State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 63 Autumn 1999


The 1996 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture
Right Words


Stephen Murray-Smith's Right Words. A Guide to English Usage in Australia was published in 1987, the year before he died, and appeared in an expanded and revised edition in 1989. Right Words: no flinching there from a hard question of our time, when anybody who affirms standards in cultural matters is apt to be called authoritarian and elitist, and the makers of new dictionaries assure readers that they are not presuming to be prescriptive about usage.
Right Words begins with two antithetical quotations. This from Anthony Burgess: ‘Language is not an intellectual construct, but the property of the people. Nobody is better than anyone else at it.’ And this from Dorothy Green (anybody who knew her can hear the sharp indignant voice): ‘You are told by experts that language has to change. To which the only retort is that it does not necessarily change for the better and there is no reason it should change overnight because some illiterate ass has a microphone in front of his mouth.’ Dorothy Green's words remind me of a sentence by the great pioneer lexicographer Samuel Johnson. ‘Change’, he declares in the preface to his Dictionary, ‘is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.’
Both Anthony Burgess and Dorothy Green are right, says the author of Right Words, using that word again. ‘Language belongs to us all, and we speak that language as we please. In speaking as we wish, we help to create the new language that is always being born out of the old. Still, if you call a cabbage a clock people will have difficulty in understanding what you mean.’
The author declares a series of aims:
to set out some helpful rules — yes, rules — in the speaking and writing of English.
to illuminate common solecisms and confusions, so that they may be avoided.
to encourage debate rather than to end it, and to … avoid being too prescriptive.
He will decide what is prescriptive enough. As he does in his other book of words, The Dictionary of Australian Quotations, which is more than an inventory of familiar phrases. There is an echo of Matthew Arnold in this project for a ‘guide to the best that has been thought, said and written within and about Australia’. Not just passages in common usage, but passages that ought to be.
Above all we wish, where appropriate and possible, to apply an Australian understanding of words.
‘Australian’ has long been one of his favourite words. Overland: ‘Temper democratic, bias Australian’. Significantly, one noun in the second edition of Right Words not
bagged by any previous collector is Australianist. Two meanings are given, an academic one familiar to me and another I had not known: the opposite of imperialist in arguments about the purpose of an Australian army.
Murray-Smith has an honourable line of predecessors in the cause of applying an Australian understanding to words: first the English immigrant Professor Edward Morris, and then Eric Partridge, Sidney Baker, Graeme Johnston, Gerry Wilkes, George Turner and Bill Ramson, all of whom except Wilkes came from New Zealand. I wonder why the study of Australian English owes so much to scholars from that country. Is it because they found here a variety of the imperial language more robustly deviant than their own? For Partridge the experience of being a private soldier in the Australian Imperial Force was the beginning of an adventure with words which lasted until he died at the age of 85. On Gallipoli and in France, he recalled, he met ‘all the roughs and the toughs, as well as many decent fellows coming from trades and professions of which I knew nothing’. He has left a recollection of that experience which is also a manifesto for his life's work. ‘I came to absorb Australian English and, much more important, unforgettingly to acquire the knowledge, invaluable to a student of speech and literature, that even one language can and does change from clime to clime, from colony to colony, from one generation to another, even from one social group to the next, and from childhood to youth to early manhood to middle-age to old-age…’ I quote from Geoffrey Serle's introduction to his edition of Frank Honeywood, Private, the book in which Partridge came as close as any man immured in the horrors of the Great War to describing the undescribable.
As I say ‘the Great War’ I think of the entry in Right Words. ‘Conscientious copy-editors cross out the words Great War when they see them in manuscripts and insert First World War. Conscientious copy-editors sometimes get a little too big for their boots. The Great War was the name of the 1914–1918 conflict to all who took part in it, and for a generation afterwards.’
Partridge's recollection of comrades’ idiom is a forecast of his own greatest work. He acquired, inter alia, ‘a not inconsiderable stock of slangy and colloquial and other unconventional words and phrases and senses and idioms.’ I use inter alia with my subject's blessing: a useful Latin phrase usually printed in italics, he advises, and for good measure he gives us this, from Peter Porter:
  • In Australia
  • Inter alia
  • Mediocrities
  • Think they're Socrates.
That Australian stock went into larger and larger editions of Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. He made other books incorporating and interpreting the language of roughs and toughs. Also among his 30 or so books, however, are works on conventional and unslangy English. Many of us grew up on Usage and Abusage. A Guide to Good English. My wife Amirah, having suddenly to teach English at high school, was saved by English. A Course for Human Beings.

Stephen Murray-Smith ca. 1985. Gelatin silver photograph. Photograph courtesy of Nita Murray-Smith.

Murray-Smith, like Partridge, was exposed in early adult life, as a front-line and beyond-front-line soldier in the second AIF, to language unfamiliar to him as a lad (at Geelong Grammar). He too moves comfortably from the most formal to the least formal of words. Right does not mean narrow. Listen to these sentences on slang (and notice, incidentally, how they carry images from another of his interests, islands).
Slang is the incoming tide of a restless sea of language. Words are cast up on the shore. Some are drawn back by the next wave into the sea, and disappear for ever. Some remain, driven ever higher by the water, to sprout like coconuts on a Pacific Island, and to become a fixed part of the linguistic environment. The word mob, for instance, was once merely slang.
The author dips his lid to another great predecessor, the learned and idiosyncratic H. W. Fowler, whose Dictionary of Modern English Usage provides a model for some nice entries of his own. I choose the word nice with care, having noted Murray-Smith's judgment that its use to mean amiable, pleasant, attractive and so on is pussy-footing and tiresome, and that it is best reserved to mean subtle, discerning, wellput, neat, close-fitting. Among entries with those qualities I think of metaphorical mischief and moribund metaphors and similes, which offer wise counsel with cautionary
examples: my favourite is ‘at the height of the depression’. These items I found by looking up, as any reader might, the word metaphor. There are other riches one is less likely to discover unless by coming across them while reading something else on the same page, or by browsing, reading on, carried forward by illumination and delight. Who would think of looking for an entry entitled awful Australianisms? Or offensive intruders? You find that one by looking up Americanisms. Not that Murray-Smith is much troubled by American infiltrators; he observes, moreover, that ‘the resistance of Australian English to American penetration is more surprising than its acceptance of it.’ He is disturbed, though, by what has been happening to our language, on American and other initiatives, in the field where he laboured professionally with such mixed feelings, education. ‘Much of our common store of literary allusion’, he declares, ‘is being lost as a result of the democratisation of education and the drive for “relevance”’. He goes on to ‘regret the inability of young people today to recognise a biblical or other allusion which was part of the stock of common discourse only a generation or so ago …’ This judgment happens to appear under cliches, but it could as well have been put elsewhere, within the splendid entry on misquotations (second edition only): it's something the author is determined to say, wherever it fits.
Some entries go beyond linguistic usage into politics and culture and society. From the three pages on the word Commonwealth almost any reader can become more knowledgeable about our system of government; and the five pages under political terminology offer a shrewd and fair-minded primer on the history and character of Australian ideas and affiliations. Likewise the two pages on working class.
Far beyond politics, we come across riches of a kind more to be expected in an encyclopedia than a guide to words. Fish: more than a page of common names for Australian fish, ‘wildly at variance with the same names which appear in dictionaries of British English’. Still by the sea, King Canute who, we are informed, ‘was not so daffy as to try to stop the tide advancing on the royal toes’. A perpetual calendar, letting us discover on what day of the week Karl Marx, for example, was born when we have only the date (Tuesday). A guide to railway gauges in Australia, and to the size and names of beer glasses in every state.
The author's tone is pleasingly varied. He can be imperious. ‘There is no such word as nearby’, he decrees, ignoring the judgment of respectable dictionaries which allow one word rather than two. He can be magisterial: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation gets many a caning. He can be magisterial but conciliatory: ‘you should not say I had a raise in my salary because raise is not a noun’. But then: ‘A confession: to be honest raise does appear in the dictionaries as a noun, used in the sense above. It is edging its way in. But rise is still preferred.’ Here and elsewhere, the godlike passive voice is heard more often that you would expect from the severe entry on that device. He can be cranky, as on metrication, a policy which vexes Murray-Smith as sorely as it would have vexed Dr. Johnson. ‘We not only lost our traditional units, but also an important part of our real and metaphorical language, a point that meant nothing to the politicians, bureaucrats and “improvers” concerned.’ He can be appalled. ‘The use of the apostrophe in such a sentence as “Pie's and Pastie's sold here” is a sordid
illiteracy.’ He can be incredulous at what other readers report from linguistic underworlds not visited by a person of taste. Thus on procrastinate / prevaricate:
We find it hard to believe, but are told that these two words are frequently confused. So, for the record: Procrastinate means to delay, to put off doing something, in Australian idiom to drag the chain. In Latin it means to put off until tomorrow. Prevaricate means to fudge the truth, to skirt round issues in a misleading manner, to imply a lie, to quibble. It comes from the Latin for knock-kneed, or walking crookedly. Both words have this in common: they may cause us to reflect that Latin, far from being a ‘useless’ language, has a lot to do with our understanding of our own language. Perhaps it should go back on the school curriculum alongside ‘Human Relations’.
Speaking of Latin, there is an entry giving the words of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ translated into Latin. Pure fun, and there is a lot of that. ‘Uranus, the planet, is pronounced, perhaps regrettably, as your anus. Since, in these liberated days, far more people are familiar with the word anus than in grandma's time, there is more sensitivity to this pronunciation, and an attempt to change it to YOUR-annis. Which pronunciation you favor will depend on your sense of humor.’ On that same sense will depend your reading of the first sentence in a long entry headed hyphens, which our hyphenated author tells us ‘are used for many purposes, apart from the very useful one of making people's names sound grander’.
Though learned, the author knows that he is not infallible. In the introduction he writes: ‘There are many omissions, many debatable points, no doubt some errors.’ He invites comments and suggestions, and I was among people who offered them on the first edition as he prepared for the second, and then sent some in for the third edition now in the making. I spotted only two errors: the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and the Territory of Papua were not administered jointly after the Great War, and multiculturalism is not a word of Australian origin (Vide infra).
As for suggestions, I discover again and again that the author has already recorded, analysed, deplored some clanger I read or hear. A few examples, in alphabetical order.
arguably, which sounds as if it is committing the user to more than it really is. Right Words has the form it is arguable, and nails it.
begging the question, which as Murray-Smith says ought to mean, but often does not, trying to prove an argument by using an argument that is itself open to argument.
diffuse confused with defuse.
fulsome ‘does not mean generous, outgoing or lavish. It means … cloying, unpleasantly servile, insincerely flattering’.
viable, as in a viable leader. ‘In science’, the author writes, ‘viable means capable of living, and the word is best left to science.’ He includes it in the category of bully words employed ‘to terrorise, or bully, or to seek to impress with words that sound “superior”’.
Some usages I have noticed with the new edition in mind make no new point but might be added to examples of metaphorical mischief. Heard on Radio Australia: ‘At last Australia's feral rabbits are on the back foot.’ There is one metaphor I would like to have an entry of its own: laughing all the way to the bank. Why wouldn't people laugh all the way to the bank if they are about to put money in? The phrase ought to be crying all the way to the bank. It was created, I think, by Liberace, and the entry in Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases is spot on: ‘A U S c.p. dating from c.1950 and adopted in Britain in the late 1950s, is ironically used by someone, or of someone, whose work is adversely criticized on literary or artistic or musical grounds … but who has had the temerity to make a fortune by it.’
As with clangers, so with words that I think deserve a rest, I find often that Murray-Smith is there first. For example, basically. Here he is indulgent but cautionary.
Basically, basically is a useful word. However, this from a story by Shirley Hazzard. ‘Mr. Bekkus frequently misused the word “hopefully”. He also made a point of saying locate instead of find, utilise instead of use, and never lost an opportunity to indicate or communicate; and would slip in a “basically” when he was unsure of his ground.’
That usage, I think (or as I might say, arguably) has spread in the last ten years, and so has a defensive use by politicians to mean that what they said was true even though critics have shown that it was not.
dramatic. ‘There will be a dramatic reduction in train services tomorrow’, the author hears an ABC news reader say. ‘If dramatic means anything it must surely mean that an event is startling, heightened in impact, a bit larger than life, in other words, as we would expect to see in at least some dramas. A reduction in trains running of one in every four is no dramatic news … This unfortunate word is being used here, as so often, in a lazy way.’ In academic prose, I add, it has tended to become a substitute for large or substantial: a dramatic increase, a dramatic fall. I had a scary moment recently when I saw it used that way in a piece under my own name. When I looked up the original I found that a Sydney Morning Herald sub-editor had put the word in. Too big for her or his boots.
elite, elitist. On the one hand I notice a cinema executive say, ‘At $11 we were in danger of becoming elitists.’ On the other hand, I see in a brochure that the Australian Institute of Sport exists to train ‘elite athletes’. What do I find in Right Words? The second edition has a long entry including this:
An elite is a special group distinguished by intelligence, wealth, power, skills, etc. …In his professional life the author of this book has observed with interest highly qualified colleagues in the educational world attempting to prevent programs being instituted for specially gifted children who sometimes languish for the lack of extra stimulation in our schools. Successive Australian governments have been as reluctant to finance the development of high levels of academic attainment as they have been eager to subsidise generously the Australian Institute of Sport.
I am glad I looked. I enjoy a similar reward when I read the entry on that overworked word situation: ‘a bullfrog word when used in such contexts as in the classroom situation … those saying it thus are trying to inflate their importance and give the impression of studied familiarity.’
I do have a modest set of new candidates. First, mistaken usages. Wrong Words.
crucial: to mean not decisive but just important — a misuse Edmund Wilson railed against long ago.
envious instead of enviable: ‘one of the most envious locations in Sydney.’
heir apparent: instead of heir presumptive, an error which needs putting right by our hyphenated author at his most patrician.
it is impossible to underestimate or it is no understatement when the intention requires the opposite.
presumptious: as Murray-Smith would say, there is no such word. So when Kim Beazley uses it, is he being ignorant, or making a slip, or doing what the gently-born author says some gently-born people do when they say Youse: trying to pretend they are working-class?
plethora: to mean a lot when it really means too many.
populist: confused with popular.
reticence: for reluctance. A university administrator — a deputy vice-chancellor — writes: ‘I certainly understand your reticence’ about examining a thesis, when I have been not at all reticent about my reluctance to do the job.
too simplistic: Murray-Smith has an amiable entry on simplistic, meaning too simple; but too simplistic deserves a place in his list of pleonasms.
travesty: to mean a scandal or an outrage rather than a mockery or parody.
Moving beyond mistakes, some more moribund metaphors:
spiral downwards: so much used by financial journalists about prices. Why not drop or fall? Worse than moribund: ‘the spiralling value of the yen’. Spiralling up or down?
stunning: as in a stunning new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. What would it be like to be stunned by a portrait, unless it fell on you?
Then some words not yet in the book which I believe could do with a rest:
  • as it were: when the user has no metaphorical intent.
  • not to say, not to mention: before saying or mentioning.
  • doubtless: when there is doubt.
  • there's no doubt or there is little doubt: if not, no need to say so.
  • back to back: for successive, or two in a row.
  • currently: for now.
  • if you like: when the user is giving us the word whether we like it or not.
in terms of: as in its services differ from Greek Orthodox only in terms of language; and as in the public speech of people playing for time to decide how to finish the sentence. Likewise to all intents and purposes, when there is no intent or purpose other than to fill time or space.
icon: arguably this word has taken off in the last few years. John Huxley of the Sydney Morning Herald hears in it a distinctively Australian music. ‘Other English-speaking countries rarely use the word in its slacker, subsidiary sense of “national treasure”. In Australia, though, icon is routinely attached to people, places and products as diverse as Dame Joan and Dame Edna, Gough Whitlam and Shane Warne, the Harbour Bridge and the Holden FJ, Phar Lap and Fosters, Vegemite and Victor mowers.’ There is worse to come. ‘Patsy Stone, the character played by Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous, has become something of a cult icon.’ Both words in that usage have earned a rest.
put simply: has also earned a rest, when used to signal that I am about to remove complexities so that you lot can understand me. Strangely, what follows may not to be all that simple. ‘Put simply, the Philips head screwdriver puts force on the screw head at four points at the end of each flange, instead of the two points that the conventional slot head does. This means that for the same torque (turning force), about one half of the coupling forces are generated at each flange head. In addition…’
resile: I think I first heard that from Andrew Peacock. He and Gareth Evans were great ones for not resiling from something or other. Who ever does?
Next, two more of what Murray-Smith labels bully words:
infrastructure: this mouthful began life in Robert McNamara's Pentagon to mean all that is not weaponry. What does it mean now? ‘It's what the non-trendy called “public works”’, writes Sydney Morning Herald's lucid Ross Gittins, who goes on to explain why the trendy or the disingenuous prefer it.
look and the reality is: the first being an informal second-person version of the latter, and both used not just to sound superior but to intimidate.
Bully words may not be quite strong enough as a description of certain other candidates for a new edition. Bullies you can usually see coming. There are stealthier enemies, more sinister impediments to good English. It is more than than 50 years now since George Orwell wrote his grim and powerful essay ‘Politics and the English language’. ‘[I]f thought corrupts language’, he observed, ‘language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.’ Half a century on, the words are different but the corruption goes on, and needs to be exposed by the heirs of Orwell and Murray-Smith,
each one of us our own independent commission against corruption. I offer two examples from the language of our governments and their advisers, two abusages which were not in the air when Right Words was written.
Downsizing was invented by engineers in Detroit in the mid-1970s to describe what they were doing to the design of motor cars in order to make them use less of the fuel that had suddenly become more expensive. After 1980 the word moved from machines to people, or rather to businesses, employed as if it were a technical operation performed on a corporate machine rather than a sacking of workers. It has gone on to become a central item in the de-humanising rhetoric about employment and unemployment used by millionaire managers and cabinet ministers. Australian Labor Party politicians who should have known better found much of this rhetoric seductive when they were in federal office, and in 1996 suffered such a shock that they became scared to stick their necks out. They really did have a stunning experience. Whatever dissent they now offered from new orthodoxies was liable to be tagged a display of political correctness.
This is my second example of new abusage. Its vogue shows how the right gained the initiative — soon after 1980? — in the making of political and cultural agendas for the English-speaking world. How has it happened? By what routes, and why, have these two words travelled from the USA around the world to do so much corrupting of thought? What exactly do they mean? In the 1995 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘the avoidance of forms of expression that exclude, marginalise, or insult racial or cultural minorities.’ That definition misses the sneer, the boast of one's own freedom from ideological constraint, as the user convicts somebody else of it. The sneer is reminiscent of the sneer in do-gooder, though political correctness has become far more pervasive a put-down. Its meaning grows ever broader. On the lips of John Howard it comes close to being an antonym for the values of his cherished and mythical land, mainstream Australia.
Political correctness is supposed to be patrolled by thought police, marshmallow fascists, and its victims are said to be objects of a fatwa. When named, the victims often turn out to be respected citizens with easy access to all forms of public communication, such as Les Murray, Geoffrey Blainey and Christopher Koch. Or Bruce Ruxton: ‘Look what has happened to Ms Pauline Hanson since she has had the guts to say what most Australians think. She has been roundly castigated by the politically correct drongos from all sides of politics’.


Drongo is one of about six thousand words in The Australian National Dictionary. A Dictionary of Australianisms on Historical Principles. This great work, edited by W. S. Ramson, created in the Australian National University and published by Oxford University Press, appeared in 1988, too late for Eric Partridge to greet it, just in time for Stephen Murray-Smith to look at it. The AND is even more use to students of Australia than the OED is for students of everywhere else, for its scope allows more generous historical citations. Eight hundred pages for those six thousand items. Often
entries let me write a paragraph on a subject otherwise out of reach; even more often, they teach me history. On the geography of public speech the AND tells me what I cannot find in history books about the Yarra Bank and the Domain. And did you know that farewell, as verb and noun, has usages peculiar to our country? Look at citations under the noun, defined as ‘an occasion organised to mark a person's departure’, and you are in a world where ministers of religion, bank managers, station masters are itinerant carriers of knowledge, styles and values.
There are many such small surprises, and many large illuminations. Thirteen columns on bush and its derivatives. As the linguist Don Laycock observed in a review: ‘No other single word evokes so much imagery to Australians’. The imagery is all here, from 1790 to 1986. A teacher could get a whole lecture out of the entry for Anzac, and set digger as reading for the accompanying tutorial. Commissioned to write fifteen hundred words on mateship for the Oxford Companion to Australian History, I hardly needed to look beyond the AND. Entries on ocker and Norm are invaluable to anybody studying the connexions between national stereotypes and television. Historians of the environmental movement are well served by green ban and greenie. Turn from green to white and you find six dense pages, eye-opening on what that word has meant to Australians: used elsewhere but recorded earlier in this country than elsewhere, we learn, to mean of exemplary character. Turn from white to Aboriginal and Aborigine, then to koori and gubba, and you are well into a history of race relations.
Like the OED, the AND limits its catchment area to printed words. In this respect G. A. Wilkes’ Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, now into its fourth edition, is more accommodating. Meanwhile, though, Ramson's successor Bruce Moore, who is preparing a second edition of the AND, has published a scholarly and scary lexicon of cadet language at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, nearly all of it not only unprinted but even in the 1990s unprintable outside scholarly confines. Another limitation of the AND is that so few people who would benefit from consulting the book read it or even know of it. Take pavlova. Every now and again there is a debate about the origin of that much-loved dessert. On the letter page of the Sydney Morning Herald a while ago somebody cited the Macquarie Dictionary, which has neither the space nor the expertise for much etymology, but which makes an exception of the pavlova. Invented in 1935, says the Macquarie, by Herbert Sachse, Australian chef, and named by Harry Nairn of the Esplanade Hotel Perth after the Russian ballerina. Even as folklore that account is not plausible: how come it took six years from the second of Pavlova's tours, in 1929, for Sachse to make and Nairn to name this sweet in her honour? I wrote to the Herald quoting the conclusive evidence of the AND that the pavlova was named much earlier, in the editor's native New Zealand. Ramson cites a recipe in Davis Gelatine NZ's book Davis Dainty Dishes, 1927. (I like to imagine Ramson's quiet Kiwi smile as he came across that clincher.) I included a plea for people to use the AND on matters it knows best. My letter was not published. I guess the editor judged that the correspondence had gone on long enough, and that its purpose was diversion rather than truth.
How are we to disseminate the knowledge and wisdom stored in the AND? How, for that matter, do we get more people to learn from Right Words, which is still unknown to most of the Australians whose uses of the language it can improve? Though I have no simple answer, let me sound three cheerful notes. First, Australian publishers evidently see a market now for books serving a purpose similar to Right Words, among them Nicholas Hudson's Modern Australian Usage, The Penguin Working Words, and Pamela Peters’ Cambridge Australian Style Guide. Secondly, several newspaper editors now encourage readers, at least on the literary pages, to think about words. Thirdly, the makers of the AND have taken on subsidiary projects, such as regional studies entitled Words from the West and Tassie Terms, which are valuable in their own right and may help draw attention to the flagship.


I turn finally to two large themes of our time, ethnicity and gender. In both fields a transformation of our public usage began in the 1960s. The OED's first citation of multiculturalism is from Ukrainian Canadians in 1965, and it spots women's liberation in 1966. Australian usages lagged, but not for long. Multiculturalism may have come ashore in 1973, and Al Grassby may be right to claim that he landed it. I met women's liberation in 1968, from an oldish Australian historian perplexed to hear his daughter using the term in London.
On the language of ethnicity both the AND and Right Words offer revelations. That word central to our national experience, migrant, each records as peculiar to Australia, and each has that specifically Australian hyphenation Anglo-Celtic. The AND is stronger on old words than new. Among the old, pommy, new chum, new Australian, tyke. Multiculturalism has no entry, not being counted as Australian. More surprisingly, the AND lacks ethnic, which we have made into a noun, and ethno, formed by a process Australians have always enjoyed, which Wilkes records from 1976. Right Words has strong entries on multiculturalism, a word and a process about which the author has misgivings, and ethnic as adjective and noun, about which he is a bit testy.
The AND is collecting usages too new for its first edition. Anglo, which has a new resonance on the lips and pens of ethnos; nesby and nesbians, from the acronym for people of Non-English-Speaking Backgrounds, lately discarded from all official communications, federal and state, on the ground that it ‘had the effect of marginalising Australians of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds’. This ruling would have provoked Murray-Smith, who damned marginalise on four distinct grounds as unpleasant, unnecessary, lazy and bureaucratic.
Nasty pejoratives for Asians await the lexicographers, such as slopes and power points, both referring to the shape of eyes, as did a National Party candidate in Queensland during the 1996 election campaign when he spoke bewilderingly of ‘little slanty-eyed ideologues who persecute ordinary average Australians’. This man's hates were not, however, merely racist. He described his electorate as ‘a testing ground for those who are game to defy the politically correct enviro-nazis and femo-nazis’. His most vivid phrase, which earned him 15 minutes of notoriety, was
‘de-wogging ceremonies’ for citizenship (or as they used to be called naturalisation) rites on Australia Day. He thought he was on to a winner, he said. He lost. I look forward to the next AND on wog, which like earlier terms of derogation — Quaker, Puritan, Methodist — has been taken up by some of the people it was invented to put down. Wogball for soccer, Wogfood as title for a book on migrants’ contribution to good eating, Wogs Out of Work for a comedy team of Mediterranean background. Why does dago still sound so nasty that the inventor of an acronymic body called the Developing Australian Italian Grapes Organisation, DAIGO, dropped the name with an apology for being insensitive and, yes, politically incorrect?
I mentioned AND entries on Aborigines. Eighteen columns plot the meanings over two centuries of the word native, showing its use both to characterise Aborigines and to exclude them (‘Of a non-Aboriginal person: born in Australia.’). Right Words has useful items on Aboriginal / Aborigine and Aboriginal names, with cross-references to half-caste, Koori and lubra, and an entry for genocide, which Murray-Smith thinks ‘a misleading and inaccurate word to apply to the Australian situation.’ New puzzles abound. Who is entitled to be called an indigene, and how do you pronounce it? ‘Should we call a Koori a Koori?’ runs the title of an article in a bulletin for historians. New words are provoked into life by changing relations between Aboriginal and other Australians. Some white farmers, I see, are afraid of being Maboed. Aboriginal English has become a subject in its own right, explored lately in one of the work-in-progress books put out by the makers of the AND.
Gender is a word we have used in its new, cultural sense for barely twenty years. Right Words is a good guide to what has happened to language about men and women in that time. Remarkably good, perhaps, from a man in his sixties; but a man with an insatiable curiosity, a lust for life, a strong-minded wife, and daughters. The entry on gender is all about grammar, and is followed by one headed gender/sex, which begins severely on the feminists’ broadening of usage and becomes more benign as it goes. At the end of the item we are invited to See (the) female critique, where we find nearly three constructive pages. See also, inter alia, the Mr/Mrs problem, girls, lady/woman. See gay, homosexual, lesbian. See androgynous / epicene / hermaphrodite. See also, for entries less conciliatory towards new usages, mankind, chauvinist, and especially chairman / chairperson, where the custodian of right words is at his most fearsomely prescriptive. ‘The word chairperson is an ugly and self-conscious neologism, an insensitive language atrocity.’ That is worthy of Samuel Johnson, and so is the offered choice of other solutions.
‘Stephen was a Johnsonian figure’, says Barry Jones in his own tribute, ‘without the black despair and manic eccentricities, an encyclopedist who enriched all those lives that touched his.’ Ten years after his death, I miss him nearly every day. We are lucky that he has left us so much.
[This is a revised and shortened version of the Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture delivered at the State Library of Victoria on 25 September 1996.]
Ken Inglis