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A life in dictionaries

Dr Bruce Moore, Australian National Dictionary Centre, 20 March 2010

JOHN HARMS: I’d like to welcome to the stage Dr Bruce Moore. Bruce has a life in dictionaries. So my first question to Bruce is: how do you have a life in dictionaries? [laughter]

Dr BRUCE MOORE: Well, actually it was a very light life in dictionaries. I’ve spent most of my life being a medievalist, teaching Old English and Middle English, and I thought that’s how I might end. But there was a chance in the late 1980s - I ended up teaching Old and Middle English in the English department at the Royal Military College Duntroon here in Canberra, teaching army cadets Old English and Middle English as they need to know -

JOHN HARMS: Just in case we go to war with Yorkshire, I suppose. [laughter]

DR BRUCE MOORE: Just in case they needed to be literate [laughs] and things of that kind. Indeed when I think back, a lot of you would have seen David Kilcullen in the last few years talking about Australian defence, and he was one of our great Old English and Middle English students at Duntroon. It was in the middle of the 1980s when the Royal Military College Duntroon was about to be turned into the Australian Defence Force Academy. We had a whole lot of young chaps – they were all 18 and 19 year olds who clearly had a special language of their own; they were all army and their institution was going to be changed. What we thought was it would be interesting to have a look at the kind of language that a group of 18- and 19-year-old army males used in 1985 and see what happened when you changed the institution and had the three defence forces there and had women there. Would the language change? So a detailed survey was done. As I look around the room I see Pauline Bryant here who drew up the original survey, and the students were surveyed about their language. They filled in forms about their language, and nothing was done with this.

So it was in the late 1980s that I had a look at the results and thought, ‘There are possibilities here.’ As a result of that, I did produce a dictionary or what I called in a fairly arty-farty kind of way A Lexicon of Cadet Language: Royal Military College, Duntroon. I almost got shot when the first copy appeared on the desk of the then commandant at Duntroon and there were all sorts of problems about its publication. But that got me interested in the business of dictionaries. The possibility of a career change was that I was offered the chance to do the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary and then I thought, ‘Here’s a chance to change,’ so I shifted in the early 1990s from medieval studies into dictionaries.

That’s one way that you get into dictionary making, and indeed the track from teaching in medieval studies the history of the English language into dictionary making and lexicography is quite an established one. The other sorts of theories about how you get into this business - one that’s been going around for the last 20 years is that many lexicographers are left-handed. Dr Johnson was left-handed and when we looked around, many of the lexicographers in the world at the moment - John Simpson at Oxford, then Katherine Barber in Canada - I was looking at lunch, Sue, but I couldn’t quite work out which hand you were using. So left-handedness does seem to be one possible way of getting into lexicography.

The other is to come from Wellington. [laughter] Many of the present lexicographers around the world come from Wellington: Phil Ranson who did the Australian National Dictionary; George Turner that many of you would know from Adelaide, did a number of Australian dictionaries; Burchfield, who was the previous editor of the Oxford English dictionary, was from Wellington; Eric Partridge sort of gets in because he at least came from New Zealand, went to Queensland and then went to Britain and worked. So if you’re left-handed, if you come from Wellington and possibly if you’re gay, that helps. [laughter]

JOHN HARMS: If you’re left handed and come from Wellington at the moment you might be playing cricket for New Zealand this very instant.

DR BRUCE MOORE: It’s a good party starter.

JOHN HARMS: To take up David Malouf’s point then, did you start to think in Middle English? He suggests that we think in English, and we think in French and we think in German.

DR BRUCE MOORE: I think it is true what he was saying about the language. Old English, for example, is a language that is very much like modern German. So when David was complaining about the fact that German has tended to compound words rather than borrow words from other languages, this indeed was the basic feature of Old English. Old English was a compounding language just like modern German. What happened to English, and I think everybody’s been saying this today, is that it lost that compounding ability and started borrowing words from everywhere.

I like to think of English as being the winner because it was the most promiscuous language of all the languages - it’ll take anything. And that’s one of the reasons for its strength. So that English has become not like Anglo-Saxon, it’s changed completely. It’s lost its case system and of course it’s lost the kind of world view that was embodied in that compounding language. The other thing that people have been saying today is that all languages do carry some kind of history of both the culture and its speakers. And certainly what David was saying about English is true there.

JOHN HARMS: So what happened when English came to Australia? If are talking about culture and history and its embodiment through the language, what happened to English?

DR BRUCE MOORE: I like to divide it into two areas, and I think it’s quite important to do this. They come together later but to understand what happened to Australian English I think you really do have to separate off what happened to the accent and what happened in the creation of Australian words. We haven’t talked a lot about accent here. It strikes me as interesting that the first thing about Australian English that was really established was the accent, and the accent was created by getting rid of all those features of all the Englishes that were being spoken in Sydney where there were 100 or so different dialects being spoken, many with extremely strong, distinctive dialect markers. You could hear the Scotch, you could hear the Irish, and so on. We now know that a colonial or a settler dialect is created by getting rid of all those strong dialectal features.

When people come to Australia either from America, Britain, and so on, we can hear that they might modify their accent a little bit but they don’t much. You can have an 80-year-old person who came from Scotland when he was 20, and he’s still got a strong Scots accent. That is, the people who came here first, all the first settlers, the convicts and so on, might have changed their accents a little bit but not very much at all.

What we now know - and we know this because of the evidence that’s now come from New Zealand. What was fascinating in New Zealand in the 1940s during the war, when the New Zealand Army didn’t seem to have much to do with its time, is that it went around recording people and made lot of significant historical recordings of people who had been born in New Zealand between 1850 and 1900. What we had for the first time, and we’d been making guesses about how settler languages are formed and the common metaphor were things like fruitcakes: bung a bit of Lancashire in, bung a bit of Irish in, bung a bit of Scots, bung a bit of Devonish in – bung them all and you get muck and you probably end up with a fruitcake. The fruitcake in Sydney is a bit like the one in Perth, a bit like the one in Melbourne – it sort of looks like a fruitcake. And that was the common metaphor.

But when people started re-hearing these recordings that were made in the 1940s of the children of the first settlers in New Zealand - these are the first generation of first settlers - for the first time we had a recording and we could hear what these people sounded like. What was extraordinary was that brothers and sisters had different accents and that people that went to the same school together all had slightly different accents. They didn’t have the accents of their parents. What the first generation of kids had done was to listen and pick up bits and pieces from all over the place. They didn’t pick really strong dialect markers. They weren’t silly enough to pick up a really strong element of a Scot’s accent. They all went roughly for the middle of the road and they turned out to be southern English dialect features. But the kids of the first generation all sound a bit different.

So we can now then shift that to Sydney, and probably the same thing was going on there. What happens when they looked at these recordings is that the kids of the next generation all sound the same. They’ve all got the same accent. So there, with that next generation, school kids operating as all school kids do now level off the accent and they all make sure that they all speak in the same way. What’s interesting there therefore is that we can predict that the Australian accent should have been established by the 1830s, and all our historical records say it was. Every record that we had had people from overseas commenting on the language of the children born in the colony, and all the records say that the language is remarkably pure. The children born in the colonies speak a remarkably pure form of English. What they mean is they don’t sound like a Scotsman; they don’t sound like an Irishman; they don’t sound like a Cornish man; and they certainly don’t come from Kent; and so on. So what they mean is that all of those strong dialectal features have disappeared, and now we have what we regard as the Australian accent.

In some ways dialect stuff was highly taboo at this stage, so the accent gets developed, I think, between 1790 and into the 1830s. So the accent is established. What is important when you look at the records once again is that, when we think of the really important Australian words, they do not appear at that early stage. All of the important Australian words - the words that carry Australian meaning, Australian identity, Australian values - are the product of the 1860 and onwards period; and, interestingly, lots of them are borrowed from English dialects. That’s the sort of paradox.

There are about 170 to 180 words that we have taken from British dialects, words like ‘dinkum’, ‘to dob someone in’, ‘skiting’, and so on. Lots of important Australian words all came in in the second half of the nineteenth century. When the accent had been established, dialect was no longer an issue. We could now borrow words and we borrowed them from the new migrants, and the words we borrowed came from northern England and Scotland.

JOHN HARMS: Where is ‘dinkum’ from?

DR BRUCE MOORE: ‘Dinkum’ is from Lincolnshire, and it’s one of the ones we now know. In spite of the fact that if you google ‘dinkum’ you will find that this is one of the words that Australia borrowed from the Chinese during the gold rushes when we’re all so receptive and friendly and invited them across for cups of tea and things like that and they said, ‘You’re real dinkum blokes, aren’t you?’ [laughter] It supposedly means ‘dinkum top gold’, right - real, real gold. That’s the standard story. But we didn’t borrow any words from Chinese.

One of the interesting things, and it’s again what people have been saying this morning, about Australian English as distinct from English is just how resistant Australian English has been to borrowing any words from any language other than an English - we’ve borrowed from British dialects; we’re quite happy to borrow from American English, whinge for ten years and then forget that we took them. [laughter] But if you think of all the other migrant groups that have come to Australia speaking other languages, I always put out the challenge: can anyone think of one word that Australian English has borrowed from a language other than English - from Italian, from Greek?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: They’re quite a number of German words.

DR BRUCE MOORE: Possibly for someone from South Australia [laughter]. We’ll say perhaps there are a few German words lurking around. Sure if you were around on the goldfields in the 1850s you dug your hole and there was no bloody gold there, you would say, ‘This is a sheiser,’ this is just s…! [laughter] But we took it from the Germans via British slang. A lot of our German words come in via London slang, just as a lot of Yiddish words in Australian English. Can any of you think of a social situation in which Australia could have borrowed Yiddish words from Yiddish speaking people? We now know that ‘cobber’ comes from Yiddish and it doesn’t come - again from Lincolnshire - from Lincolnshire as people thought it did. But we are now quite sure that it’s from Yiddish ‘carver’ but can we work out how it got into Australian English? We’re not sure.

The other famous one is ‘cliner’. Anyone who knows their CJ Dennis will know the opening stanzas of A Sentimental Bloke where the girlfriend is described as ‘my cliner’. But it is sometimes spelled with a K and it is from German ‘kleiner’ - little. The earliest records of that say there are all these wonderful Germans in South Australia - this is before the First World War – and our first record of people saying this is in 1912. All these wonderful Germans, we loved them all and we have taken some words like ‘cliner’ for a girlfriend from them. So that’s one, and there are probably a few others in South Australia. But we only kept it for another 20 years. So perhaps the German settlement was certainly one possible situation where we got some words, and there are probably more around in South Australia than in other parts.

But if you think of the Italian migrants, Greek migrants all the Asian migrants, and so on, it is very difficult to think of a word we borrowed. And that’s odd, because most other Englishes - as I said before, English itself has been absolutely promiscuous and will grab any word that’s passing by - American English has been reasonably receptive to taking in words from migrant language and so has Canadian English. But I find it odd that Australian English hasn’t.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Surely, ‘port’ comes from French?

JOHN HARMS: ‘Port’ as in the drink.


JOHN HARMS: Portmanteau.

DR BRUCE MOORE: Well, sure, and to go back to David they all come from Latin too. But it comes into Australia English via portmanteau. So, as with lots of English words, they came into English via French. But I’m talking about words that came directly into Australian English. I just think it’s extraordinary when we think of ourselves and how wonderful we really are and how we love our migrants, it just is odd for them.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I did surveys as part of my regional studies in South Australia looking for borrowed Cornish or German words into English and found absolutely nothing, except one old Cornish chap who could remember that the guttering around the house was called the ‘launder’ but he said nobody uses it any more. Apart from that, it’s really only the names of foods.

DR BRUCE MOORE: Yes, foods and certain place names. In South Australia, the Cornish word for a mine ‘wealh’ is used around Muta and places like that. When we look at our records, sure, we’ve got a list of about ten words that came from Cornish, but they are mainly Cornish English words rather than actual Cornish words. One good example is that we know that ‘to fossick’ first of all for gold and then ‘fossick around’ trying to get - I hope I did - two socks that match in the drawer, but that came into Australian English in the 1850s from Cornish English. It’s not a Cornish word, but it came in via Cornish English. So from 1850 onwards lots of words come in from dialect, but they all were English dialect words. I don’t believe anyway that any Gaelic words came in, but some would disagree.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: My name is Jane. In my experience there are quite a number of Malay words that have been used for a long time in our language here and in New Zealand too. I’d like to know your opinion: do the words ‘caput’, ‘khaki’ and many others they come in via English colonialism or did they come into Australia more recently via the Australian Army involved in the communist emergency in Malaya?

DR BRUCE MOORE: All of those that you mentioned come through the colonial experience into English and therefore into Australian English. When we look at the experience in the north, I have been having another look recently at the word ‘plonk’. Most of us have been trained to believe that ‘plonk’ is one of those Australian words that Australian soldiers picked up in France during the First World War, and it’s a corruption of ‘vin blanc’ and all these Aussie soldiers were going around drinking white wine and saying ‘plonk to you’. I think most dictionaries believe that ‘plonk’ came from French. The problem with it is that there are no records of it - there’s one brief record of it in about 1933. All of our words that were borrowed or created during the First World War do appear in the writings and newspapers and so on of the troops - that’s why it’s such a rich period for Australian English – ‘plonk’ comes in much later and does in fact become popular during the Second World War, and then the records sort of start to be associated with Malaya and places like that. We haven’t found a source. Some Australian words were certainly created by the troops up there, but we haven’t found where they came from. If anybody’s got an answer I would be interested.

My other example is our Australian word ‘donga’ for temporary accommodation and those sort of buildings. Most people believe the story that it comes from South Africa, and the story goes: the Boer War, a word in Afrikaans for a steep ravine was ‘donga’, it came to Australia and was used for various areas out near Woomera, depressions in the ground which were called dongas. And then some of you will know the word ‘donga’ for going out in the ‘donga’, out into the bush or, if it’s really thick bush out into the ‘donga donga’. [laughter] Then another word that suddenly seems to be everywhere, this other donga which is the temporary accommodation, seems to be in its early records associated with New Guinea with houses in the Second World War, but we haven’t been able to track down if it does come from a New Guinea language. So once again, we are desperately looking for them.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: What about the one associated with the dead dingo?

JOHN HARMS: Different dongas as in dryers - we’ll get to comparisons in a minute. I want to ask about the s… carters.

MAN IN AUDIENCE Max Richardson: Two things, one is that the word ‘cliner’, my grandmother always used to talk about, talking about a girlfriend, ‘she’s someone who’s inclined to you, your incliner.’ I’m quite sure that’s probably where it came from. I’m not sure about that, because once you talk linguistics you are going to open up this big can of worms.

DR BRUCE MOORE: I think the clear argument against it would be the early spellings.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes, the ‘k’.

DR BRUCE MOORE: The early spellings with the ‘k’ and the ‘ei’. That is, the early records are much closer to the German. It’s the same kind of evidence that you get with the old word ‘drak’.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: And you’re getting that with Matilde for waltzing Matilda.

DR BRUCE MOORE: Wow, I don’t think that’s true.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: The other one is: I’m wondering whether a lot of the French words came from - as the word love does in tennis, when the French in tennis say love it’s ‘zero’ - upper-class British English words where the upper class used to speak French to keep the people in their place. ‘Par de vent les enfants, par de vent les de mystiques’ and so on, and it was done with a very rich, upper-class received pronunciation. That’s where you’re looking a lot of French words particularly, because it was the language of ‘sans nobilite’ - snobbery, I think.

DR BRUCE MOORE: There are two things there. If you think about English in general, there are two movements: one is the Norman French, which I think is quite different from what you’re saying there, and that’s twelfth century to thirteenth century; but fourteenth to fifteenth century is what you’re saying about French as the language of culture, and that’s a different influx. But going forward – I’m not allowed to say this -

JOHN HARMS: It’s an appropriate use of ‘going forwards’ actually.

DR BRUCE MOORE: - to the First World War, what’s interesting when we look back at the letters, newspapers and so on of soldiers who are in either the First World War or the Second World War, it’s interesting that they all talk about the new language: ‘We’ve got all these wonderful new terms, calling this this, and this that. And isn’t it great, when we get back to Australia, we’re going to bring all these words in, and isn’t Australian English going to be enriched.’ Of course, as soon as the war is finished and they’re back here, they’re dead. It’s pretty rare for those words that are created within a country that’s speaking another language for them then to be transferred back to Australia.

JOHN HARMS: A lot of them linger on in the army.

DR BRUCE MOORE: Yes, true.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE Di Johnson: Swear words, Australians are terribly good at them and inventing them, but parents are very concerned about them and don’t want their children to use them. What in your terms is a ‘swear word’ and what sort of judgments do you make about what is an acceptable word to put in your dictionaries?

DR BRUCE MOORE: Whenever we do one of the junior dictionaries and those words are not there, they’re always marketing decisions. Unless you’re doing a very big dictionary like the OED, which doesn’t have to worry about money, most decisions about the words that go into dictionaries have a lot to do with marketing. So with the dictionaries that we produce that are geared at kids from age 15 downwards, the publisher is very likely to say that there are three words at least that can’t go into this dictionary.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: What are they? [laughter]

DR BRUCE MOORE: You go and ask a ten year old.

JOHN HARMS: Collingwood?

DR BRUCE MOORE: So it is a worry when I go and talk to school kids and they think, ‘Who is this wanker? He produces dictionaries that don’t have the words that we use in them. Where’s he been?’

JOHN HARMS: He’s from Wellington. He’s left-handed.

DR BRUCE MOORE: That is an issue there. I think in dictionaries at that level you do need to look carefully at levels of offense - not just swear words but offensive words, racist words, and so on. I don’t think that putting them into a dictionary gives them validity, but some people do and some schools do and so on. There certainly are decisions to be made there. With the larger dictionaries that are geared for adults like us, I think it’s the task of the dictionary maker to give a complete record of the spoken language. So that if you start with a dictionary the size of the Oxford English Dictionary, everything’s in - even though they left out three in there - and I can say this - the third one was condom, but that’s not the one we leave out of the primary school dictionary. We threw that one in.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: There’s a word I came across in the Northern Territory where I heard the kids say it often enough that if you didn’t agree with someone, you told them that they were ‘gammoning’. Also in South Australia there was a couple of words when I was a kid like yonnies, brinnies and treadlies, and you don’t hear them out here in the east.

DR BRUCE MOORE: The first one yonnies, brinnies and so on - I knew yonnies being a good Geelong boy. That was certainly a Victorian word and there are ronnies and brinnies and so on - there seem to be regional variants across Australia. And treadly for the bike I think was used pretty widely but is now just slightly old-fashioned. Some words certainly do die and some regional words do die out. The one that we’ve been noticing recently is the way those regional terms for people who are not like us - uncultured people and uneducated people and rough people and the daggy people who live down the street that we might have called westies a while ago and that in Tasmania we might have called chiggers, in Queensland we might have called bevons and in Canberra we call booners.

JOHN HARMS: Bogan has to get in there as well.

DR BRUCE MOORE: No, but the thing is that bogan has taken over.


DR BRUCE MOORE: It’s been the triumph of the bogan - well they’re everywhere.

JOHN HARMS: I love hyena bogan, I really do.

DR BRUCE MOORE: There you go. So when a word takes over Australia wide like that, as bogan has, and it only took it 20 years, those regional words are under threat. But your first question goes back to some of the issues that were raised this morning about the relationship between Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal English and what’s going on in Australian English. One of the fascinating things that we’re noticing in producing a new edition of the Australian National Dictionary is that, when we look over the record of the last 20 years and look at the areas from which the greatest influx of words has come into Australian English in that period, a lot of them are in fact language words. If you look at Western Australia there’s been a policy of the Western Australian governments for the past 20 years to change our names for flora and fauna from their English names back to their Indigenous names. There is a huge influx of terms of that kind in Western Australia.

But as a result of Aboriginal culture and political activism since the late 1960s, a whole number of terms to do with Aboriginal culture have come into Australian English. Even ten years ago I think most of us would think what is Kuminjar when a word like that is used. But I think we now simply accept it and we understand how it’s being used.

What’s interesting about the Northern Territory though is the fact that, given its Aboriginal population, Aboriginal English has been much stronger - and we’re not talking about Kriol at this point but Aboriginal English as a variety, a dialect of Australian English - in the Northern Territory than in other parts of Australia. So words develop in Aboriginal English. I suspect the first Australian word that was used today, which was the word deadly, is a word that’s come into Australian English via Aboriginal English and one suspects it probably started in the Northern Territory. I suspect a term such as ‘shamejob’, which is a term from Aboriginal English, is one that spread from Aboriginal English into Australian English.

The word ‘gammon’ that you mention there, as meaning nonsense or something like that, is a word that, if we’re all sitting around as David Malouf would like us to do, reading Dickens, we would come across gammon, but it’s almost a dead word in standard English. But it hung on from nineteenth-century pidgin English and shifted across into twentieth century Aboriginal Englishes. What’s happening in the Northern Territory, of course, is that it’s now spread into the wider Australian English of the Northern Territory. So if you’re reading the Northern Territory Times, it expects you know what gammon means and it expects you know what ‘stop humbugging’ means. These are new areas of influxes of words into Australian English, and those influxes from Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal languages is simply one that one would not have predicted 50 years ago.

JOHN HARMS: Ruby Langford is about to publish a book of blackfella humour called, Only Gammon that’s coming out in the next few months. We’ll finish with Julian’s question.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes, I’m at risk of bringing the tone down, I’m afraid, but I’m interested in slang - or rude words at least - because they tell us something about our appreciation of language because words themselves are harmless. The three words that get excised relate to things which are so familiar to all of us that it can hardly be the idea itself which is terrifying - or is it? - I’m not sure. I know that Qantas will remain in the dictionary – I’m hoping it will get a secondary definition. But I’ve increasingly heard the word douche or douchebag used as an insult, and I think it comes from South Park. Anyone who understands it understands it’s meant pretty offensively and probably should be ranked with the other three, shouldn’t it?

DR BRUCE MOORE: I would have thought it’s much older than South Park. It’s been around for a long time as a term in American slang. I don’t think we have it in our dictionaries. It’s probably just one of those ones that just slipped away. But in a larger dictionary, obviously it would be there. At the level of the larger dictionaries I simply wouldn’t be making judgments about offensiveness or whatever, as long as words are labelled appropriately. I think this is one of the things that dictionaries are doing more and more these days, or it may be just things are changing. A good example is if you look at a dictionary from 30 years ago and look up ‘nigger’, it will say just the word to use at communion, or something like that. The dictionary just wasn’t worried about it at all because the wider society wasn’t. But I think dictionaries are much more careful these days to use that kind of labelling - as long as the labelling is done, if something is offensive, you mark it as offensive, it’ll be there.

JOHN HARMS: All right, we better leave it there. Bruce Moore, thank you very much. [applause]

Date published: 17 August 2010