of civilisation, depending on your point of view: bae, lumbersexual, manspread, resting bitch face, revenge porn, selfie drone, normcore, facepalm, onesie, digital detox, gender reveal party, lifehacking and amazeballs. It doesn’t include the 2016 Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year, fake news, though. Work has continued apace since the new edition was published, and the online version of the dictionary is updated every six months.

Even though the dictionary itself is a non-judgemental record of the way English is currently being written and spoken, behind the scenes there are plenty of lexically induced facepalms.

“Everyone’s going on a vacay,” says Morgan, who also writes content for state and national spelling bees. “Really? A vacay? Runcations, staycations … There are often things that we don’t like, but they’re in use.”

Butler tuts at the use of alternate for alternative, free reign for free rein, and tact for tack, but has become more philosophical and forgiving of the use of literally as an intensifier. Amanda Vanstone’s emphatic use of the word is the team’s favourite citation, appearing in the dictionary in full: “But I can assure you,” Vanstone told the ABC in 2006, “we are literally bending over backwards to take into account the concerns raised by colleagues.”

When the Macquarie expanded its definition of the word misogyny in the wake of Julia Gillard’s “misogyny speech”, one person mailed in a dictionary that had been hacked to bits. Similarly, there was outrage when Butler casually unleashed the term fuckwit while on the Seven Network’s Sunrise program.

More harmlessly, one enthusiast launched a campaign to get the dictionary to change the plural of compass from compasses to compii. “Just out of their desire for it to be compii,” says Morgan.

The very first edition of the Macquarie Dictionary, published in 1981, invited readers to pitch in with their own finds. One of the Macquarie’s regular contributors since then is poet Les Murray, who sends his suggestions via postcard.

Lately, Butler has maintained a correspondence with a Scrabble tragic. “He’s read this edition three times from cover to cover. The first two times were just a general read, the third time it was a specific interest in birds. He’s sent a lot of stuff. You do find the odd person that actually likes to read the dictionary. They think it’s soothing at bedtime.”

Butler is also a regular performer with the Amateur Chamber Music Society. There’s not really a connection between her passions for music and words, she says, except that her wordy expertise informs her response to poetry and literature, in much the same way that her understanding of quavers and crotchets might enrich her appreciation of a Mozart trio.

A bit like David Attenborough denying he is an “animal lover”, language is a deep intellectual pleasure for the Macquarie’s team rather than a sentimental one. They aren’t noticeably verbose, and, no, they don’t really have “favourite words” – though Moore admits a fondness of late for petrichor, the term coined by a couple of Australian scientists to describe the earthy smell that occurs when it rains or is just about to rain.

“We’d be wary of anyone who came to us and said, ‘Oh I just love language,’” says Butler. She sees her fascination with words as a “very special curse” much of the time. “You’re reading and you suddenly find yourself pencilling words, reading for the dictionary rather than for pleasure.” Morgan once developed an acute sensitivity to homophones. “They kept leaping out at me. ‘There’s another one, there’s another one.’ All enjoyment was gone. It took me a few weeks.”

When asked about their preferred spelling of the word caj, as in the abbreviation of casual (caszh? cajzh?), Butler makes a beeline for her computer, only to find no entry for the term.

Moore says, solemnly, “It’s going in.”

Darryn King

Darryn King is a freelance journalist based in New York.


July 2017

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today.

Having us on

What job is the Morrison government getting on with, exactly?

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the nuance and ambiguity of the novel

Listening to Roberta Flack

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present

In This Issue

To walk in two worlds

The Uluru Statement is a clear and urgent call for reform

Her eloquent heart

Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ was worth the 20-year wait


The handshake

Could Donald Trump finally force Australia to critically examine its feudal obligations to the US?

Politics gets personal

Laura Poitras’ ‘Risk’ sidesteps the biggest question about Julian Assange

More in The Nation Reviewed

Lost for words

Bryan Dawe on life without John Clarke

A minor language

If Footscray Primary’s Vietnamese program ends, what else is lost?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Injustice unmasked

What are the priorities of policing protests under lockdown?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Hysteria as metaphor

What chronic illness can teach us about the limits of the healthcare system during a global crisis

Read on

Image of Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit.

Chequered careers: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘The Good Lord Bird’

Among October’s streaming highlights are tales of a teenage chess prodigy and a zealous abolitionist

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the nuance and ambiguity of the novel

Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull with a screenshot of Turnbull’s confirmation of signing the petition

The Corp’s bride

Despite a widely supported petition, the government is too scared to take on the Murdoch empire