Posted on 13 September 2021

Are you as game as Ned Kelly?

Aussie Word of the Week

Every now and then we jump in our time machine and kidnap a famous (or infamous) figure from Australian history so we can trot them out for your linguistic pleasure. This week we captured bushranger Ned Kelly. The bushranger provided Aussie English with plenty of interesting and unusual phrases that remain in the lexicon to this day. Are you as game as Ned Kelly? In other words, are you imbued with the fighting spirit of Australia's national hero: are you plucky and resolute? If you prefer horses to people you can say you are as game as Phar Lap. Bog a duck is a description of extremely boggy land that was used by Ned Kelly in his famous Jerilderie Letter of 1879, and is still in use today. Apart from the adjectival use as in a bog-a-duck track, you can also come across it used verbally: you could bog a duck in that paddock, come the wet. Wombat-headed, meaning stupid, was a great Ned Kelly insult. You can read about it in the Macquarie Dictionary blog.  Who's robbing this coach? This rhetorical question meaning 'Stay out of it!' is another gift to Australian English from Ned Kelly. The story goes that Ned Kelly was bailing up a coach one day and proclaimed, ‘I'm going to rob all the men and f**k all the women’. To which one of the male passengers said, ‘You can't do that, you dreadful man', only to be shouted down by a female passenger saying, ‘Who's robbing this coach, you or Mister Kelly?’ Apparently, this problematic story was originally told in relation to Jesse James in the United States.  As with all good things, this blog must now come to an end. Sigh, such is life.   Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. You can see other Aussie Word of the Week posts from the Macquarie Dictionary here.
Posted on 6 September 2021

Flavour of the months

The calendar used around the world these days, for most purposes, is the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. It ironed out a few little problems in its predecessor, the Julian calendar (established by Julius Caesar in 46 BC), which had in turn been based on the Roman calendar. The early Roman calendar had ten months rather than twelve, with January and February being added later. This explains a bit of an anomaly in the names of four of our months (more on this later). So, what is behind the names of our months, names we take for granted, and use constantly? January was named after Janus, an ancient deity, regarded by the Romans as presiding over doors and gates, and beginnings and endings. Janus is often represented as having two faces, pointing in opposite directions. February’s name comes from the name of a Roman purification festival, Februa, held towards the middle of this month. March is the month of Mars, the Roman god of war, and was the first month of the early Roman calendar. Mars was the father of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. The origin of April is slightly mysterious. It was called Aprīlis by the Romans, and may be related to the notion of plants 'opening' in spring. May was named after the goddess Maia – but was it the Greek goddess of that name, identified with the Roman goddess of fertility, Bona Dea? Or was it a different Roman goddess, also named Maia? June is yet another source of uncertainty. Some say it was named after the Roman goddess Juno, but others say that it is from Latin Jūnius, the gens of Rome. July is one of two months named after flesh-and-blood Roman leaders. Julius Caesar was born in this month, and it was named in his honour. The second month named after a ruler is August, named after the first Roman emperor, Augustus. And now we get to the last four months of the year, and the peculiarity mentioned earlier. September, the name for our ninth month, is Latin for 'seventh'. The name for our tenth month, October, is Latin for 'eighth', November is Latin for 'ninth', and (you guessed it), the name for our twelfth month, December, is Latin for 'tenth'. There’s something quite touching in the fact that these words, used all over the English-speaking world, by children in primary school, by hi-tech organisations, by us all, have such ancient origins, and that we still have the lovely anomaly in the naming of those four last months.
Posted on 18 August 2021

All about portmanteaus

What could be more fun than combining two words to create a brand new word? Almost nothing. That’s why the Macquarie Dictionary employs a dedicated team of word chefs who spend all day cooking up new portmanteaus. Well, not quite but we do like to write about them.  A portmanteau word is made by blending two other words. Brunch, perhaps the most famous portmanteau, is a combination of breakfast and lunch, but is now considered a meal all on it’s own, rather than a sneaky snack between other meals. Other well known portmanteaus include: spork (spoon + fork), cosplay (costume + play), and sitcom ( situation + comedy).  Portmanteaus have a way of capturing the imagination. Done right, they can roll off the tongue and into the national lexicon. Done badly and they can sound like the kind of awful pun that attracts groans from everyone in the room. Brunch, yes. Linner (you can probably guess at what time of day this meal occurs), no thanks.  As such, plenty of clever portmanteau words have featured in the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year. The 2020 People’s Choice Covid word of the year was covidiot, a blend of COVID-19 and idiot.  The 2019 Word of the Year list featured anecdata, a blend of anecdotal and data, alongside hangxiety, a dangerous combo consisting of hangover and anxiety.  How could we not mention the infamous and seemingly forgotten framily, winner of the 2017 People’s Choice Word of the Year. Framily, a blend of friend and family, has rarely been heard since.  Some portmanteaus are literal in their meaning. Examples include waterfall: water that falls, and pancake, literally a thin flat cake cooked in a frying pan. So you can see that people really do love combining words to make new words. If you would like to read more about portmanteaus check out our favourite combos from the Australian Writers’ Centre in 2016. If you love animals and words we’ve got the blog for you with our Ligers and tigons and grolar bears!
Posted on 10 August 2021

Nonplussed by contronyms

How do you peruse this blog? Do you read over it carefully and with great focus? Or do you skim it leisurely? Meaning is a tricky and changeable thing, and this is nowhere more obvious than with contronyms: words that have a pair of opposing meanings. Peruse is one of these words, as are sanction ('approval or support' vs 'punitive action') and dust ('remove dust' vs 'sprinkle with dust') – amongst many others.  There are many reasons for the development of these contradictory meanings. In the case of peruse the word was originally a synonym for 'read' in British English. Both current meanings were acceptable, and the intended one was often indicated when the word was used: 'to peruse lightly', or 'to peruse from cover to cover'. Over time, these indications were dropped, and so we now have a word that can refer to two totally different ways of reading. Sometimes a contradictory meaning can develop locally to a region, and cause confusion for speakers from elsewhere. Take the example of nonplussed: She was nonplussed by the discovery. Was she confused, perplexed and surprised? Or was she unperturbed and unbothered? It depends on whether or not you are a speaker of US English. If an American is nonplussed, chances are they are not surprised, although this use is still regarded as incorrect by some people. In the Macquarie Dictionary, we currently define nonplussed as 'puzzled and perplexed'. These contronyms can be a source of conflict between language users, especially as they come into being. Nonplussed has sparked a lot of contention, especially between younger speakers of Australian English, who may have mainly heard the American usage, and older speakers. Sadly for the traditionalists, we will be adding the 'new' sense of nonplussed, with notes and labels to indicate its status. Often, these opposing meanings will disappear over time, as in awful (once 'awe-inspiring', now 'extremely bad') and egregious ('extraordinarily bad', formerly 'remarkably good'). When a word can mean two opposing things, and it’s not always contextually apparent which is meant, there’s an instability that language users tend to want to resolve one way or the other. Until then, it can leave us quite nonplussed. Or nonplussed.