Word wran­glers

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - DAR­RYN KING

On a re­cent Mon­day, in a cor­ner of Pan Macmil­lan Aus­tralia’s of­fices in Syd­ney, the Mac­quarie Dic­tio­nary editorial team was mulling over a new word: schapelle –verb (i). to carry out in a hur­ried or thought­less way so that de­tec­tion is un­avoid­able.

It was a timely eponym; the pre­vi­ous day, Schapelle Corby had made her re­turn to Aus­tralia. The Mac­quarie team has ob­served a num­ber of delectable eponymic coinages over the years: do a Brad­bury, named for the Aus­tralian ice skater Steven Brad­bury, who won Olympic gold af­ter his com­peti­tors crashed; jef fed, for fired or sacked, named for for­mer Vic­to­rian pre­mier Jeff Ken­nett. There’s an­other one that Su­san But­ler, the dic­tio­nary’s editor since its in­cep­tion in 1970, thinks ought to have taken off by now. “I don’t un­der­stand why if you say that you’ve been ‘Lathamed’ that doesn’t mean you’ve been abused,” she says. “It’s so ob­vi­ous. Yet that one hasn’t hap­pened.”

Most Mon­day morn­ings, the Mac­quarie’s ed­i­tors ex­change notes (usu­ally from their phones, hav­ing mostly grad­u­ated from scrawled-on scraps of pa­per) about the week­end’s dis­cov­er­ies. They are in a per­pet­ual state of vo­cab­u­laric vig­i­lance, look­ing not only for ex­otic new words but also for trans­mu­ta­tions of ex­ist­ing ones.

“We are those peo­ple at a din­ner party who will hear a word and po­litely look it up in the dic­tio­nary to see if it needs to be in­ves­ti­gated,” says pub­lisher Melissa Kem­ble.

It can be tricky, at said party, to ex­plain the job of a lex­i­cog­ra­pher. “I don’t use the word lex­i­cog­ra­pher, for a start,” says ex­ec­u­tive editor Ali­son Moore.

“It’s a bit like be­ing a but­ter­fly col­lec­tor,” says But­ler. “You spot one, and you catch it.”

Moore sug­gests an­other, less ro­man­tic anal­ogy: they are the house­keep­ers of the lan­guage, tire­lessly at­tend­ing to a never-end­ing mess.

Re­cently, Moore has been weigh­ing up the vari­ant spellings for the word zhoosh, as in to en­hance the ap­pear­ance of some­thing (close run­ners-up: zhush, zhoozh, zhuzh), while se­nior editor Vic­to­ria Mor­gan amended the en­tries for Aus­tralian De­fence Force rank­ings, which had changed. One of the more heated dis­cus­sions in the of­fice con­cerned which of the words mis­an­thrope and mis­an­thropist ought to be the head­word.

Mac­quarie’s editorial team com­prises just three per­ma­nent em­ploy­ees, with free­lance ed­i­tors, proof­read­ers and con­sul­tants pitch­ing in. That’s mod­est, com­pared to some op­er­a­tions in the United States and the United King­dom. “I re­mem­ber vis­it­ing Ran­dom House dic­tio­nary in the 1980s, and I was so im­pressed be­cause I saw a door that had a sign on it that said Vice Pres­i­dent of Ety­molo­gies,” says But­ler.

The sev­enth and lat­est edi­tion of the Mac­quarie Dic­tio­nary was re­leased ear­lier this year, its 4-kilo­gram bulk dis­persed be­tween two vol­umes for the first time. It con­tains 2300 new words, which to­gether pro­vide a glimpse of the zeit­geist, or the de­cline of civil­i­sa­tion, de­pend­ing on your point of view: bae, lum­ber­sex­ual, manspread, rest­ing bitch face, re­venge porn, selfie drone, norm­core, facepalm, one­sie, dig­i­tal detox, gen­der re­veal party, life­hack­ing and amaze­balls. It doesn’t in­clude the 2016 Mac­quarie Dic­tio­nary Word of the Year, fake news, though. Work has con­tin­ued apace since the new edi­tion was pub­lished, and the on­line ver­sion of the dic­tio­nary is up­dated ev­ery six months.

Even though the dic­tio­nary it­self is a non-judge­men­tal record of the way English is cur­rently be­ing writ­ten and spo­ken, be­hind the scenes there are plenty of lex­i­cally in­duced facepalms.

“Every­one’s go­ing on a va­cay,” says Mor­gan, who also writes con­tent for state and na­tional spell­ing bees. “Re­ally? A va­cay? Run­ca­tions, staycations … There are of­ten things that we don’t like, but they’re in use.”

But­ler tuts at the use of al­ter­nate for al­ter­na­tive, free reign for free rein, and tact for tack, but has be­come more philo­soph­i­cal and for­giv­ing of the use of lit­er­ally as an in­ten­si­fier. Amanda Vanstone’s em­phatic use of the word is the team’s favourite ci­ta­tion, ap­pear­ing in the dic­tio­nary in full: “But I can as­sure you,” Vanstone told the ABC in 2006, “we are lit­er­ally bend­ing over back­wards to take into ac­count the con­cerns raised by col­leagues.”

When the Mac­quarie ex­panded its def­i­ni­tion of the word misog­yny in the wake of Ju­lia Gil­lard’s “misog­yny speech”, one per­son mailed in a dic­tio­nary that had been hacked to bits. Sim­i­larly, there was out­rage when But­ler ca­su­ally un­leashed the term fuck­wit while on the Seven Net­work’s Sun­rise pro­gram.

More harm­lessly, one en­thu­si­ast launched a cam­paign to get the dic­tio­nary to change the plu­ral of com­pass from com­passes to com­pii. “Just out of their de­sire for it to be com­pii,” says Mor­gan.

The very first edi­tion of the Mac­quarie Dic­tio­nary, pub­lished in 1981, in­vited read­ers to pitch in with their own finds. One of the Mac­quarie’s reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tors since then is poet Les Mur­ray, who sends his sug­ges­tions via post­card.

Lately, But­ler has main­tained a cor­re­spon­dence with a Scrab­ble tragic. “He’s read this edi­tion three times from cover to cover. The first two times were just a gen­eral read, the third time it was a spe­cific in­ter­est in birds. He’s sent a lot of stuff. You do find the odd per­son that actually likes to read the dic­tio­nary. They think it’s sooth­ing at bed­time.”

But­ler is also a reg­u­lar per­former with the Am­a­teur Cham­ber Mu­sic So­ci­ety. There’s not re­ally a con­nec­tion be­tween her pas­sions for mu­sic and words, she says, ex­cept that her wordy ex­per­tise in­forms her re­sponse to po­etry and lit­er­a­ture, in much the same way that her un­der­stand­ing of qua­vers and crotch­ets might en­rich her ap­pre­ci­a­tion of a Mozart trio.

A bit like David At­ten­bor­ough deny­ing he is an “an­i­mal lover”, lan­guage is a deep in­tel­lec­tual plea­sure for the Mac­quarie’s team rather than a sen­ti­men­tal one. They aren’t no­tice­ably ver­bose, and, no, they don’t re­ally have “favourite words” – though Moore ad­mits a fond­ness of late for pet­ri­chor, the term coined by a cou­ple of Aus­tralian sci­en­tists to de­scribe the earthy smell that oc­curs when it rains or is just about to rain.

“We’d be wary of any­one who came to us and said, ‘Oh I just love lan­guage,’” says But­ler. She sees her fas­ci­na­tion with words as a “very spe­cial curse” much of the time.

“You’re read­ing and you sud­denly find your­self pen­cilling words, read­ing for the dic­tio­nary rather than for plea­sure.” Mor­gan once de­vel­oped an acute sen­si­tiv­ity to ho­mo­phones. “They kept leap­ing out at me. ‘There’s an­other one, there’s an­other one.’ All en­joy­ment was gone. It took me a few weeks.”

When asked about their pre­ferred spell­ing of the word caj, as in the ab­bre­vi­a­tion of ca­sual (caszh? ca­jzh?), But­ler makes a bee­line for her com­puter, only to find no en­try for the term.

Moore says, solemnly, “It’s go­ing in.”

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