On the job
SUE BUTLER IS A LEXICOGRAPHER AND THE FORMER EDITOR OF THE MACQUARIE DICTIONARY.
I wanted to do music back in high school, but my parents said it was a very bad choice. I mean, I could end up being a musician and having late nights out! I did Latin and Greek at uni instead, just as the New South Wales high school syllabus changed. Latin was dropped as a regular subject, so suddenly, the bright, rosy career I’d been promised as a Latin teacher was snatched away from me. I didn’t actually mind, though. I got myself back to university to do music until I ran out of money. Then I did various odd jobs like working in a chocolate factory and a belt factory, before I answered an ad for a research assistant on a new dictionary of ‘Australian English’. With my little bit of linguistics studies, I got the job in 1970 at 19 years of age.
For the first year, I thought I was just there to make some money and go back to music. But I got hooked. Up to that point, most people thought Australians spoke British English with a bit of Australian slang thrown in, which was a ridiculous idea! You only had to open your mouth in the middle of London to realise you were speaking a different version of English, with distinctly Australian words and phrases. People were familiar with British English and American English, but it was hard to get across the notion of Australian English as a variety of its own.
In the early days, there were about half a dozen editors and four people on the academic editorial committee. We all learnt how to make a dictionary as we went along, as no one had done it before in Australia. We selected an existing dictionary to use as a base, then went through and marked things to keep, things to throw out and things we’d send to a specialist. Two editors had the job of going through and changing all the pronunciations into Australian English. We then had a reading program for secondary sources of Australian English: classic fiction, as well as magazines and newspapers, so we could collect words that ought to be in the dictionary. I read
we got a lot of flack for including 'youse' in the dictionary
“Mrs Middleton”, a serial in Woman’s Day, and when Dolly came along, we read that, too. We tried to tap into places where people from different ages, backgrounds and interests were communicating freely in Australian English.
It took 10 years to make the Macquarie Dictionary. We sent the manuscript to a publisher in 1974, but our project was apparently abandoned, so I was delighted when it started again at Macquarie University. I was put in charge of that operation and we did another A-to-z review, which was a very good thing, as we weren’t entirely happy with the previous version. The first print run was in 1981 and it sold out in about three months. It was a tremendous success. When people saw it, they got the sense it wasn’t throwaway Australiana for the tourists – this was a serious reference book. We could wave the dictionary around as a bulky kind of national flag.
The day-to-day of being the dictionary editor was mostly thinking about where we might have missed a cluster of words, and what to do about finding that information. Language is always changing and shifting. Initially, we updated the words from one print edition to another. Now, of course, the online dictionary is updated every six months – it has to be faster to keep up with the users’ expectations. You’re not going to wait five years to look up ‘quazza’ and find out that it’s a colloquialism for quarantine.
We got a lot of flack for including ‘youse’ in the dictionary. It’s labelled as colloquial, and there’s an etymology to explain that it’s a plural of ‘you’ that existed in the past. Even with all of that, though, we got, “You put youse in the dictionary? I’ll never buy that dictionary!” Every word we include has to show it has currency in the community, but the whole community doesn’t have to use it. You can tell a word is here to stay – and not just one of those fashionable media colloquialisms – by the number of times you find it being applied. (Things like ‘manspreading’ and ‘amazeballs’ stuck around longer than we expected, so were added to the dictionary.) These days, with the internet, it’s much easier to find examples, but you also need to see if it’s being used naturally. A dead giveaway that a word hasn’t quite taken is when it’s put in inverted commas to show the writer doesn’t actually subscribe to it. Once you find it being used by a number of people from a number of different sources without inverted commas, you can conclude that the word has currency and ought to be in the dictionary.
A good dictionary editor has a habit of observation. I’m the woman with the mop and bucket who comes in and sweeps up after the party’s over, collecting all the useful stuff. I’m certainly not telling people which words they should or shouldn’t be using. I’m not deciding what’s good and what’s bad. I’m simply observing and recording what’s happening to the best of my ability. A dictionary editor can’t take sides. You can’t inflict your likes and dislikes on the language, although it would make life a hell of a lot simpler if you could.
There’s a slightly nostalgic feel to Australian English words now. Society is fragmented in what we read and watch, so it’s increasingly possible for everyone to just live in their own small worlds of interest and language. I think pride in Australian English dropped in favour of globalism in the ’90s, too – as citizens of the world, we needed a language that would travel. But I’d say we should treasure Australian English. Keep the two-passport notion where we tone down our Australian Englishness overseas to be polite, but relax back into it to talk to people of our own community.
What fascinates me about studying language is the endless variety: the extraordinary twists and turns that words take in their meaning and their travels, from their origin to where they become significant, to where they drop out of sight and become obsolete. I’m always making notes of things I’ve heard in conversation. Lexicography has become a lifelong habit for me.