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how dictionaries mark the evolution of language

15 January, 2008

When I arrived in Australia 5 months ago, one of the first things that struck me was how different the English here is. When a student pronounced one of the class assignments “a bit naf,” I ran to Jovan to ask him what it meant. He soon delighted in feeding me baffling colloquialisms. (The result is that I have post it notes all over my office shelves with notations like “dinky-die,” “ocker,” “yobbo,” and “bogan,” but I’ve already forgot what all of those mean.) The only rule I’ve managed to glean is that Australians love to use diminutives (“brekkie” being my favorite). Once my undergraduate students cottoned on to how thick I was, they had lots of fun introducing me to new terms.

Yesterday, fellow American Anne Monchamp brought me a little news item about Macquarie Dictionary’s new additions for 2007. I went to the website to pore through the new additions and see if I could learn a little more Australish. Lots of the additions are clearly part of the global evolution of a transnational English:

carbon footprint, carbon market
globesity (noun the phenomenon of obesity in Western countries, seen as a worldwide health problem) – this term coined by the WHO I think
dumpster diving (noun the salvaging of household food items from the stock which has been thrown away by a shop, supermarket, etc., into a dumpster)
flog (noun a blog which is contrived for marketing purposes. [f(ake) + (b)log]) and splog (noun a website created for the purpose of promoting affiliated websites or to increase the search engine ranking of the affiliated sites. [sp(am) + (b)log])

For other entries, I wasn’t sure if they were Australian or used more widely. These ones sounded ambiguous to me:

lady garden (noun Colloquial (euphemistic) a woman’s pubic region)
manscaping (noun a grooming procedure in which hair is shaved or trimmed from a man’s body, as from the back, legs, chest, genitals, etc)
green shoe brigade (noun Colloquial the group of people who stand to profit from dubious practices conducted in the name of environmental protection)
kipper (noun Colloquial an adult child still living in the home of his or her parents, often as a result of pressure in the housing market, from the acronym KIPPERS [(K(ids) I(n) P(arents’) P(ockets) E(roding) R(etirement) S(avings)])

Words that sounded very Australian to me include:

salad dodger (offensive term for overweight person)
toad juice (noun liquid fertiliser produced from pulverised cane toads)
microgrom (noun Colloquial a young surfer, especially one under the age of ten. [micro– + grom(met)])

…and then there was the solitary New Zealand term that left me baffled, ignorant as I am about New Zealand politics:

Helengrad (noun NZ Colloquial (humorous) Wellington, seen as controlled by the government of Prime Minister Helen Clark. [Helen Clark + -grad common Russian ending meaning `town’])

I decided to cross-check these entries with Urban Dictionary to test my theories about which words are Australish and which are the more global neologisms. What would your guess be? To my surprise, the terms that weren’t there were: green shoe brigade, toad juice, kipper, and microgrom. You know you’re a dictionary hip to linguistic evolution when you’re including words and phrases that aren’t even on Urban Dictionary.

But as I mucked around a bit more on the Macquarie Dictionary website, I decided that this was my favorite feature: the Australian Word Map. Here’s how they describe the project:

It is an interactive website that is recording Australian regionalisms into one big database. As yet, most of Australia’s regionalisms haven’t been documented, let alone included in Australian dictionaries. So ABC Online and Macquarie Dictionary have designed an interactive online project that will document this part of our oral history.

What is a regionalism?
It’s a word, phrase or expression used by a particular community in particular parts of the country. For instance, the prepared meat called devon in New South Wales is called Belgium sausage in Tasmania, Empire sausage in Newcastle, fritz in South Australia, polony in Western Australia, Windsor sausage in Queensland and German sausage or Strasburg in Victoria.

So if you’re a foreigner, go explore the regional variation. If you’re Australian, go enter your own regionalism. And if you’re an Eastern Stater, go weigh in on whether “bunghole” means cheese to you, or do they only say that in Perth and Central and Northern West Australia?

L.L. Wynn

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 January, 2008 6:28 am

    Glad I stumbled onto this blog. I love to learn new words, especially those I can use in my daily life without sounding like a show off who speaks to impress rather than to impress. Anyway, the word I latched onto from your post is globesity. It’s a great word that describes a phenomenon that we talk about frequently in my human growth and development classes.

  2. 16 January, 2008 5:05 pm

    We’ve been using “dumpster diving” in the States for at least 25 years in my experience. I have heard people use “bunghole” as well, but I don’t think they were talking about cheese.

    Very interesting post: I have worked in about 20 different countries, and had the most language trouble in England.🙂

  3. nick permalink
    26 January, 2008 5:18 pm

    Great post. It’s certainly interesting when we consider the popularity of certain words. With regards to “dumpster diving,” I too came across the expression several years ago when it didn’t seem to be so mainstream. Now that environmental issues are on the top of the global agenda and we are all being encouraged to be aware of the waste we dispose of, “dumpster diving” the phenomenon has grown to a new level, and with it the popularity of the expression.

    Instead of “dumspter diving,” the regionalism we used to use in the 80s and 90s in the UK was “wombling” – taken from the popular children’s show “the Wombles.” If any of you know the programme and can sing the song, you’ll find a clue as to why “wombling” became commonplace in our vocabulary (…making good use of the things that we find, the things that the everyday folks leave behind…).

  4. 27 January, 2008 3:11 pm

    That’s a great word, Nick.

    びっくり,the ‘bunghole” expression comes, apparently, from the idea that cheese is supposed to constipate you. Though why this is used only in Western Australia is a mystery!

  5. Anne permalink
    29 January, 2008 10:56 am

    I’m writing about racism today so I have some less PC words on my mind at the moment but in relation to the ‘Aussie’ vernacular I’ve often been confused by the various slurs used in Australia which are often radically different from those in the US. I was having lunch with some Australians when I first arrived here and someone referred to the ‘bongo’ next-door. I assumed bongo was just Aussie for ‘jerk’ or ‘idiot’ and having lived next to some jerks in my life I let the comment pass. It wasn’t until later I realized he had been disparaging an Aboriginal person. I try to speak out against this sort of language when I can but it is hard to protest racism if you are oblivious to it.

    The Urban Dictionary has an entry for ‘racist term’ with crosslinks to a number of such slurs many of which I’ve never heard but several I have heard and was surprised to find were raciest rather than just the more general type of disparagement I doll out on a very egalitarian basis.

    Of course recent debates have erupted in relation to what ‘counts’ as a racist term particularly in recent test cricket. For more an that check out the excellent post on Jai Hind at http://india.targetgenx.com/2008/01/13/is-monkey-a-racist-term/

  6. 29 January, 2008 2:59 pm

    Sometimes I think it is better to be ignorant of the slurs.🙂 Bravo for being willing to stand up against this practice.

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