Irish in English

18 03 2012

You don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about language to realise that it is an enormous tapestry of history, a testament to the interlocking biographies of peoples, events and lands. To think of “purism” in the same sentence as “language” is nothing short of absurd.

Given the intertwining of English and Irish pathways over the centuries, it’s hardly a surprise that language carries the evidence.

St Patrick’s Day is a very good time to reflect on the contribution of Irish to English.  Doing precisely this is Emma Taylor in her latest article 18 Everyday English Words That Come from Irish:  which is made available here with permission. Please read it and enjoy.

Thank you Emma.

Beyond Language

17 02 2012

Normally I go about my daily business hyper-conscious of the role and significance of language in our lives. But sometimes, very rarely, I’m blown away by the recognition that when all is said and done,  language can be superfluous.

Here’s one such example. It’s lifted, with permission, from the website of a cutting edge designer, Shayla Man – at – who took it with permission from Chris Vlahos:

Recent headline of the San Francisco Chronicle. Female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spiderweb of crab traps and lines weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, tail, torso and a line tugging in her mouth.A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands and radioed an environmental group for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so bad off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. They worked for hours and eventually freed her.When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around as she was thanking them.Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.May you, and all those you love, be so blessed and fortunate to be surrounded by people who will help you get untangled from the things that are binding you. And, may you always know the joy of giving and receiving gratitude.



9 02 2012

I saw a word in The Sydney Morning Herald today that has probably been around before but not noted by me. It was “thugby league”. Clearly this is a blend of “thug” and “rugby” and a  very clever way to highlight the glorified violence that some kinds of contact sports entail. Such blends resonate with accrued meanings and giver the user of a language a strong feeling of embeddedness with the culture underpinning the language. They may or may not survive in the long run. Many do eg “smog”, “brunch”, naturalizing to the point that their “blending” origins are almost forgotten.

Precariat: new word for a new class?

1 02 2012


I want you to know I’m not an uncritical lover of new words. And it’s not solely because they’re new. I do discriminate, and among my favourites may be found new words for groups of people, whose very labelling tells us something about the world we live in.

One such newie is precariat, clearly a blend of “precarious” and the suffix “–at”, perhaps best characterised in the term the “proletariat”. The use of the definite article (“the”) is a dead giveaway too. I’m thinking of other coinages in this category, like the commentariat.  The category is typified by member nouns, using the suffix “-ian”: proletarian, Rotarian, authoritarian, establishmentarian, totalitarian, libertarian.

I found it in an advertisement for an upcoming lecture at The University of Sydney, where, no doubt, all will be explained.

See below:

The Precariat: A new dangerous underclass

9 February, 6.00pm
A generation of educated people now start their working life in debt,  but many are not offered any job security in the new flexible labour market, and drift towards casual and part-time work. Will they form a new under-class that threaten existing social structures?  Professor Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath, has coined a new term for these people and others in social and economic insecurity—the precariat

Millions of people, including many in Australia, are entering a global precariat, part of a class structure shaped by globalisation. This lecture, drawing on a new book, poses five questions. What is the precariat? Why care? Why is it growing? Who is most likely to be in it? And where is it leading us?

The brief answer to the first question is that it consists of millions of people in social and economic insecurity, without occupational identities, drifting in and out of jobs, constantly worried about their incomes, housing and much else. It particularly affects youth, many realising that their certificates and degrees are little more than lottery tickets, leading many into status frustration.

Will the precariat’s growth lead towards an authoritarian politics of inferno, with neo-fascist overtones? Or will a progressive agenda emerge in the squares and cities of protest, responding to Enlightenment values and the aspirations of the educated younger generation being drawn into the precariat?

The lecture will examine the labour market dynamics underpinning the growth of the precariat and outline the new ‘politics of paradise’ taking shape outside the political mainstream.

Dialects of English

24 01 2012

It has been famously observed that the British and the Americans are two nations “divided by a common language”, a phrase variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde and others. The point of the phrase is to highlight  the differences between the two major  dialects.or regional varieties of English, namely British English (BE) and American English (AE), which tourists in both countries have amply noted. Of course, the vast bulk of the two dialects are shared, meaning that the two peoples are mutually intelligible. Mostly. As an Australian on a road trip through Florida, with an accent the locals were prone to hear as British, I coped with the “problem” of mutual comprehension by speaking as loudly and clearly and “toothily” as I could. This seemed to do the trick, at the time.

Recently I was alerted to an article on this topic. It’s called: “The 20 Biggest Differences Between British and American English” and can be found at, which is a website for online college courses in USA.

Below I have copy-and-pasted the first 10 items highlighted in the article. If you hunger for more, follow the link.

  1. That whole “u” thing

    Reading “color” versus “colour” might clue one in to whether or not the literature in question hails from the United States or one of the Commonwealth nations. The latter favors the original “u” in words like the aforementioned and “neighbour” and “flavour” and the like.

  2. Oxford comma

    One of the most blood-boilingly controversial grammatical phenomena in the English language, the Oxford (or serial, or Harvard) comma — which separates listings of three or more (in “John, Paul, George, and Ringo,” for example, it nestles itself behind Harrison) — rarely pops up in British English. American English, save for journalistic works, loves it.

  3. Punctuation’s relation to quotation marks

    When it comes to quotes, Americans usually place their punctuation marks inside before moving on to the next sentence. The exact opposite holds true for British English speakers and writers, as they prefer leaving them on the outside.

  4. Verb forms for collective nouns

    Collective nouns understandably baffle English speakers on all sides of all ponds, but there’s really just one general rule to keep in mind. While in (or writing for) Commonwealth nations, collective nouns — which include nation names — pair up with plural verbs. In the United States, use a singular conjugation.

  5. Periods after titles

    American English majors swoon over Mr. Darcy. British English majors swoon over Mr Darcy. Non-English majors have taste.

  6. Placement of the day in dates

    See, British people write out their dates like this: “13 January 2012,” “13/01/12,” or “13.01.12.” While American people write out their dates like this: “January 13, 2012,” “01/13/12,” or “01.13.12.” WACKY!

  7. -ize vs -ise

    Words that typically end in –ize in the United States and Canada are frequently rendered with –ise in every other English-speaking nation. However, because language wouldn’t be language without numerous exceptions, sometimes the non-Canadian British English speakers rock that -ize as well.

  8. Quotation marks

    Single quotation marks are most common in British English nations, though their double counterpart has started creeping into daily use as of late. By contrast, Americans default to double quotations, using the singular ones to denote quotes within quotes.

  9. Pronunciation

    Obviously, different accents mean words take on completely different pronunciations depending on their speaker’s country of origin. Uh-loo-mu-num in American English is ahl-oo-men-ee-um elsewhere, most infamously.

  10. “And” between numerical units

    British English speaks or writes out numbers including an “and” in pretty much everything past 100, barring its multiples. “2012,” for example, would be written out as “two thousand and twelve,” while Americans expunge the “and” altogether and prefer “two thousand twelve” or “twenty-twelve.”



13 01 2012

Interesting question, by David Rowe,  in today’s online The Punch: Is it unAustralian to barrack for the other team? It derives from the old chestnut – the Bradman question – that was designed for new immigrants way-back-when and much discussed in the media.

I quote: “ At issue was the necessary national cultural knowledge for an aspiring citizen contained in the test-prepping document Becoming an Australian Citizen.  Here the reader learnt that Australians like sport and are proud of their achievements in it (especially in cricket) and that `Sir Donald Bradman was the greatest cricket batsman of all time’.”

The Bradman question has gone by the wayside, but the “nation-sport nexus” continues. At the very minimum, governments seem to think that new immigrants need formally to be advised that Australians love their spectator sports. As if that itself were not daily, and everywhere, obvious. As if, too, it’s necessary for their adaptation and acculturation (if no longer “assimilation”).

My concern here, as ever, is the use in the title of the word “barracking” and a simple pondering thought about when the term might be deployed for whatever purpose in the circus of US  presidential pre-election fever.

From where we stand now, it seems rather inevitable.

Autocorrect, or not

12 01 2012

Lovely article by Emma Jane (of The Australian)  in today’s online Punch

I recall the problem (if we can call it that – maybe closer to a “nuisance” or a “bother” – it’s important to classify and rank one’s hassles, on a daily basis)  that can happen when you have a hiccup in your spelling and you get a ridiculous autocorrect. Nicely represented in Jane’s title: The joy of autosexd I mean autolicks I mean autocorrect.

When I was writing  Language Most Foul. A Good Look at Bad Language (Allen&Unwin, 2004), my spelling (in these cases correct) of the notorious 4-letter swear words in English brought up the most delightful (and wrong) options for the c-word, the f-word, and other such items in that same family. Either Word and Google have got with the times, or I’ve successfully learned how to “add” to my own idio-dictionary (my word), and now all the words I need are there, where they should be.

I like Jane’s article for a linguist’s reasons: because it manages to hold still in a freeze-frame a snippet of language occurrence that is essentially ephemeral (here and gone in a nanosecond) but now lends itself to analysis. To give you a further idea, I quote her here:

Particularly embarrassing autoincorrects are achieving viral status on the internet, and are responsible for the success of highly entertaining web sites such as  eg … the case of young Michelle who sends an SMS to her Aunt Liz to see if they’re still on for a movie date.

“Yes!” Aunt Liz texts back. “I’m just heating up some ladybits for your father.” The disappointing news for dad is that Aunt Liz actually meant “leftovers”.

Damn You Autocorrect also offers iPhone screen shots of:  AN ANNOUNCEMENT that someone’s mum is about to receive the “Touched by an Asian” (instead of the “Touched by an Angel”) box set; and AN ATTEMPT to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson which reads: “It’s not the journey but the dusty jockitch that counts”.

The possibilities, of course, are endless. Enjoy.

Top New Words 2011 – an early peep

1 01 2012

New Year. New words. I thought it an apt way to begin January 2012.

This time of year is when lexicographers the world over get their knickers in a knot seeking to decide on the best new words of the past year. I’m writing a piece on this for The Sydney Morning Herald, to be published in a few weeks.

Here are some early hopefuls:

devo  – shortened form of “devastated”

brill – shortened form of “brilliant”

occupy – as in “Occupy Wall Street”

dairyness – a measurement of a cow’s overall productivity in terms of milk.

slashy – a person who holds down more than one job eg actor/waiter/construction worker.

japas – tapas-style Japanese food

PIGS – acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – seen as weak economies in the Eurozone.

soy cap intelligensia – a more contemporary version of “chardonnay socialist”, a collective derogatory term  for a group of people with socio-economic views unlikely to impact on their own lifestyles.

This is merely a random sampling. Be prepared for the onslaught of published new words in the media through Jan/Feb 2012.

Stir-fry parenting

18 12 2011

Sometimes a new word or phrase can capture a concept that earlier defied description. I discovered one such today when I was reading the entry by Kate Hunter on the Mama Mia Blog ( It was stir-fry parenting, the definition for which can be inferred from the following quotation:

“Kids are not cakes; they’re more like stir-fries.You can kind of make it up as you go along. I know people who disagree and slavishly follow the recipe – thinking if they add the correct quantities of organic vegetables, time out and Italian tuition the only possible outcome is a genial Rhodes scholar with Wimbledon potential. These people stress if an ingredient is unavailable or forgotten. They spend their lives checking to see how it’s working and angsting through the oven door.

Those who subscribe to stir-fry parenting work with what they have. Sure, there are a few rules to follow – a hot wok works best, ingredients should be more or less the same size –  but the results are delicious, exciting and the best part is no two stir-fries are ever the same”.

Unless you’re super-confident, the ability to be a stir-fry parent probably doesn’t emerge until you have had your second or third child. By then you’ve come to appreciate that there’s a gap between what you plan and what emerges from the plan, and often what emerges is preferable to the plan. When this happens you start to trust the universe a bit more.

Review: Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial (Random House, 2011)

22 07 2011

This review will appear in Spectrum in The Sydney Morning Herald, on Sat 23 July, 2011.

It was one of those lines in the sand, distinguishing before from after.

I was twelve when Nazi Adolph Eichmann was found living incognito in Buenos Aires, captured and taken to Jerusalem, to face trial for crimes against humanity. Twelve – old enough to devour the newspapers, equal parts engrossed and repelled; not old enough to understand what it all meant or would come to mean. Or even to know what questions to ask.

Eichmann, an upper-echelon Nazi, was the supreme bureaucratic logician in the mechanistic genocide of European Jewry, the so-called Final Solution. Neither designer nor architect, Eichmann was a desk-killer. His was the responsibility for hunting down every Jew – for emptying out cities and villages of their Jews, stripping them of their rights, confiscating their property,  and deporting them to death camps. It was he who made sure that the cattle cars were filled to capacity; that the trains ran on time; that their unloading at the destination was executed with maximum efficiency; and that the on-arrival inspections ensured the best extraction of value for the Reich from the numbered “units” – from body hair and gold teeth to forced labour, as factory fodder or in salt mines.

Evading capture at war’s end, and anticipating a warm welcome in then-Peronist Argentina, he headed south. An earlier work, House on Garibaldi Street (Harel, Viking Press, 1975) detailed the James-Bond-cum-Mossad-style mission – the finding,  ID-ing, sequestering, and removal of this most wanted of men.

Fifty years later, historian Deborah Lipstadt rakes over the evidence, building on the mountain of documentation, to throw a new beam of light on the past – the trial, the crimes and the key stake-holders: defendant; defence; prosecution; judges; the Israeli government; and most importantly, the witness survivors whose distressing evidence distinguishes Eichmann’s trial from the Nuremburg Trials; and ultimately, the harrowing aftermath of the trial, the short- and long-term ripple effects.  Inevitably, then, the work becomes a mixed-genre text: part event-unfolding narrative, part history, and part historiography, that uniquely absorbing domain specializing in how history itself has been studied.

Lipstadt is the consummate historian, deftly combining compassion and cold, hard objectivity. With surgical prowess, she examines Eichmann’s evidence (just as, ten years earlier, she did with Holocaust denier/anti-Semite supremo, David Irving),  as well as the arguments of various commentators, chief being the (in)famous Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial as The New Yorker’s correspondent. Lipstadt speculates, always from the evidence, never conjecture, on the motivations of the key stake-holders – like Ben-Gurion,  Israel’s inaugural Prime Minister, who approved the capture and trial, insisting against strident criticisms, on Israel’s right to try Eichmann; the chief Prosecutor, who had his own agenda; and Hannah Arendt, who had hers, encapsulated in her phrase “the banality of evil”.

For the Jewish world, and especially the fledgling State of Israel, the trial was a watershed moment. In centre-staging witness testimony, it gave voice to the victims, seeking to overturn the namelessness of millions, while demonstrating civilization’s response to barbarism. But it also re-opened wounds, individual and collective, that hadn’t even begun to heal. It aggravated existing tensions in the conversation between Diasporan and Israeli Jews.  And it faced condemnation from many quarters – for breaking international law by the abduction; for holding the trial in Israel (not Germany); for accepting uncorroborated witness evidence. Ultimately and tellingly, for being vengeful (a la Old Testament) rather than forgiving (a la New Testament).

It is Lipstadt’s great feat to deftly dissect Eichmann’s role in the Final Solution, while also exposing the Holocaust as the product of a European Jew-hatred that has flourished with impunity for millennia. It is to her credit, too, that she catalogues the pressure, coming from many quarters, to “universalize” the problem. If the Americans were anxious to detach “Nazi” (the old enemy) from “German” (the new [Cold War] ally),  the Russians were as anxious to make Nazi crimes capitalist (not racist), and the victims uniformly, blandly proletarian; while Jewish intellectuals  in the Diaspora squirmed under the spotlight, finding comfort in the universal, discomfort in the particular.

A major win, as Ben-Gurion allegedly foreshadowed, was the body blow dealt to the myth of “sheep to the slaughter”, the Israeli-born’s blanket condemnation of Diasporan “weakness”. Subsequently, if slowly and painfully, the Israeli-born were to arrive at the understanding that they differed from the victims only chronologically, not qualitatively. They didn’t constitute “a different breed of Jews”, but were “simply generationally and geographically lucky”.

Behind bullet-proof glass, Eichmann presented mostly a sullen demeanour. But over the duration of capture and trial, he would display many faces – timid and fearful; taciturn, surly, mean and reproachful; mendacious, scheming, wily and conniving. He slipped easily between “the Nuremburg defence” (just a lowly bureaucrat following orders), and boasting about his rank and power. His memoirs, kept secret until the Irving Trial, revealed his only regret – having failed to render Europe wholly Jew-free. No remorse. No atonement.

Finally, guilty verdict, execution, cremation, grave-lessness. A line in a Leonard Cohen poem asks:  What did you expect? Talons?