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.”