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highlight The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

During her Fellowship, Bernadette Hince worked on The Grand Polar Dictionary. Her project is an attempt to document the culture and practices of Arctic life, past and present, through its language – some of which is now fading or extinct. Today, we take a glimpse at her work in progress.


First there are the words for animals — beluga, arvik, ukjuk. White bear, whitefish, Eskimo dog. Animals mean meat and blubber. Blubber means oil, light, warmth. Skin, gut, fur, sinew and bone mean sewing thread, needles, clothing, shelter, dryness, windows, tools, containers, boats, hunting equipment. In the Arctic, animals are life itself.

There are words for plants — reindeer moss, salmonberry, Labrador tea, tiny creeping stems of arctic willow. Their twigs burn. The fruits are edible. The leaves make tea, or can be preserved in blubber until winter time, when they are served as greens for the table.

Language words. Greenlandic, Inuktitut, Skolt Saami, Evenki, Yup'ik, Chukchi, Tlingit. I once believed that all people of the circumpolar Arctic shared a language and could understand each other. Now, I am not sure.

People words. Klondiker, Eskimo, Inuit, oiler, explorer, kayaker, angakok, shaman, kabluna, cheechako. Sourdoughs are Alaskan old-timers, kablunas are Europeans who do not belong. Everywhere in the world we have words for people who belong, and people who do not.

Words for fire in the sky — northern lights, auroral zone, curtains, streamers, magnetic midnight. When I was ten, someone in the family took the Southern Aurora to Sydney. We drove our station wagon full of children to Spencer Street station. The night train had silver carriages with roomettes, twinettes, and a dining car. I could not believe how sophisticated it was.

‘What’s an aurora?’, I asked. Until that moment, I did not know how badly I needed to see one.

Above all, words for the crystalline heart of the Arctic — ice words. Shuga, frazil, grease, candle ice, pancake ice, sea ice, sina. Breaking-out, freezing up. Pingo, thermafrost, frost smoke.

Men who sailed in Greenland’s cold waters also went south towards an uncertain Antarctica, taking the ice and snow words of the Arctic with them — weightless stowaways across the equator, boat words, asylum-seeker words rafting up on Antarctic ice, looking for different animals to cling to, different ice to belong with. Climate change refugee words. Arctic sea ice is melting so fast it could disappear in 30 years.

Language is the archive of history, said Emerson, who knew (as dictionary makers do) that a single word can hold a whole history of human exploration and our treatment of the natural world. Take ‘penguin’ —in fact we can take it as far as a word can go, from one polar region to the other. The first penguins were the northern hemisphere’s now-extinct great auks, Pinguinis impennis, large black and white flightless birds. They looked so similar to the birds we now call penguins that when Arctic sailors and explorers saw the southern hemisphere birds, they used a name they already knew for creatures who were like the birds they already knew. The word is so firmly naturalised now in the southern hemisphere that it seems native.

I am surrounded by these words when I work on my dictionary of Arctic English. It is so absorbing that when I sit down to do it, cares fall away. I write in a dry, unpopular inland city in southeastern Australia, far from the globe’s northern polar regions. But words can take me there.


Find out more about Bernadette Hince’s Grand Polar Dictionary in a previous Dailies piece, in which she revealed some of the process and method of working on the project.

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24 September 2014

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Bernadette Hince is developing a dictionary of Arctic and Antarctic words. She’s also one of our current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellows – and she reports from her desk at the Wheeler Centre to give us a taste of her project.

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Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Here at this hot desk on the mezzanine corridor of the Wheeler Centre, I’m chewing my way through Arctic and Antarctic words as I begin writing a grand polar dictionary. Yum.

Do you remember the fun you had as a child, trying to make someone laugh while they were going red in the face trying not to? The Inuit have a word for that game you used to play – aaqsiiq. In this traditional northern game, the winner succeeds in making the loser utter a noise (typically laughter).

2000 Naqi Ekho and Uqsuralik Ottokie in Jean Briggs (ed) Interviewing Inuit elders vol 3: Childrearing practices. Nunavut Arctic College, Iqaluit: page 113.

We used to be silly. Aaqsiiq was the name of a game where we would try to keep a straight face while trying to make others laugh.

Antarctic_Iceberg_Debra_Tillinger_NOAA_s_National_Ocean_Service

Image by Debra Tillinger/NOAA’s National Ocean Service

Another word that’s come up this week is Adelaite. Sounds as though it should be someone from Adelaide, doesn’t it? But there’s another meaning. When you are in the polar regions, it’s an occupant of the British Antarctic Survey base that existed on Adelaide Island (off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula) from 1961 to 1977.

Navigator John Biscoe sighted this island in 1832, and named it to honour Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, who married William IV and became Queen Adelaide. Yes, the same person the Australian city of Adelaide is named after.

How do I know about aaqsiiq and Adelaites? By spending the last 25 years looking for quotations like this one in polar literature:

1967 British Antarctic Survey Newsletter 5 (Aug): page 5.

He and John enjoyed the hospitality at Adelaide, which they repaid by dog driving tips, and by John taking some ‘Adelaites’ on a trip northwards.

Writing dictionaries is heaven. I’m so glad to be here.

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Image by USFWS/Keith Morehouse


Bernadette Hince is one of our current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellows.

The Wheeler Centre will provides fellowships to 20 writers in 2014, providing them with a desk in the Wheeler Centre for two months and a $1000 stipend, courtesy of the Readings Foundation.

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17 June 2014

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By Paul Mitchell

Paul_Home1 There’s been a lot of talk about ‘sausage fests’ over the past few weeks, with the first all-female Miles Franklin shortlist sparking memories of the all-male lists of the recent past – which were given the meaty nickname. Writer Paul Mitchell tells why the term is not just confronting and demeaning, but risks reinforcing the idea that men are just their genitals. (‘Which many men think anyway.’) So, should we rethink our language?

The Age told me last Wednesday morning that this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award has an all-female cast. I didn’t get time to wonder, however, if the Stella Prize had any influence on this, or why short fiction collections were again absent: I was too busy reading that this year’s list showed the Award had ‘fought back from its recent reputation as a “sausage fest”’.

A sausage fest. There’s probably no more demeaning way of describing the male in a group setting. A whole cucumber salad? Bit too wet liberal and far too hard and crunchy. A python pit? Gives the male too much potency and threat. A worm farm? Even if it that analogy shrinks the penis and makes it dirty, the worm is still pretty powerful, especially when it comes to eating the dead.

highlight No, if you want to put down a group of men, sausage fest is best. Because sausages, generally, are low budget, used for meals when there’s not much else you can afford. Or you’re feeling uninspired in the kitchen. They’re disrespected. They’re usually rolled on the barbecue first, used as a snack before the real meal arrives. They’re sticky before they’re cooked. They’re all the same. They appear hard, but they’re soft inside. And, best of all, you can bite them, chew them, digest them, and crap them out.

I know the Miles Franklin Award was so described by women angry with the number of men populating the long and shortlists. I know that women have endured this kind of terminology for centuries. But I’m confident that today’s mainstream – and even non-mainstream– media don’t make a habit of employing a term for their genitals that’s equal parts supermarket aisle and football change room. (Even if some in parliament do.)

But the reporter put sausage fest in inverted commas. She was quoting those women who’d used the term to describe the previous Miles Franklin lists. Before these women did this, the last time I’d heard the term was when I was single in a bar. A bloke turned to me and said, ‘This joint’s crap. It’s a sausage fest.’ I agreed with his assessment, but even then I hated the term. I looked at all those men drinking their beers and thought, you know, deep down they may not want to be known only by their appendage. Even by other men.

We want men to be men. Whatever that means. In an age in which true gender equality, at least in the West, seems to be slowly getting closer every year, there are millions of words on pages and screens right now trying to figure that out. But we know what we don’t want men to be: mindless, violent (especially towards women), sexual predators, and concerned only with their physical prowess (or lack thereof).

So when highly intelligent women join in the gender stereotyping, even if it’s to assuage their righteous anger, their actions are unhelpful in the battle to change men’s attitudes to women. By using the aforementioned term, even as a joke – and even if it’s been effective as a wake-up call for those who choose literary awards lists – they contribute to reinforcing the idea that men are just their genitals. Which many men think anyway.

I have two boys. One is 13, the other three-and-a-half. I want them to grow up with a healthy attitude to their bodies, their sexuality and towards women. They are also both voracious readers. What are they to make of our literary community describing men with a term that belongs at a barbecue?

Do we want this image to continue? Do we want boys being told they’re mindless, pink and pudgy, vacuum-packed with stupidity, while also showing them that, hey, they’re linked together in this ridicule so they can feel strong in numbers?

If intelligent women tell boys their penises are on the same level as sausages (I really don’t want to disparage them here, there are some terrific gourmet ones, but they’re not exactly cuts of wagyu!) then that’s the way they’ll think about them. And that’s also the way they’ll treat them and act with them.


Paul Mitchell is a writer and poet.

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07 May 2013

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highlight Our Lunchbox/Soapbox guest last week was Michael Shmith. A senior writer and opera critic for the Age, specialising in arts journalism, he’s been immersed in the business of words for decades.

Talking to an audience of fellow word-lovers at the Wheeler Centre, he shared the words and phrases that annoy him most – and some favourites, too.

Increasingly irritated by the clichés and ‘slapdashery’ that abound these days, Shmith ran an opinion piece in the Age one New Year’s Eve on ‘Irritating Language I Want to See Banned – Literally’.

‘My A-Z began with A-list and ended with zero tolerance … which will only happen when I become a supreme dictator,’ he said.

Other pet hates were:

moving forward (cue crowd applause)

leaning forward (the US version of Julia Gillard’s discarded mantra)

uncertain future (‘tell me a future that isn’t’)

the use of weather in news reports as an indicator of mood (for instance, ‘rain failed to deter their appearance’)

Another chief irritation was the use of the word ’vow’ in place of ‘promise’, usually by reporters on behalf of politicians and other public figures.

‘Why the sudden increase in public figures taking religious orders?’ quipped Shmith. His guess? ‘Vow’ is four letters shorter than ‘promise’ and is thus easier to fit into a headline.

He said ‘origami’ has invaded the speech patterns of journalists as ‘relentlessly as Paterson’s Curse’, with phrases like ‘how the story unfolded’.

‘What ever happened to the good old word developed, or formed?’

Why do police always swoop? Why are celebrities always ‘whisked away’, like egg whites? Why do people ‘lose their battle’ with cancer, when the battle is fought on behalf of the patient, by medical professionals?

He proposed that journalism outlets should have the equivalent of a swear box for such words and phrases, but affably concluded that journalism ‘mostly gets it right’.

‘Just as there is always something to say, there is always a new way to say it. There aren’t many guides to originality.’ But he did suggest one simple rule of thumb: ‘If it pleases me, it might please you.’

He quoted Elmore Leonard’s advice: ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it’.

Words he misses? There are many, he says, including Australian phrases like ‘bonza’ and – a particular favourite – ‘discombobulate’.

Shmith shared a trade secret about the art of Age editorials with the scandalised and delighted audience. He enjoys writing editorials, because it’s the one area within the newspaper where it’s okay to use ‘words you wouldn’t introduce your mother to’. He and the other editorial writers used to have competitions to see how many ridiculous words they could fit into an editorial, he said, warning the audience to keep an eye on the editorials. If there seems to be a curious amount of wordy words packed into one editorial, then a competition is likely afoot.

He invited the audience to share their own bugbears, which they happily did. One audience member bemoaned the way everything is abbreviated these days. (‘Can you ask the Age to stop letting its writers use ‘brekkie’ instead of breakfast?’ she pleaded.)

Shmith concurred with her observation, citing the word ‘celeb’ and the phenomenon of celebrity couples merging into one word, like ‘Brangelina’. (‘There’s a word I thought would never cross my lips,’ he laughed. ‘Ten dollars in the swear jar!’)

And the Wheeler Centre’s Jenny Niven shared some of her own pet hates, including ‘it is what it is’ and ‘punching above its weight’.

What are some the words you’d like to see banned? Or words you’d love to see used more often?

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04 April 2012

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We recently reported on how the next edition Oxford Dictionary is to incorporate words such as sexting and woot. Now comes news that another major English-language dictionary, Collins, has announced its own list of new words to be included in its next edition.

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The Guardian reports that about 70 new words have been included in the 11th edition of the Collins English Dictionary, due out today in the UK. Zumba, mumpreneur and Arab Spring are words that reflect recent developments in politics, technology, fashion and contemporary culture. Other words of interest to have made the cut include kewl, planking and emberrorist (one who uses humiliation for malevolent purposes), while the inclusion of the verb unfollow and the noun clicktivism are two of the inclusions reflecting recent developments in online behaviour.

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06 October 2011

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Could the Prime Minister’s poll woes be linked to the words she uses? Sydney Morning Herald national reporter Jacqueline Maley has written an op-ed in the daily today suggesting the stiffness with which Prime Minister Julie Gillard delivers her scripted speeches might help explain why her messages don’t seem to cut through in the electorate.

While Julia Gillard is a lively speaker when speaking off-the-cuff, writes Maley, it’s a different story when she’s reading a scripted message:

Gillard obfuscates when she should illuminate, uses many words when a few would do, and confuses messages so badly that voters would be forgiven for thinking she’s deliberately trying to mess with their heads. She ends sentences with prepositions (“I explained that we had a High Court case that we were working through our response to,” she told journalists last week), speaks in the passive voice and uses multiple subjunctive [sic] clauses, which tend to bloat her speech. She has a habit of doubling her adverbs – using two when one, or none, would do.

For more on the art of political speech-making, watch or listen to this video/podcast of our recent event, ‘Unaccustomed as I am…’, where speakers read from some of their favourite speeches. We’ll publish the video/podcast of last night’s Don Watson event shortly, and further afield, former PM Paul Keating will visit the Wheeler Centre to promote the publication of a collection of his post-prime ministerial speeches, Afterwords.

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13 September 2011

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The 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary has been hauled into the 20th century, with a number of first-time additions to the dictionary reflecting the rise and rise of online culture. New words include cyberbullying, denialist, jeggings, mankini, retweet, sexting and woot (informal [especially in electronic communication] used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph). Some older words have been given a makeover: a cougar now not only refers to a species of the feline family but also means “an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man”, according to CNN.

Meanwhile across the Channel French broadcasting regulators, the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA), have decreed that television and radio broadcasters will no longer be permitted to use the words ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’ as generic terms for social media. The rationale of the ban is that these words refer to specific corporate brand names and not to the generic medium, and that their use is thus anti-competitive. A CSA spokesman is quoted as explaining, “Why give preference to Facebook, which is worth billions of dollars, when there are many other social networks that are struggling for recognition. This would be a distortion of competition.”

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23 August 2011

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Image via sivioco.com

We already knew that birdsong changes over time as birds' environments change – hence this video of a bird imitating the ringing of a mobile phone. Now there’s evidence that birdsong has a grammar of sorts. New Scientist has reported on a study that suggests Bengal finches can distinguish between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ combinations of their birdsong, and that the ability to do this is learned, not innate.

The study’s findings are the first reported instance of an animal other than a human using grammar. This is a neurological ability quite distinct from the ability to match a word to an object, which of course we know we share with dogs, parrots and Justin Bieber. But it’s only one of several so-called human abilities that have been shown to exist in the non-human animal world.

Bengal_finch

Image of a Bengal finch via indiastudychannel.com

Others include teaching, learning, cooperation, deception, memory and social learning. And if we look a little further, we also find evidence that various animals possess culture, the capacity to use tools, morality, emotions, personalities and the ability to read minds. This no doubt explains why we are so prone to anthropomorphising animal behaviour – something writing experts often admonish as a faux pas, despite its common occurrence in literature.

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29 June 2011

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Martin Amis on Don Quixote: “Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies. When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last (on page 846 — the prose wedged tight, with no breaks for dialogue), you will shed tears all right; not tears of relief or regret but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that Don Quixote could do.”

And seeing as it was Bloomsday last week, here’s Virginia Woolf on Joyce’s novel: “[Ulysses is] the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”

Top 30 insults by one author about another author.

Our recent story on literary feuds.

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20 June 2011

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The Emerging Writers’ Festival ended last night with a spelling bee. It was won by Mel Campbell, who correctly spelled the word bildungsroman (a coming-of-age novel, the most famous example of which is probably LP Hartley’s The Go-Between).

Coincidentally, in the US, the Scripps National Spelling Bee was held this weekend. The competition was won by 14 year-old Sukanya Roy, who lives near Scranton, Pennsylvania. She correctly spelled the word ‘cymotrichous‘ (just one of many mind-melters), which is the condition of having wavy hair. It was especially impressive as Sukanya has straight hair. She won a $30,000 cash prize, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a reference library from Merriam-Webster, $2,600 in reference works and a lifetime membership to Britannica Online Premium from Encyclopædia Britannica, $5,000 cash prize from the Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, an online course and a Nook eReader from K12 Inc, and a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged on CD-ROM from Merriam-Webster.

As depicted in the 2002 documentary Spellbound, the National Spelling Bee (sponsored by the Scripps media conglomerate) is held over the Memorial Day weekend in Maryland, near Washington DC. The winner of the 1999 bee – depicted in the documentary – was Nupur Lala, who went on to study brain behaviour and cognitive science. She won by correctly spelling the word ‘logorrhea’ (an apt word with which to win a spelling bee). Eight of the past 13 winners – including the last four winners – have been of South Asian descent. In an NPR report, Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus said, “These kids are spending sometimes a few hours a day going through word lists. Very often, they are coming from immigrant families that really prize learning English as part of becoming assimilated into American culture. So, my hat’s off to all of these young spellers.”

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06 June 2011

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Detail of a photograph from the book Arabic Graffiti

The decorative potential of Arabic script is famous – the exteriors of the entrances of the Taj Mahal, for example, are decorated with Koranic inscriptions that run in both directions at once. But modern artists are making the most of the beauties of the script too. Arabic Graffiti is a new book that highlights the best work of contemporary street artists working in Arabic. Check out this collection of photographs from the book, from which our photograph was lifted. Another recently published book, Cultural Connectives, examines the links and differences between the Latin and Arabic scripts using strikingly dramatic visual devices. Here’s a closer look at a book that will fascinate amateurs of everything typographic.

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02 June 2011

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The New York Times Magazine has published a list of words and phrases its readers most despise. The magazine’s readers were invited to write to the magazine with their pet word peeves following a blog post titled ‘Words We Don’t Say’, featuring a list of 36 words and phrases verboten at the magazine under the editorship of Kurt Andersen. Needless to say, the readers' list is far longer. ‘Popular’ choices in this unpopularity contest included ‘impact’ (used as a verb), ‘going forward’, and ‘at the end of the day’.

Language is an emotive subject. We found other discussions of vocabulary fear and loathing. A couple of years ago the Guardian took a look at poetic peeves (‘pulchritude’, anyone?); the online magazine Socyberty has this list that includes our favourite peeve, ‘irregardless’ (language warning); and this blog post has a bunch of web-related neologisms, some of which (like ‘hyphy’, derived from ‘hyperactive’), are guaranteed to rile.

What are your pet linguistic peeves?

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30 May 2011

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Q, the equal-highest point-earning letter in Scrabble and one of five that appear just once, via WikiCommons

A book designed to settle disputes is bound to provoke many more of them following news of the publication of its latest edition. Scrabble fans everywhere will be hotly debating the pros and cons of the latest edition of Collins Official Scrabble Words, the Scrabble Bible. The list of words includes 3000 additions that reflect common changes in English usage. Words like ‘thang’, ‘innit’ and ‘grrl’ have made it onto the list. ‘Tik’, ‘gak’ and ‘tina’ are drug-related euphemisms to have made it onto the list, as have web-related words like ‘Facebook’ and ‘Myspace’.

In a report in the Telegraph, 1993 world Scrabble champion Mark Nyman says of the Collins book, ‘'It’s like the 'bible’ really for Scrabble players. It’s what we use to avoid any major arguments. It’s fundamental, really."

The English-speaking Scrabble world is, like the Anglophone world in general, divided into two hemispheres, the west and east. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and most Commonwealth countries including Australia and India use the Collins as the go-to resource to settle contentious Scrabble words. (Several terms derived from Indian cooking, including ‘keema’, ‘alu’ and ‘aloo’ have made it into the latest Collins.) The United States refers to Webster’s dictionary, as does Canada.

A little known fact about Scrabble is that ‘scrabble’ is actually a real word – a verb referring to frantic scratching. Invented in 1938 by Alfred Mosher Butts and known variously as Alfapet, Funworder, Skip-A-Cross, Spelofun and Palabras Cruzadas, more than 100 million sets of Scrabble have been sold worldwide. It’s in half of homes in the UK and one in three in the US.

Other Scrabble trivia via:

  • The highest known score for a single word in competition Scrabble is 392, achieved in 1982 by. Saladin Khoshnaw for the word ‘caziques’, which means ‘Indian chief’.

  • The highest possible score, theoretically, for a single play under American tournament Scrabble rules is 1,778 points for joining eight already-played tiles to form the word ‘oxyphenbutazone’ across three triple-word-score squares, while simultaneously extending seven specific already-played words to form new words.

  • The highest score obtainable by playing a seven-letter word is ‘quartzy’ (164 points) across a triple-word-score square with the Z on a double-letter-score square.

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10 May 2011

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This post, on the linguistic origins of Moomba, is by Piers Kelly. It was originally published yesterday on Crikey’s Fully Sic blog, a blog devoted to all things language-related.

At Melbourne’s very first Moomba carnival in March of 1955, my father recalls Sir Reginald Dallas Brooks, opening the proceedings from the banks of the Yarra river. In his crown-appointed role as Governor of Victoria, he made a plummy declaration that ‘moomba’ is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘Let’s get together and have fun’. This definition has been repeated to Victorian schoolchildren ever since.

But a long-standing legend has it the moomba means something quite different altogether. In many Aboriginal languages, -ba is a suffix that roughly means ‘at the place of’. And every Koori knows that mum – which rhymes with ‘vroom’ – is the local word for ‘bum’.

So Moomba effectively means ‘up your bum’.

A widely circulated story has it that Bill Onus, a former president of the Australian Aborigines League, suggested the name to the festival organisers as a cheeky joke. A well known unionist, Onus was getting back at the city council for having deliberately upstaged the traditional Labour Day march with a popular carnival.

Newspaper reports from 1954 indicate that Onus did in fact offer the name ‘moomba’ with the meaning ‘a great, happy get-together’. The suggestion met with universal approval. Councillor Maurice Nathan was quoted as saying that “It sounds a great word, and would be easy to publicise. It would link with Melbourne, and I will submit it to the organising committee as soon as it is formed”. The Town Clerk was even more enthusiastic: “It is a good, melodious word. I think it is particularly fitting to use a genuine Australian word to describe the carnival.” As far away as Cairns, a whimsical columinst wondered whether it should be pronounced “with an upward, light-hearted inflection like, say ‘whoopee’, or whether you allow the long drawn out vowels to carry the slightly ominous ‘ooh’ sound”.

Over the years, the slightly ominous sound has swelled to a chorus of guffaws with Victoria’s Koori community claiming the last laugh. By 1981, linguist Barry Blake appeared to nail the case in his book Australian Aboriginal Languages:

…undoubtedly the most unfortunate choice of a proper name from Aboriginal sources was made in Melbourne when the city fathers chose to name the city’s annual festival ‘Moomba’. The name is supposed to mean ‘Let’s get together and have fun’, though one wonders how anyone could be naive enough to believe that all this can be expressed in two syllables. In fact ‘moom’ (mum) means ‘buttocks’ or ‘anus’ in various Victorian languages and ‘-ba’ is a suffix that can mean ‘at’, ‘in’ or ‘on’. Presumably someone has tried to render the phrase ‘up your bum’ in the vernacular.

On the face of it, this is a tale with all the hallmarks of a classic urban myth. Conspiracy, injustice avenged, and the bear minimum of plausibility. Is it all too good to be true?

Regrettably there’s no smoking gun in the historical documentation to settle the matter once and for all, but the controversy itself makes for an entertaining tale.

Alleged misunderstandings between colonisers and colonised are a common theme for folk etymologists who would have you believe that kangaroo is Guugu Yimithirr for ‘I don’t know’, and that Yucatán means ‘I don’t understand you’. And yet woeful mistakes are sometimes made and perpetuated. Many word lists of Aboriginal languages include classic ‘pointing errors‘ like the word for ‘head’ in place of ‘hair’, or ‘sky’ for ‘cloud’. Then there are the errors brought about by mishearing, such as ‘dung’ for ‘tongue’, that wind up on the permanent record.

Wholesale confabulations are altogether less likely, and the myth-busting website Snopes currently categorises the ‘moomba’ story as ‘Undetermined‘. Yet Barry Blake’s explanation that the combination of moom and -ba means ‘up your bum’ is hard to refute. Indigenous linguist and educator Jeanie Bell said she would even be willing to put money on it. And even if Victorian languages were in serious decline by the middle of the century, rude words like moom have a way of clinging on forever. Can’t remember highschool French? I bet you can still recall a few primary profanities.

The chief suspect in this alleged linguistic lark, Bill Onus, passed away in 1968, but his daughter-in-law Virginia Fraser believes she has the key to the controversy. In her short video documentary, Fraser explains how the festival aquired its name, as told to her by mother-in-law Mary. Apparently, Bill and Mary were looking for a general term for ‘corroborree’ when they came across moomba in a Queensland word list. In Fraser’s account, moomba was simply a special ceremony with no sacred connotations.

Some time after Bill died, his son Lin (Fraser’s husband) gave an an interview with Lorna Lippman in which he claimed that his father had chosen the name moomba as a prank, specifically because it meant ‘up your bum’. But when Lin got the true account from his furious mother, he vowed to go public and correct his error. It was too late. The bum story proved irresistible to the public imagination.

There is reason to take Virginia Fraser’s recollection of events seriously. Luise Hercus, who has studied Australian languages since the 1960s, rejects the ‘up the bum’ translation. She notes that the suffix –ba means ‘and’ in the Kulin languages of Victoria, so ‘moomba’ would be glossed as the improbable fragment ‘bum and’.

The Queensland connection, suggested by Fraser, is perhaps more plausible. Thanks to Trove it’s now possible to learn much more about the circumstances of Moomba’s conception. Only a few years before the idea of a Melbourne parade was first tossed around, Bill Onus had helped to organise a special performance at the Princess Theatre. Billed as Out of the Dark: an Aboriginal Moomba, the show was the result of lobbying on the part of the Australian Aborigines League to have indigenous people represented in the celebrations for the 50-year jubilee of Federation. About forty indigenous men travelled from Queensland to perform a three-hour extravaganza of singing and dancing that brought the house down. It was so popular that repeat performances were slated for other states and there were plans to take the show to Britain for a special staging before the king. The state government even went so far as to patent the name ‘Moomba’ to guard against illicit spin-offs. It is most likely that Onus was referencing this event when he suggested the name ‘Moomba’, a word that already had positive associations for Melbourne.

Out of the Dark included a handful of special guests but the core dance troupe was from Cherbourg reservation in southeast Queensland, where indigenous people from all over the state were forcibly resettled from the beginning of the century. Even by the 1950s the residents of Cherbourg were not permitted to leave without permission and this was not easily granted. Nor was leaving Cherbourg any guarantee of independence. Astoundingly, almost 80 per cent of the income that the performers derived from the show was quarantined by the Queensland Native Affairs authority, a fact which generated a degree of public outrage in Melbourne.

Journalists who covered the production wrote that ‘moomba’ meant either ‘out of the dark’ or ‘camp concert’. One went so far as to explain that it was the nearest Aboriginal approximation of ‘jubilee celebration’. As a key producer, Onus would certainly have had a hand in choosing the name for the show, and it may have been at this point that he and his wife went searching for suitable indigenous word from the sunshine state. So which list did they consult?

Over the decades, speakers of over 30 different languages entered Cherbourg, but it was the Wakka Wakka language, traditionally spoken in the Cherbourg region, that would emerge as a lingua franca on the reservation. Unfortunately, records of southeast Queensland vocabularies are scarce and no single entry announces itself as a likely inspiration. A vocabulary of Wakka Wakka published in 1926 gives ngumba for ‘show’ which may have been interpreted by the couple as ‘performance’. Words that begin with ng- are notoriously difficult for native English speakers so the spelling could have been modified for an English audience. The word moomba appears in an 1886 word list collected on the ‘north side of Moreton Bay’ with the meaning ‘thunder’, and moombarl is given the same sense in the nearby Dal-la language. Rather more promising is the word mumba in the Bidyara and Gungabula languages, traditionally spoken some distance to the west of Cherbourg. The recorded meaning is ‘all, together’, even though no list that includes this word predates the 1950s when Bill and Mary were doing their research. A 1943 book of Australian place names claimed that indigenous name for Tenterfield, just south of the Queensland border with NSW, is ‘Moombah-line’ meaning ‘making a noise’.

It’s also possible that the ‘out of the dark’ meaning, supplied in some news items of 1951, is on the right track and that Bill or his wife elicited this translation from a speaker of a Queensland language. Linguists David Nash and Felicity Meakins have alerted me to the fact that the Gurindji and Mudburra languages of the Northern Territory have a coverb mum ‘dark’. By adding special suffixes to this you can get words like ‘darkness’ or ‘black’. So why not ‘out of the dark’?

A final possibility is that ‘moom’ does in fact mean bum in a Queensland language as well. Jeanie Bell clearly recalls the word ‘moom’ being used in the Aboriginal English of southeast Queensland where she grew up, as well as in Victoria where she lived for many years. The traditional term for ‘bum’ in the languages around Cherbourg is mundi, but there’s no saying where words can end up as a result of human displacement and cultural loss.

That Moomba is derived from a word meaning ‘up your bum’ seems far fetched, but whatever the case, this sense has already become part of the semantics of the event and perhaps it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Moomba is all too often described as ‘a festival in search of a point’ and the linguistic legend adds a touch of colour to an otherwise dull parade of tacky floats and tackier celebrities. After all, throughout history, carnivals have always been subversive occasions when peasants role-played as kings, women dressed as men, the oppressed mocked the oppressor. In other words, the underdogs could metaphorically drop their dacks and moon The Man for a day.

Let’s get together and have fun? Up your bum to that, I say!

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16 March 2011

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How does an expression of uncertain provenance and contested spelling, for which each language already has its own long-standing version, take over the world? Allan Metcalf, author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, has published an introduction on the expression and its spread across the world. With several alternative spellings (okay, o.k. and ok), the term seems to have originated in 1839 as a lame joke published in a newspaper – news that will no doubt only encourage creators of lame jokes the world over. There is no mention of the origin of OK’s less fashionable cousins, okey-dokey and okely-dokely. For what it’s worth, here’s our favourite story of how a word can come into being.

Update: here’s a feature at HuffPost Books on the origins of several other popular terms.

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21 February 2011

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NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich has published a piece on the various contenders for the prestigious title of the longest word in English.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the behemoths of the language are names given to chemical compounds, but the matter isn’t so simple. There are certain tests the word must pass: it must have been used at least once, for example, which means it needs to have been published. Most chemical compounds are referred to in annotated form, so they’re never actually printed. The longest-word-in-English title also needs to be given to a real word, not one purposely invented for the purposes of breaking records – what Krulwich refers to as a “trophy” word. Interestingly, inventing long words for the sake of it is a tradition that may stretch as far back as Shakespeare.

As for the holder of the title – well, you’ll have to read it yourself. Suffice to say, the story may have a Hollywood ending.

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28 January 2011

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What does German hip hop sound like? How has the re-unification of one of Europe’s oldest cultures brought out new artforms?

In this partnership event with the Goethe-Institut Australien as part of the German-Australian Arts Festival in Melbourne, this panel explores modern German identity and the dynamic art scene of its capital.

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20 January 2011

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Macquarie Dictionary is reviewing the words of 2011 and asking for people to vote on their favourite word of the year. The list makes for a fascinating picture of what interested us in the last 12 months as well as introducing a few playful expressions to your vocabulary.

We were surprised to learn that koala ears has little to do with the marsupial. With two definitions: “thick tufts of hair growing over the ears, especially those occurring when a hairstyle is growing out” and perhaps more disturbingly “patches of pubic hair protruding from the leg openings of a swimming costume or underwear”.

Masterchef has had an impact with the verb “plate up” (meaning “to arrange (food) on an individual plate or plates for serving: to plate up the main course”) earning a place alongside the facetious corkage replacement: “screwage” (“a charge made by a restaurant, etc., for serving liquor not supplied by the house, but brought in by the customers”).

But the areas of technology and computing yield the most additions to our lexicon. In 2010 many of us found our “googleganger” (“a person with the same name as oneself, whose online references are mixed with one’s own among search results for one’s name”), while the volume of communication gave us “email fatigue” (“the sense of being overwhelmed by a high volume of incoming emails, resulting in an inability to deal with them effectively”). As it’s Friday you might also want to mention at the water cooler that you’re feeling lowbat – referring both to low batteries in your mobile, but more fun with the colloquial definition: “Colloquial tired or exhausted: I was lowbat for days after the party”.

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14 January 2011

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In a parallel universe crossword puzzles are made by a specialised team of artisans known as the “box team” including Garson Hampfield, crossword inker. Hampfield tells the intricacies and travails of crossword making in this animation by Michael A Charles. There’s landmark moments in the evolution of crossword setting, the rise of mechanised crossword grids as well as our favourite quote: “A lot of the young guys coming up today have never even heard the name Chad Bumfry.”

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07 December 2010

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Last week we offered some untranslatable words that you might use on holidays and our commenters came back with some even better suggestions including some home-grown suggestions.

One anonymous commentator suggested the excellent Australianism, ‘dag’. Their explanation gave played out the subtleties of the word that’s evolved beyond the barnyard. “You can explain the unpleasant farming origins of the word but it’s difficult to say how this relates to the common usage—– which is at once slightly disparaging and affectionate, and can be about style or manner.”

‘Michael’ talked about the untranslatable nature of Shane Maloney’s books, including phrases like ‘Unreconstructed Whitlamite’ and ‘paddle-pop stick’. The most totally untranslatable phrase was a sublime example of Strine that may not even make sense to the most dinkum of us: “Wendy had pissed in every pocket within a bull’s roar of Lake Burley Griffin”. We think it means roughly that Wendy had maligned most of Canberra but it could also be an incontinence problem.

We also mentioned a story of Nick Earls being unable to translate pikelet for his US edition of Perfect Skin. Earls wrote about the translation experience in Australian saying that most of the suburb names were sacrificed, “bitumen became asphalt” and the humble pikelet was flipped into another dessert. As Earls tells it “The role of pikelets in the US edition was played by a jelly ring. And I think the US version includes a line about female gym teachers, which my editor wrote and told me would be very funny there.” Interestingly Earls uses the experience of mistranslation as an argument for why parallel importation of books would damage Australian culture.

Not in our backyard but very homey was Richard Watts' suggestion that we should adopt the Danish word hygge, which roughly translates to “a certain type of atmosphere or ambience or well-being evoked by comfort, friendship and familiarity (of people, places, or surroundings).” Couldn’t we all do with a little more hygge?

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06 December 2010

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Before you jet off on holiday, you might want to pack a few untranslatable words to get you through those times when using the English words – only LOUDER – just won’t cut it.

Matador network offer a helpful list of 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World, beginning the tour with Russian stopover: toska. They cite Vladimir Nabokov’s definition:

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

Perhaps not one for beach holiday.

What about a Czech stopover with litost? It’s the word that Milan Kundera struggled to define: “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The best definition Matador could come up with is “a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery” which also probably won’t be used much during a week in Bali.

Perhaps you should make for Brazil and engage in some cafuné, “the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair”. If all goes well with the hair stroking, you might find yourself using the somewhat dark Arabic Ya’aburnee an “incantatory word [that] means ‘You bury me’, a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them”.

We hope that your holiday romance doesn’t end with the Portuguese word saudade, which “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.”

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03 December 2010

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Translation is like being a shadow novelist according to Maureen Freely who has translated the works of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk.

Freely herself a writer was initially concerned that translation would damage her own writing. Instead she found her own works “enriched by the imaginary conversations they’ve had with the poets and novelists whose words they have translated”.

She makes a strong case for translation being so much more than literally aligning words in another language. “When I am shadowing Pamuk, what I want to do most is capture the music of his language as I hear it. Accuracy is important, but a lot of what I need to be accurate about lies deep below the surface.”

But surely in the modern world of auto-translation, the art of re-working a novel into English is almost extinct? Freely provides this Google Translate version of Orhan Pamuk’s opening of Istanbul as an example of just how wrong auto-translation can be:

“A place in the streets of Istanbul, similar to ours in a different house, with everything I like, twin, or even exactly the same, starting from childhood lived another Orhan a corner of my mind I believed for many years.”

Compare this with Freely’s own translation into English:

“From a very young age, I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double.”

The nuance that a good translator can bring but Freely acknowledges “Other translators will find their own ways to capture what they see and hear in the text.”

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30 November 2010

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If your finger hovers over the “a” key after writing “ok” then you’re not alone. Roy Blount from the New York Times recently puzzled over what the correct spelling was.

Blount traces the first use of okay back to a bad joke about mispelling:

“The first use of OK in print, in The Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, was a joke: “o.k. — all correct.” Such misspelling-based abbreviations were a fad. An earlier effort, "o.w.”, for “oll wright”, failed to catch on, whereas OK has gone globally viral."

Blount believes that “much of OK’s catchiness adheres in how much fun it is to say”. He rhapsodises over the way the word feels in your mouth. “O is round not only on the page but also within the mouth, and K is the side-of-the-tongue-on-palate click that signals a horse to go and also serves as an oral (often accompanied by an ocular) wink.”

But what’s the favoured spelling? News Limited’s Style Guide opts for OK noting “but (in quotes only) okayed”. The web sides with the capitalised initials with a search on Googlefight revealing just over 9 million “okay” to a staggering 54,200,000 “OK”. This may, however, be biased by the web’s need for brevity in tight character counts. Twitter, for example, is definitely no okay, but OK.

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23 November 2010

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Sarah Palin’s linguistic skills have been given the highest honour as the New Oxford American Dictionary has picked her made-up refudiate as the 2010 Word of the Year.

Palin first used the word when she was tweeting about a mosque being built at Ground Zero. Pushing the 140 character count and the bounds of the sensibility, Palin tweeted “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.” As people struggled to work out if Palin was asking peaceful Muslims to refute, repudiate or redress, the word became the most searched for in the Meriam Webster online dictionary, according to the Huffington Post. It’s been given the definition “used loosely to mean ‘reject’”.

Galleycat reports that it beat out some fairly dull competition in words including crowdsourcing and retweet. The OUP blog lists other more interesting contenders including nom nom (“exclamation an expression of delight when eating”) and the re-interpretation of the Seinfeld classic double-dip (now meaning “double-dip adjective denoting or relating to a recession during which a period of economic decline is followed by a brief period of growth, followed by a further period of decline”).

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16 November 2010

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Geoffrey Rush called him “the Sergeant Pepper of cryptic crosswords” but crossword maker David Astle dances with words daily. If you ever wondered how Saturday’s cryptic is created then this is the insight into the mind and madness of the country’s toughest setter better known by his initials DA. Some say it stands for “Don’t Attempt” and as a setter Astle is as reviled as he is revered.

From anagrams to homophones to unfair setting, Astle talks about the “recipes” behind his puzzles and dismantles the solving process.

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15 November 2010

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The Guardian’s pass notes series takes on one of the most basic units of our vocabulary, “the”, and wonders about its future.

Mostly they’ve noticed that the definite article is disappearing in proper nouns. The article reminds, saying “You’re probably not old enough to remember when people called Argentina ‘The Argentine’ or Lebanon ‘The Lebanon’.”

But if you’re a traditionalist there are still some bastions left. “According to the Guardian’s style guide, we’ve still got the Gambia. And it will be a long time before anyone visits Bronx.” Similarly there’s “the moon” and their example “Can I call you back, prime minister? I’m in Hague at the moment.”

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11 November 2010

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Dr Samuel Johnson has been an active Twitterer for some time but recently he has published a new dictionary based on our modern world.

Of course, it’s a fake but as an extract from the Quietus shows, author phoney-Johnston Tom Morton has captured much of Dr Johnson’s humour especially when defining hip-hop right down to the characteristic spelling. Here’s the basic definition: “Hip-Hop is oft defin’d as rhythmick Oratory set to a Beat; heralded as the inventive Poetry of the Streets & then condemn’d for all the Ills of Mankind.”

There’s a discussion of hip-hop artists (“equal Part a Town-Crier, Poet, Peacock & Highwayman”). But Mortons seems to have most fun translating lyrics into Johnson-ism, such as Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” as “Tis like a Jungle out there, oft-times I wonder how I keep from going UNDER. Push me not, SIR, I am close ‘pon the Edge. I try, most ardently, not to lose my HEAD”. Or take his re-working of Kelis’ “Milkshake”: “My Milk-Cart brings all the Rakes unto the Yard forthwith, and verily, it is better than THINE”.

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20 October 2010

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Astle__David_Bio_Pic

Meet Sebastian. He doesn’t talk much. In fact he hasn’t spoken since we met. The strong silent type, Sebastian has a round head and lean flanks. He hails from Sweden, along with Gilbert, who lives in my dining room.

We also have an L-shaped couch called Karlstad and a blond coffee table named Ramvik. To complete the family there is Benno the bookcase, a desk named Galant and nest of shelves in the garden shed called Gorm.

I don’t speak Swedish. Apart from the words our language has pinched – like ombudsman and smorgasbord – I’m mute as Sebastian. Yet all this time, living among the IKEA colony we call a home, I’d presumed Ramvik was a word meaning modular couch with puffy armrests in Stockholm.

And Florö was Swedish for a queen-size bedframe made of particle board and steel rods. Turns out Floro is really a herring town in western Norway, just like Trondheim, the sister bed in the catalogue, is a seat of learning five hours north of Oslo.

There’s a system lurking behind these IKEA names, though the logic is harder to grasp than a clammy Allen key. Benno and Gorm, say, are both Swedish boys, as is Gilbert the chair and Sebastian the adjustable stool. Meanwhile Lusy Bloom (a cushion) and Alvine Snurr (a throw rug) are two Nordic lasses.

Lakes and rivers (like Apskar and Toftbo) belong in the bathroom, being a wash basin and cotton mat respectively. Swedish islands occupy the patio as furniture. While Finnish towns are interior tables, and Danish ones, carpet.

Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, created this quirky naming system to offset his own dyslexia, goes the popular theory. Far better to link a low table to Ramvik, a small dairy town on the Baltic, rather than dabble in the typical coding claptrap of CQ41-209TX, which happens to be a laptop at Harvey Norman.

Nouns and adjectives also rate as chattels in the IKEA catalogue. Doll-house items are listed under Duktig, which means well-behaved. While Luftig, an exhaust fan, translates as airy. Mind you, the tactic can backfire when some names are exported.

Already in Australia we changed the Jerker work station into a seemlier Fredrik, just as Berliners balked at buying a double bunk for kids called Gutvik, since it meant good bonk in German, not bunk. And what odds do you give Lyckhem, an occasional table meaning bliss, on surviving innuendo?

Puzzled_Cover But soon enough we’ll all be yapping makeshift Swedish. As IKEA flotsam populates our homes, we won’t blink twice to hear our host remark, ‘Hey Trish, why not grab that extra Gilbert near the Expedit and slide it under the Helsinki.’

David Astle is a cruciverbalist and author of Puzzled: Secrets And Clues From A Life Lost In Words.

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24 September 2010

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Over at the ever-informative OUP blog, Anatoly Liberman is wrestling with what he calls a “ubiquitous modern parasite”: the word “like”. He chronicles the rise of the word as though it were a virus mutating to defy definition. Liberman believes “like freed itself from the verb to be and became an independent filler” with very little meaning.

And far from belonging to 21st century hipsters, Liberman traces the it’s origins back to 1741 with an OED entry “All these three, belike, went together”. He translates it as “Take away be-, and you will get a charming modern sentence: ‘All these three, like, went together.’” He goes on to find examples in Shakespeare (“You are like to be much advanced”) and the Bible.

“Like” has become so thin that Liberman struggles to describe it but labels it “a parenthetical word and should be flanked by commas” but also reckons it has much in common with adverbs because “the part of speech called adverb has always served as a trashcan for grammatical misfits”.

But like any good virus Liberman laments that he can’t restrict the spread of ‘like’ as it has spread to other languages. So far Liberman has observed other meaningless words being added into sentences: “Germans have begun to say quasi in every sentence. Swedes say liksom, and Russians say kak by; both mean ‘as though’.”

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16 September 2010

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