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?

The Birth of Rebirth

21 06 2011

I love new words. Especially those that seem to have emerged spontaneously from who-knows-where.

Listening to the news this morning, I heard mention of the word “rebirthing” in relation to cars and seemingly (on first inference) illegal activity. This interpretation came less from “rebirth” than from  words like “racket”, “illegal” and the giveaway,  “crooks”. I discovered more on the ABC website

Professional car thieves around Australia are now running a lucrative racket based on what’s called ‘car rebirthing’. It’s a practice which involves making a stolen vehicle appear legitimate by using the identification number from another vehicle.

A bit more investigation (aka Google) revealed  326,000 hits. I’m amazed. Where has this word been all this time? I know it’s relatively new because its use in the print media is still accompanied by inverted commas eg the headline: States struggle to combat car “rebirthing”. But if the racket continues, we’re sure to lose the quote marks.

Again with Google, I sought to discover how flexible it has become, grammatically speaking, in its presumably short life.  Already we have the gerund – rebirthing. And the adjective rebirthed (eg a number of rebirthed cars…). There’s the infinitive form to rebirth (eg it’s still possible to rebirth a stolen vehicle in South Australia using a NSW identity). And the passive infinitive   (eg They must know that some of these cars… are going to some unscrupulous…characters to be rebirthed.)  And finally, there’s the simple common noun – rebirths (eg there’s an estimated 5000 rebirths a year), which like many common nouns, gives one the feeling of a well-established practice.

I predict new forms coming along any day now, like the agent noun rebirther:  eg What do you do? I’m a car rebirther. How about you? Or the present participle form eg What time will you be home, honey? Late, I’m afraid, I’ll be rebirthing all day.

One thing that I find quite curious is the actual choice of word. Of course, we’ve seen/heard rebirth used before, in the context of certain religious beliefs and also of fringe health remedies – where a person’s crippling mental problems are tracked back to an allegedly difficult birth, and through a guided mediation, that person is allowed to rebirth, and in doing so successfully, allegedly casts away all the heavy baggage and can start again, fresh and innocent. (All in all, this sounds a lot “cleaner” than years of psychoanalysis.).

But such a process is quite removed from the illegal racket of car rebirthing. All of which suggests to me that it was likely to have been someone within the automobile racket who came up with the name, much as used furniture might be called “pre-loved” or designer clothes “recycled” or “vintage(d)”.

It’s a nice example of how words don’t drop off the backs of trucks, without heritage or provenance. They arrive with meaningful connections and then proceed to develop in ways that speak volumes about  the work they do and the societies they live in.

Adding another language

19 06 2011

Foreign language learning has never been a topic to grab headlines. Especially not in English-speaking countries where monolingualism is rampant, premised on the rhetorical question – “Why learn another language if  the rest of the world is busting its gut learning English? Fair enough, perhaps, but the question over-simplifies the reasons/motivations  behind the endeavour.

In the space of 24 hours, I came across two pieces that feature foreign language learning. The first was in The Sydney Morning Herald, in the weekly Education Section, where in a part-serious, part- whimsical article, the writer describes and critiques his personal experience of a course he undertook to learn (notoriously difficult) Mandarin in 48 hours.  Check it out at:

Later in the same day I was sent an article focused on the lucrative value of adding a language to your skill set. Caution – a year from now, the list may be different. Check it out at:

While we’re on this topic, anyone wishing to become engaged in language learning could do worse than to follow the blog of Dr Gary Birch, now retired, from Griffith University, Queensland. Gary, an applied linguist, is also a great communicator. Note that the one does necessitate the other: there are loads of applied linguists who are poor communicators, and loads of good communicators who are not applied linguists. Gary is both, his blog tells it all, candidly, and with humour. But what I most like about Gary’s blog is that it/he doesn’t pretend  learning a language is easy. It’s called  Second Language Mentor. How to Learn a Second Language. Check it out at:

Mid-word complications: O(s,b)ama and hur(t,d)le

12 05 2011

We’ve all seen in recent weeks how similarity between words can lead to mix-ups. Just think of the Osama/Obama mishaps reported in the press.

In this case, there are several factors that increase the likelihood of mishap: phonologically, the initial “O”; the single consonant distinction (/b/+/s/); the similarity in syllabic structure, with the emphasis each time on the medial of three syllables); and of course, the semantic relationship: we associate the two men for very obvious reasons, and lexically,  it’s highly likely that the two words appear together or near each other  in millions of utterances over the last several years.

English is replete with all kinds of coupling similarities, as well as the metalanguage to describe them. For example, homophones (eg  bear/bare), or words that sound but do not mean similarly; homographs  (eg bear (the animal)/ bear (the verb, to put up with), or words that are written and sounded the same way but have different meanings. There are lots more in this category of lexical trivial pursuit,  like oronyms (I scream/ice cream), that are homophonic in the sense that they sound the same, but carry different meanings and spellings, and just to confuse things, they often have little respect for word boundaries. Comedians make a lot of professional use of oronyms, and who knows, maybe privately too.

In this context, I want to mention a couple of words that recently came to my attention. They are hurtle and hurdle.  The former means to rush or move rapidly ahead; the latter, to leap over an obstacle or barrier of some sort, physical or metaphorical. Both are verbs and have only one differentiating consonant  (the medial /t/, /d/).  In fact, in some American English dialects, they are identical in sound.  And just think for a moment – spoken in confluence, in Australian English, it might actually be the semantics drawn from context, rather than the sound, that cue the listener to meaning.

Yet despite their overt overlap, their word histories are quite distinct. By this I mean that they each arrived at the 21st century via distinct trajectories, a phenomenon that inexplicably quite fascinates me.

Hurtle is Germanic in origin, derived from both hurt and hurl, and semantically related to a forcible collision or projection; while hurdle, also Germanic, but derived as a diminutive from hyrd  (door), has to do with encountering a barrier – originally, a frame of intertwined twigs (you can just see it, can’t you?). It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sense of a physical barrier as used in a race came into English, and yet another century before the figurative use developed.

So really, if the Osama/Obama link may give rise to endless conspiracy theories, the hurtle/hurdle similarity might be comfortably put down to historical accident.

Noses and the Pinocchio Effect

3 05 2011

I have a great interest in lying, while also being a hopeless liar. I discovered the full extent of this interest only recently when sorting through my bookshelves in the futile (but ongoing attempt) to create order and harmony. I was putting like-with-like and discovered that I had at least a dozen books on lying.

Long before human language evolved, communication still happened. Today, messages sent non-verbally – typically via facial movements, gesture etc – are still hugely important, either in supporting the verbal message or more ominously, in contradicting it. For a pretty ridiculous pop culture extension of this, one need go no further than the TV show Lie to Me.

The truth probably is that some people are more accomplished liars than others, and some people are more accomplished at detecting lies than others.  The truth probably also is that the cues that help you detect lies are less than immediately obvious, happen in clusters rather than singly, and happen very fast. In other words, you have to be sufficiently interested in this area of human endeavour to learn about and practise it.

Some jobs no doubt provide de facto training eg police work, counselling, primary school teaching… to name a few. I’ve used a few such strategies – for detecting, not for lying – such as the commonly mentioned eye gaze – up to the left means fabrication; up to the right means memory recall. This can be helpful when asking  (interrogating) teenagers about the previous night.

The point to bear in mind is that when a person lies, they undergo physiological changes: some invisible (like an elevated heart rate), some visible – being jittery, sweaty, restless. On the other hand, people can exhibit jittery, restless, sweaty signs but not because they’re lying. They could be unwell or suffering from social anxiety. Likewise, the accomplished liar no doubt is able to dissemble as required – in fact, this is part of the accomplishment. The whole topic is rendered more complex by the simple fact that what constitutes a lie is far from clear-cut. And that the same lie, told repeatedly, can become a kind of truth in the mind of the liar.

Tradition and myth have it that the nose plays a big part in lies, both the commission and the detection.  Rubbing or touching the nose is said to be a dead give-away. I’m not sure about that – but remember Pinnocchio, whose nose elongated along with his lies?  Apparently, there’s some science  behind the myth. In Chicago, the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation has allegedly reported that chemicals (called “catecholamines”) are released during lying, causing swelling in the nasal tissue. Lying apparently increases the blood pressure and causes an expansion of the nose as a result. This is called “the Pinocchio Effect”, for obvious (if cute) reasons. While the expansion may not be visible to the human eye, it is this that causes the itching that causes the nose touching.

It all sounds very plausible to me, but check it out for yourself. I certainly don’t want to be caught out lying, even if (or, especially if) not trying to.