When Sir Nicholas became a saint W/E DEC 20


A friend said to me the other day “I will not be buying anything from people who advertise Christmas as Xmas”.


The comment came about the same time John Broadhead of Maitland, sent a note suggesting I consider an article “on the “Christmas versus Xmas” issue. I don’t know John’s reason for the question. If he wants a religious answer he would be better asking someone else.


I touched on this issue in a column close on 20 years ago.


But I believe there are two answers to the Xmas question.


One answer is that Xmas seems appropriate in the modern advertising world.


The other answer is that, according to several experts including the Illustrated Bible Dictionary, several names were used in former years to indicate Christ.


X is a symbol for Christ, representing chi in Greek.


Dr Rudolph Brasch suggested some people used X because “Christ’s name was regarded as too sacred to be written in full”.


The name Christmas, a contraction of Christ's Mass, became common during the Middle Ages.


So, if you feel so inclined, you could mount an argument that X in some parts of the world represents Christ. You could also suggest it is an advertising gimmick. I will leave it to you, but I suggest that if you have any doubts you stick with Christmas.


My friend Kerry Medway, of Port Macquarie, questioning December 25 as


being the date of Jesus' birth, said this was mid-winter in the northern hemisphere and the shepherds would not have been out in the fields tending their flocks by night. The flocks would have been under shelter.


December 25 was originally a pagan celebration taken over by Christians.


Early Christians would take of the first letters for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” and put those letters together to spell the Greek word for fish.


I’m also told the Greek letter theta, which is an O with a line across the middle, has been used as a shorthand abbreviation for God because it is the first letter of the word Theos, the Greek word for God.


Kissing under the mistletoe originated at a time when some people thought mistletoe could promote sexual powers. Druid priests used to cut pieces of mistletoe and distribute them to the faithful, but the plant’s aphrodisiac role has now been forgotten.


In 1939 Bob May, an employee of the Chicago-based mail order firm of Montgomery Ward, was asked to create a lovable character for a children’s Christmas book. He came up with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Johnny Marks wrote the words of the song in 1949 and Gene Autry made it famous.


Silent Night, Holy Night, is said to have come about after mice had eaten away part of the bellows at a church in Oberndorf, Austria, in 1818, on the day of the Christmas Eve mass. Father Josef Mohn asked schoolteacher Franz Gruber to set to music a poem he had written on the theme of Christmas, but it had to be ready for that night. The two performed the carol that night as a duet with their own guitar accompaniment.


The original Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra in what is now part of Turkey.


Former NSW Governor Marie Bashir married rugby legend Sir Nicholas Shehadie. At a NSW country town, a nervous councillor introduced the rugby great not as Sir Nicholas but as Saint Nicholas.


Well, Sir Nicholas in another life was Australian captain in that game they play in heaven.


lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au











A friend said to me the other day “I will not be buying anything from people who advertise Christmas as Xmas”.

The comment came about the same time John Broadhead of Maitland, sent a note suggesting I consider an article “on the “Christmas versus Xmas” issue. I don’t know John’s reason for the question. If he wants a religious answer he would be better asking someone else.

I touched on this issue in a column close on 20 years ago.

But I believe there are two answers to the Xmas question.

One answer is that Xmas seems appropriate in the modern advertising world.

The other answer is that, according to several experts including the Illustrated Bible Dictionary, several names were used in former years to indicate Christ.

X is a symbol for Christ, representing chi in Greek.

Dr Rudolph Brasch suggested some people used X because “Christ’s name was regarded as too sacred to be written in full”.

The name Christmas, a contraction of Christ's Mass, became common during the Middle Ages.

So, if you feel so inclined, you could mount an argument that X in some parts of the world represents Christ. You could also suggest it is an advertising gimmick. I will leave it to you, but I suggest that if you have any doubts you stick with Christmas.

My friend Kerry Medway, of Port Macquarie, questioning December 25 as

being the date of Jesus' birth, said this was mid-winter in the northern hemisphere and the shepherds would not have been out in the fields tending their flocks by night. The flocks would have been under shelter.

December 25 was originally a pagan celebration taken over by Christians.

Early Christians would take of the first letters for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” and put those letters together to spell the Greek word for fish.

I’m also told the Greek letter theta, which is an O with a line across the middle, has been used as a shorthand abbreviation for God because it is the first letter of the word Theos, the Greek word for God.

Kissing under the mistletoe originated at a time when some people thought mistletoe could promote sexual powers. Druid priests used to cut pieces of mistletoe and distribute them to the faithful, but the plant’s aphrodisiac role has now been forgotten.

In 1939 Bob May, an employee of the Chicago-based mail order firm of Montgomery Ward, was asked to create a lovable character for a children’s Christmas book. He came up with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Johnny Marks wrote the words of the song in 1949 and Gene Autry made it famous.

Silent Night, Holy Night, is said to have come about after mice had eaten away part of the bellows at a church in Oberndorf, Austria, in 1818, on the day of the Christmas Eve mass. Father Josef Mohn asked schoolteacher Franz Gruber to set to music a poem he had written on the theme of Christmas, but it had to be ready for that night. The two performed the carol that night as a duet with their own guitar accompaniment.

The original Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra in what is now part of Turkey.

Former NSW Governor Marie Bashir married rugby legend Sir Nicholas Shehadie. At a NSW country town, a nervous councillor introduced the rugby great not as Sir Nicholas but as Saint Nicholas.

Well, Sir Nicholas in another life was Australian captain in that game they play in heaven.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au



Don't insult the cowboys W/E DEC 13


Did you know that in the 19th century calling somebody a cowboy was seen as an insult?

I just thought I would throw that in, for what it is worth.

A few people have asked me why an Australian rugby league team was called the Cowboys. They saw this as an Americanism that had no place in Australia.

Well, we have adopted several American terms in Australia over recent years, and one more would hardly be noticed.

But is it an Americanism? And why was calling somebody a cowboy regarded as an insult?

Cowboy is made up of two elements – cow and boy.

Cow represents that bovine animal that gives milk when you pull its various hanging bits. I wonder who was the bravest – the first person to drink milk or the first person to eat oysters.

When we see the word boy we think of a conversation between Bert Newton and Muhammad Ali, or at least I do.

My big dictionary says cowboy represents “a contemptuous appellation” for some Americans who meted out barbarous treatment or a person without qualifications who gave shoddy service. The word unscrupulous is mentioned several times. The term goes back to 1725.

Some bandits in the USA, according to James Thatcher in his American Military Journal of 1775, were “lawless villains”. But Thatcher goes on to say they were in the British lines, and as we know the Americans of those days didn’t have much to say about the British that was much good.

The 1911 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described cow-handed as awkward.

Author Graeme Donald said that during the American War of Independence cowboys lured the British into the woods, by the tinkling of bells, and then took pot shots at them. He added: “The term has rarely enjoyed polite use in America”.

The Americans had gangs of people implicated in various crimes. One gang was even called The Cowboys.

Author the late Sidney Baker said the cowboy was not the romantic figure of the American prairies, but simply a man who milked cows.

GA Wilkes, from the University of Sydney, said the cowboy was “the lowest form of life on the station”. He also found a publication that said the cowboy’s boss was “usually the missus”.

Bill Hornadge said a cow, in some contexts, was an unpleasant happening.

But did the word come from the USA?

The first reference in print that I could find came in 1725 from Anglo-Irish essayist        Jonathan Swift in Receipt to Stella, when he writes of cow-boys bearing cloaks. (Swift also wrote Gulliver’s Travels, but I don’t know if cowboys are mentioned in that.) Another British author described a cowboy as “simple” but that might have just been for dramatic effect.

Americans seemed to adopt the word much later.

Graeme Donald, mentioned earlier, alleges that in the 18th century American men who herded cattle were never called cowboys. He adds: “Today, the term denotes any shoddy workman”.

Cow has lent its name to many other words, such as cow-baby, a coward; and cow-bane, an extremely poisonous plant.

But Australia has adopted cow.

If you backed the wrong horses at the races you can have a cow of a day.

The North Queensland Cowboys didn’t do too well last rugby league season.

Maybe they would do much better with a new name.

How about the fair cows, or the cow-pats?

www.lauriebarber.com or lbword@midcoast.com.au.




Hanged or hung? W/E DEC 6


There I was, doing nothing in particular except thinking about my next holiday in the Pacific, with palm trees swaying in the breeze, clear blue water and saxon-haired maidens wearing almost nothing on the golden beaches.

Then a grandmother (my wife hates news reports that talk about grandmothers) walked up to me and said if I had done something terribly wrong would I be hanged or hung.

My first reaction was to say I hadn’t done anything terribly wrong for days, but I felt she wanted a different type of answer. I promised I would get back to her eventually.

People often want a precise explanation of some of our language quirks, and sometimes it is not possible to give a clear explanation.

Hanged and hung is a good example. We say a person is hanged but a picture is hung.

“Why is it so?” as the professor once said.

If you put it down to usage, you would not be too far from the truth.

In almost every case the word would be hung, but usage has determined that in the case of a person the word is hanged. A picture would be hung. You might have hung Christmas decorations. You might even have hung your head in shame if you had done something terribly wrong.

You could tell that grandmother the chances of suffering the extreme punishment are fairly slim these days in Australia, but no doubt she would find another country and persist with the question.

I discovered the woman in question had had a recent argument with her husband. He had told her of the distinction between hanged and hung, but she did not believe him and decided to ask me instead, thereby losing me another friend.

You could blame lawyers for the word hanged. They love hanging people out to dry. The late Stephen Murray-Smith said hanged had hung around “probably” because of the legal profession’s conservatism. He used as an example “I’ll be hanged if I will”.

Actually, some lawyers are my best friends. They will do anything to help you – just remember to pay them.

My big dictionary said hanged meant put to death by hanging by the neck. It goes back to 1330 with a quote saying “Edrik was hanged on the toure”. Hung meant suspended, but the earliest reference I could find for this word went back only to 1663.

It appears the correct word was hanged, but hung came into vogue much later. Think of similar words, such as walked and talked. What are the chances that in years to come we might talked about people who “runned” instead of “ran”, but don’t take bets yet.

A person who has suffered death from hanging is a hangee. The executioner is a hanger.

Incidentally, Albert Pierrepoint is alleged to have hanged at least 400 people in Britain. Some people said more than 600. Then he became a publican.

A person who has had too much to drink is hungover. My big dictionary has found hundreds of expressions such as hang on, hang off (Shakespeare used this expression), hangdown and hangdog.

I like hangable, the term for one who should be hanged -- or a husband who comes home late for tea.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au


Did Putin play Aussie rules? W/E NOV 29



At the end of each year the various dictionaries, and others, from around the world try to set out what they think the “word of the year” might have been.

What are the chances that someone will list “shirtfront”?

This has been the word that has been drawn to my attention so many times. I think Tony Abbott used the wrong word, in the heat of the moment, and then wished it would go away, but the newspapers and radio and television stations, and those politicians from the other side of the fence, would not allow him to escape that easily.

Australians, depending on which sport they followed, had several opinions of the meaning of the word. I wondered which version had been given to Vladimir Putin.

I can imagine Russian translators rushing to their dictionaries to find out what shirtfront meant – and then being disappointed when they couldn’t find it.

Poor old Vladimir couldn’t even spell Abbott, so he had no hope of understanding Australian slang. He would have had no doubt, however, about what caused the word to be used in the first place.

Here is a word that seems to have started on the Australian rules sporting field.

One of the dictionaries I consulted said “the front of a shirt”. Well, that figures.

GA Wilkes in his dictionary of Australian colloquialisms said shirtfronting was an Australian rules football term in which a player tackled an opponent whose chest was unprotected.

J Pollard said in High Mark, 1964: “There is a vast difference between a deliberate charge and a shirtfront. The rules permit a push to the chest. It is quite legitimate to shirtfront.”

The following year Jack Dyer in Captain Blood said: “He collected me with the perfect shirtfront, the knee coming up, the shoulder driving into my chest and the punch to the jaw on the follow-through”.

In 1980 the Melbourne Age reported on July 21: “His fullback had gone down in football’s fiercest tackle – the shirtfront”.

So there you have it. One wonders whether Vladimir’s translators got their information from the sporting pages.

No wonder Russian warships were seen off the Australian coast.

(My Australian National Dictionary had two definitions under “shirt”. One was for shirtfront and the other was for shirt lifter, but you don’t need to know about shirt lifter.)

My big dictionary goes all coy when it described a shirtfront as: “A white patch on the chest of a dog; also a cricket pitch, very smooth and even”. Hey, haven’t they heard of Australian rules?

But surely Tony Abbott got the term from somewhere apart from the Australian rules football field.

I came across an 1830 dictionary definition saying a shirtfront was that part of a shirt showing beneath the vest.

I concede that Australian rules administrators are concerned at shirtfronting on the field.

I suggest Tony Abbott, thinking of the many times he had seen Vladimir Putin wearing no shirt, used the first word that came into his head.

He thought about shirt lifter but his better judgement came into play. The next word he thought of was shirtfront – and he has regretted it ever since.

Incidentally, Oxford Dictionaries announced last week that their word of the year is vape, which they say is inhaling and exhaling the vapour from electronic cigarettes.




All those vulgar people W/E NOV 22





I was standing near a row of books, minding my own business, when a man pointed to a page in a book, and said something like “this says hoi polloi means the masses; I thought it meant the upper class”.

The book reader was probably thinking of hoity toity.

I remembered writing something about hoi polloi several years ago. I think it followed a newspaper article suggesting some people in the USA had fenced off a beach near their Hollywood homes. I remember the newspaper article had commented they wanted to keep out “the hoi polloi”.

I suppose they were the hoity toity, in other words the upper class (in their minds anyway) who wanted to keep out the hoi polloi, or the masses.

I can’t remember how the standoff was resolved, if ever it was resolved. But I do remember travelling along the roads west of Hollywood and noting the houses that had fences running down the beaches to the water, to keep out the “hoi polloi”, or the vulgar people.

Speaking of the word vulgar, I have a dictionary called the dictionary of the vulgar tongue. A friend of mine insisted on borrowing the book, expecting it to be full of rude words, and returned it most indignantly because it didn’t live up to expectations.

Anyway, back to hoi polloi.

This expression thrust itself upon the English-speaking people in the same year that hoity-toity made an impact – 1668.

In that year, John Dryden in his essay called Of Dramatick Poesie spoke of the people, the multitude, the hoi polloi. In the same year Sir Roger L’Estrange wrote about widows chanting and jigging to every tune they heard, “and all upon the Hoyty-Toyty”.

The earliest meaning of hoity-toity, whichever way it has been spelt, was of riotous or giddy behaviour, even people who considered they had more fun than others. Hoi polloi on the other hand represented the masses.

Over the years those fun-loving hoity-toity people have embraced an air of superiority, something like “my party’s better than your party”, so that these days a hoity-toity person is regarded as someone who generates, rightly or wrongly, a superior air.

The expression hoi polloi, on the other hand, represents all the rest of us nobodies, still seeking our 15 minutes of fame. The word “the” before the Greek expression hoi polloi is redundant, although we often see it in print these days.

Hoi polloi is in danger of losing its original meaning as people seem to assume it means the rich and famous.

“Why is it so?” that professor once said.

I can only assume it is because hoi polloi sounds so similar to hoity-toity, which has also undergone a change in meaning.

Incidentally, the word polloi came from the same word that led to polygamy, but don’t you worry about that.

So a hoity-toity person who once loved to engage in boisterous behaviour (“giddy, thoughtless, romping”) is now seen as being “stuck up”. And the masses, or hoi polloi, are heading the same way, if people keep misunderstanding it..

We’re running out of words to describe you and me.

Well, I know how to describe me, but I’m a bit worried about you.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au


The world's worst jockey W/E NOV 15



 I heard a good story about jockey Les Boots recently and I just had to share it with you. But I also have to tell you about the word boot.

The story about boot is a relatively uninteresting story, compared with the story about Les Boots. But read on.

Boot is so boring that I am at a loss to know where to start.

What the heck -- here is the story of Les Boots:

He was an Australian jockey who died not so many years ago. I have to blame Doug Emanual for bringing it to my attention.

The career of Les Boots as a professional jockey spanned 18 years and, by his admission, he spent 12 of those years in hospital, breaking just about every bone in his body, including a broken neck that he said saw him out of action for two years. He never finished a race.

Over the jumps, he had 39 starts and fell off his horse 40 times. On one occasion he collected his horse and promptly fell off again.

The nurses at the local hospital would study the form and, if he was riding, they would prepare a bed for him. The starter at one race called out that he would visit Les in hospital during the week and take some fruit – and the race hadn’t even started.

The race club wanted to ban him, because he was a strain on the compensation fund. But I imagine he was also an attraction.

His wife always packed pyjamas when he went to race.

His horse was always 100/1, regardless of how good the horse was, although I can’t imagine he had many rides on a good horse.

An interview with Bert Bryant was played at the start of the Victorian jumps season and on Grand National day, for comic relief, no doubt.

His big ambition was to ride in the English Grant National at Aintree but his wife managed to have his passport cancelled. She said he would fall at the water jump and drown.

On one occasion, on a misty day, he was lying on the track waiting for the ambulance when he heard somebody say “I think we’ll have to shoot him”. He beat the ambulance back to the jockeys’ room and then was told the comment had been about the horse.

Did I mention that he had 39 starts and fell off 40 times?

Well, that’s not strictly correct. By his own admission with Bert Bryant, he had 39 starts and 42 falls.

He fell out of the ambulance at the track twice.

The story about boot by comparison is very uninteresting.

The word can mean well-being, obviously for all people except Les Boots. The first use I could find was in the year 1000. In the early days it was used to make up a deficiency. Shakespeare once said “this and Saint George to boote”.

Somehow, and experts wonder whether this was from the same root, the word came to mean a shoe, usually of leather, that covered the foot and the lower part of the leg.

In Australia and New Zealand, the word was used in many forms, such as the boot’s on the other foot, I got the boot, put in the boot, boots and all.

Shakespeare once said “get on thy boots, we’ll ride all night”.

But he didn’t have Les Boots in mind.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.am

Chook is okay, but not old boiler W/E NOV 8



I once had a friend called Fowler and his nickname was Chook. I know of others called Murphy whose nickname was Spud and Marsh whose nickname was Swampy. Then there was a tall bloke called Shorty and a redhead called Blue. Even last weekend I attended a meeting with a sanitary engineer who said he had been in it all his life, but I’m not sure if that was slang or if he was simply talking dirty.

Anyway, back to chook.

Chook is said by those who say they know about these things to be from Australia or New Zealand. But the first use of chook, or its early cousin, that I could find was used by that master of the best English, Bill Shakespeare.

Remember Love’s Labour’s Lost? (I once used that as a newspaper headline when a Labor Party politician called Love hit the deck, so to speak, as did his party, and he didn’t appreciate it.)

Anyway, before people learnt how to spell, chook used to be spelt as chuck or even as chucky. In Love’s Labour’s Lost Shakespeare described a princess as “sweet chuck”. My big dictionary says the word chuck is “to make a clucking noise like a fowl” and it goes back to 1386. I know a woman who often sounds like a chuck – and I bet she never read Shakespeare.

Where did chuck come from? The experts tell me it started out as British slang for people

calling the chickens. People still say something similar.

Then the word came south and in its early days it was still called chuck. The first use in Australia that I could find came from William Howitt in Land, Labor and Gold when he described a “huge and very fat hen” as a chuckey. No princess there.

The first use I could find of chooks, or chookies, came in 1880 in The Bulletin when it asked if a man found in the cow shed of Government House was looking for the housemaid or “100 little chookies”.

That depository of all good literature, Truth, said in 1900 that Lord Augustus Loftos spent all his time coaxing his chooks to lay.

From then the word was chooks. So we can all blame Truth for a word that has become identified with Australia and to some extent New Zealand. If you can’t bring yourself to mention Truth, you can go back to William Shakespeare.

Chook has been used in Australia and New Zealand as a term for mild praise and for mild criticism (D’Arcy Niland in The Shiralee spoke of “some half-witted chook”).

That word chook led to various expressions.

Every week some pub or club has a chook raffle, accompanied by comments about how old the chook is. Often people conduct a chook raffle without even thinking of giving a chook as a prize.

Plan ahead -- don’t run around like a chook with its head cut off.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen used to talk about “feeding the chooks” but he wasn’t talking about chickens.

If somebody should happen to say you couldn’t run a chook raffle, that person is probably not being complimentary. The same should apply if they say they hope all your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down.

Otherwise, chook is one of those words that won’t get you into too much trouble, unless you happen to call the missus an “old boiler”.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au.




Caddies are generally likeable W/E NOV 1




Mary, Queen of Scots, was once a keen golfer. And the caddie you see helping champion golfers win their fortunes was once a bit of a cad.

That’s what they tell me.

I have tried to play golf, but someone keeps putting a big lake or a tree in the way.

I played on the Gold Coast a few times but the place where most golfers hit their little white balls had a sign that said “beware of snakes”. I can imagine the person who erected the sign had a field day each afternoon collecting the balls that golfers decided to leave uncollected.

Anyway, back to caddie.

My big dictionary takes up several pages to describe a caddie.

In days of old, the younger sons of noble families often entered, or were required to enter, the army. They were known as cadets but eventually as caddies.

One of the experts I consulted said a caddie was once so far down the line of succession that a family could afford to lose him. I’m sure that could have been expressed better. Another said that in ten years a caddie could be “cutting the throats of nations”. I think that person wanted nobody to misunderstand what he was trying to say – but he did say it in 1911.

The Romans had a word caput, which meant head. By a circuitous route, which you don’t want to know about, a cadet became one in waiting to be the family head. In Scotland, the heads of the family weren’t dying quickly enough, so the cadet moved around the countrywide getting whatever odd jobs that came his way.

He even became a bus conductor in the early days of buses, if we can believe Charles Dickens.

He was a person everybody looked down on (apologies to modern bus conductors).

That cadet became a caddie. He even became a cad, a person who was held in contempt but who hung around hoping to pick up any loose change by doing lowly paid jobs. My big dictionary mentioned this practice was common around universities, especially Oxford.

And I thought everybody who went to Oxford were…oh, neve mind.

A cad even became an unbooked passenger picked up by the driver who pocketed the fare.

Over the years the meanings of a cad and a caddie separated, so that a caddie still undertook menial jobs for money, but a cad became, well, a cad. My big dictionary describes a cad as “a fellow of low vulgar manners and behaviour”.

Author Max Cryer described a cad as a person “capable of ungentlemanly behaviour”, whatever that means. But I’m sure you know.

But what of caddie?

In 1634 it meant “any young gentleman latelie come from France pransing, with his short scarlet cloake and his long rapier”.

These days a caddie is one who is found mainly on the golf course – and it’s an honourable occupation. The word refers to a person who carries the golfer’s clubs and offers words of encouragement, such as “there’s a big lake ahead”.

In 1850 poet Arthur Clough commented “If I should chance to run over a cad, I can pay for the damage if ever so bad”.

I don’t think he liked cads.

This sentence has nothing to do with cads or caddies, but while I was researching those words I came across a 1911 dictionary comment that said “cackling farts” were eggs.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au

Was it a crusade? W/E OCT 25


In the early days, when the Christians were attacking the Muslims, their rallying cry was based around the word crusade.

Visiting Sydney recently, I switched on the television one morning to see the big headlines on the screen “One Woman’s Crusade”. But it was about a woman who had decided to spread the Muslim message.

My big dictionary described crusade as “a military expedition undertaken by the Christians of Europe in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries to recover the Holy Land from the Mohammedans”.

But this woman wanted to spread the Muslim message – not the Christian one.

In 1095, so the story goes, Pope Urban II gathered his flock in Clermont, France, and set in motion the first crusade. With the cry of “God wills it” the crowd affirmed his pleas to forget their own relatively minor differences and head east, with a cross of red on the front of their tunics, to attack the Muslims, who had overcome the Christians in the areas around Jerusalem.

The cross gave rise to the name crusade.

Crusades were, in effect, expeditions undertaken to deliver Christian holy places from the Muslims.

The first crusade lasted from 1095 to 1101.

Now we jump to September 2001, and President George W Bush (the W to distinguish the son from the father) promised a crusade against those who perpetrated the September 11 attacks on New York. He was promptly advised to avoid using the word crusade.

Muslims, for their part, over at least a millennium have disagreed over the meaning of jihad. Some said it was a holy war against Christians, some described it as merely a struggle to improve the quality of life and the extremists have said it represented death to those who did not succomb to the authority of Muslim rule. Polythiests were offered the choice of Islam or death in the eyes of the extremists.

Some cynics might suggest that these troubled times almost see a return to 1095, with whole races of people prepared to take up arms against others in the name of religion.

The word crusade, however, has broadened its meaning over the centuries so that these days it can mean to the ordinary Christian what jihad might mean to some Muslims – an innocent word used in a non-confrontationist manner to represent a campaign for a better life.

The big Oxford defines a crusade as a military expedition undertaken by early Christians, any war instigated and blessed by the church, an aggressive movement against some public evil, a papal bull authorising an expedition against infidels or the raising of money (in Spain) for aggression against the Moors.

Many words in common use these days have been associated with crusade. They include crux (once an instrument of torture, then a difficult problem and now a point requiring resolution), crucial, crucifix, crucify and even excrutiating. The English word cross has links with it, but so does that holiday word cruise, which comes from the meaning of “making a cross”. So if you go on a cruise, you cross the Pacific, or Atlantic, or something, unless you were unfortunate enough to be in the Titanic.

In 1998 a group of Western volunteers arrived in Lebanon to apologise to the Arabs for what they saw as atrocities committed by the Crusaders. Their act of repentance ended in Jerusalem on July 15, 1999, the 900th anniversary of the sacking of the city, when, according to The Times of September 8, 1998, 70,000 Muslims were put to the sword.

They’re still fighting. Will it ever end?

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au.


Halloween is not entirely the Americans' fault W/E OCT 18




So, you’re complaining already about that American custom called Halloween. You know those kids from down the street will knock on your door and callout “trick or treat” and you ask yourself “why aren’t they at home doing their homework?”

Well, although we associate the word Halloween with the Americans, we could blame the Irish for starting this tradition. And throw in a criticism of the English, while we’re at it. And don’t forget the Catholic Church.

I hadn’t given much thought to Halloween until a few neighbourhood youngsters knocked on the door a few years ago, dressed in whatever outlandish gear they could find, and called out “trick or treat”. Fortunately, we came to our own rescue with some lollies.

We probably remember the line of the Lord’s Prayer that goes “hallowed be thy name”. That word hallowed means blessed or sanctified.

Long before the influence of Christianity, the Celts worshipped nature and would come together at this time of the year to celebrate the harvest and prepare for the onset of winter. It would be seen as the start of a new year. The festival would last for three days, with various sacrifices, and people running around with funny costumes to scare off the evil spirits that inhabited the dark forests.

Eventually, along came the Romans and the Catholic Church, which wanted to steer these wild parties into something more appropriate for the Christian way of life. So, November 1, the centre of the celebrations, became All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day. The last day became All Souls Day. The last day of October, when the partying was just starting, became known as Hallows Eve, a bit like New Year’s Eve. Probably they all got drunk on Hallows Eve and slept it off the next day.

That reminds me: I remember in a country town years ago a young man, new to town, joined in the riotous behaviour with a group of young men until he was asked “and where do you work?” His reply “I’m the new Catholic priest at the presbytery” was followed by dead silence as people tried to remember what they had just said.

Anyway, getting back to the subject, funny costumes remained in the Halloween celebrations.

The tradition was that the Celts would carry around lanterns carved out of turnips to keep away the evil spirits. These carved turnips were called “jack o lanterns”, another way of saying Jack with the lantern. The story around Jack o lantern was that he was too mean to go to heaven and he was turned away from hell with a piece of burning coal to light his way in never-ending wanderings.

No wonder some of the kids had nightmares.

As the settlers spread across to America they took with them many of their traditions and superstitions, but apparently turnips were hard to come by in the USA, so pumpkins became a substitute. These days whenever you see any publicity for Hallows Eve, or Halloween, you see a pumpkin with a light inside.

My big dictionary mentions a 1556 item that said Hallowe’en was followed by Hallowday.

Only in the past few years in our part of the world have parents let their children out at night to knock on strangers’ doors asking for “trick or treat”. In earlier days beggars knocking on doors would promise to say a prayer for the dead if they were given some food. Presumably, the “trick” for those uncooperative householders would be a curse from the uninvited visitors.

These days, they’re likely to blow up your letterbox.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au









Was Carroll Baker walking 800 miles? W/E OCT 11

The other day, while recovering from a bowls injury, I watched the film Cheyenne Autumn. Toward the end I realised I had seen it before, but I had no trouble watching it again.

Why don’t they make good westerns these days? Surely other people like watching a good western, even if Carroll Baker at the end of an 800-mile walk looked as if she had just strolled through the garden smelling the roses.

John Ford’s film told the story of 300 half-starved Cheyennes’ 1500-mile walk from the reservation in the OklahomaTerritory to their home in Wyoming.

It was a long movie, with the so-called intermission taken up by a bizarre segment starring James Stewart. Some outlets refused to show the Stewart segment. The role of the Cheyennes was supposedly taken by modern Navajo Indians, who slipped in some off-colour jokes spoken in Navajo.

So what does this have with the topic this week?

Well, at one stage the Cheyenne Indians seemed to disappear on their long walk and people went out to look for them. A man walking along a railway line was asked if he had seen them and he replied that they seemed “to have skedaddled”. This was the second time the word was used in the movie.

The Cheyennes’ walk started in 1878. My thoughts were that the word skedaddled didn’t enter the English language until well after this.

Investigations showed that I was wrong in the assumption, although I still wonder how this backwoods man standing in the snow beside the railway line in the middle of nowhere and warming his hands by a fire knew of the word skedaddle. After all, they didn’t have computers, television or radio in those days to enable him to keep up with the rest of the world. They probably didn’t even yell out “paper” as the trains went by.

The word skedaddle, “of uncertain origin”, entered the language suddenly during the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Also spelt skidaddle, its meaning was something like fleeing the battlefield.

The word, according to Michael Quinion, crossed the Atlantic quickly and appeared in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Last Chronicle of Barset in 1867.

Although some words in other languages have sounded similar to skedaddle, almost nobody can pinpoint the word’s origins.

Eliezer Edwards said in 1881 he believed the term had been used in Scotland with the sense of “you will skedaddle that milk”, but that’s all he had to say about it.

My big Oxford says the word is colloquial, and adds “probably a fanciful formation”.

The big dictionary goes on to put a date of August 10, 1861, as the first use in print that I could find. On that day the New York Tribune said: “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skidaddled’ (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).”

These days, whenever you tell your children to “skedaddle”, they seem to understand what you are saying, whether they skedaddled the milk or not.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au



And don't forget the sausages W/E OCT 4


I can almost guarantee that at some time in your life (barring babes in arms of course, and they probably can’t read this anyway) you have tried your hand at a game they used to call sphairistike. You might even have been good at it.

I know I played it, or its cousin, for many years in my home town, but we played every Monday night and we had to eat sausages, so the women wouldn’t be tempted into competing with each other in the supply of food.

On a dark and windy night, and faced with a choice of reading some humour from Lennie Lower or reading the dictionary, I chose the dictionary.

There, in volume 16 (or volume XVI insisted this dictionary of the English language) I came across the word sphairistike.

In 1874 G D Fitzgerald said he had seen a new game “which will be a great acquisition as an out-of-door amusement at country houses”. He called the game Sphairistike (the capital S was his).

In 1927 came the comment: “Badminton got a certain popularity in England and, from it, Major Wingfield invented sphairistike.” The same writer acknowledged that the name was almost impossible to pronounce and so it was rechristened.

In 1965 Arthur Balfour mildly suggested that a better name for sphairistike would be lawn tennis.

I am sure other people will put a different slant on what I have said, but I am only reporting what the dictionary said about the sport we now call lawn tennis. Apparently lawn tennis was regarded by some as a different sport from tennis, but it was eventually called tennis and then the tennis people wanted to call their sport real (or royal) tennis. Other names included tenez, sticke tennis and even racquets.

In 1882 some alarm was expressed about the number of injuries women were experiencing in playing lawn tennis – two in a week, would you believe.

I think we can agree that the sport is called simply tennis these days. Nobody that I know plays sphairistike any more.

But tennis has brought us some unusual expressions.

Why do we say love when we want to call out a zero score? Some will suggest love has been adapted from the comment about weak players playing the game for love rather than for winning. That might make me about the world’s greatest player.

Others will suggest love represents l’oeuf, the French word for egg. A nought is said to represent an egg. Somebody else told me the French use “zero” instead of “love”, just to confuse things

Deuce comes from deux, meaning you must score twice to win the game.

The whole scoring system seems to have been lost over the years. Some say the score was based on 60 minutes and that “forty” actually meant 45.

What about the word let? I was asked about this during a meeting the other day.

I was told the word let came from the French filet, which refers to a serve hitting the net but also any other hindrance to the game, such as a herd of wild buffalo charging across the court while you are serving.

Others say it has nothing to do with the French language and refers to old English words

lette or letten; meaning to hinder.

As I investigated more I wished I had never started to write about tennis.

Just enjoy the game as it was meant to be enjoyed.

And don’t forget the sausages.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au

Bachelor came from a word that once meant a cow W/E SEP 27


Did you know the word bachelor once referred to a woman? But the word, according to some, once came from a word referring to a cow.

No, forget I said that. Cows can be very friendly, once you get to know them.

Actually, in a university context, women can still take the word bachelor. Some want to take it a long way away and dump it, but that’s another story.
Bachelor also referred to a man considered not yet fit to be married.
The word bachelor referring to as woman was used in 1632 by prominent author Ben Jonson, who wrote in Magnetic Lady that a woman would be kept a batchelor still (he put the T in his word, not that it made any difference).

But a bachelor was considered to be an inexperienced person, perhaps a novice.

My thoughts turned to bachelor the other day when a friend said she was nearing the end of her university course, not for a bachelor recognition, not even for a master’s degree, but for something much higher. No bachelor for her!

Here is a word that, in print, goes back at least as far as 1297. It is said to come from old French meaning “low-ranking knight”.

In the early days a bachelor was too young and inexperienced to have his own banner and therefore followed the banner of another, who was generally called a knight banneret.

The word bachelor can refer to roofs, apartments, parties (you don’t want to know) and even flowers.

A bachelorette is a woman who is unmarried. Apparently some women don’t like to be called spinsters but are envious of the good times bachelors have.

Did you know that in 1695 any men over the age of 25 who were still bachelors were taxed? And if they were also dukes, the tax was too high to be even mentioned in these columns.

From what I can glean, a bachelor was once the owner of a farm, the word bacca referring to cows. Then he became a young knight who followed a more experienced knight, apparently this move having some social status. We can assume he wasn’t much of a farmer. When he followed more experienced knights he had only a pennant, as distinct from a proper banner.

But in modern times a bachelor became simply an unmarried man. He probably had a lot of money also and drove a flash car.

A bachelor’s wife, according to my big dictionary, is: “The ideal wife of which a bachelor theorises or dreams.”

I said earlier that the word bachelor referred to a man “not yet fit to be married”. I know I read it somewhere, but now I can’t find it. Anyway, I don’t want to start too many arguments.

If you’re interested, the neutral term single is only a recently developed word, but the background to that is boring so I’ll leave that for another day.

Incidentally, the word bach, meaning to live alone, (“Are you baching tonight?”) comes also from that word bachelor. Some say it’s a New Zealand word; others say it comes from Australia. It generally means make sure you have a tin opener handy.

But I can’t wait to tell you that Ambrose Bierce in the Devil’s Dictionary of 1911 gives this complete definition of bachelor: “A man whom women are still sampling.”


Do you remember Little Boy Lost W/E SEP 20



In 2010 I wrote a column about the Little Boy Lost, Steven Walls, who was the subject of Johnny Ashcroft’s hit record. This record, as I was told, topped the Australian charts longer than Pub With No Beer and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport combined until Ashcroft pulled it from airplay.

In a conversation with Johnny Ashcroft the other day he revealed that this column was published on his website, www.johnnyashcroft.com.au.

Steven Walls will be 60 next August.

In case you have forgotten the story, I repeat this 2010 column, which can also be found on Ashcroft’s website:

Even though poet William Blake published his poem A Little Boy Lost late in the 18th century, and Bing Crosby starred in a movie of the same name, Australians like to take ownership of the expression “little boy lost” because it represents a satisfying chapter in our national history.

This week our search for the Australian Little Boy Lost celebrates its 50th anniversary – and the days match up perfectly.

The subject of that search in 1960 would probably prefer the anniversary to pass without any fanfare, but our national pride in achievement cannot be overlooked.

As a nation, we can take much satisfaction in our Little Boy Lost story.

The search for four-year-old Steven Walls started near Guyra at 9am on Friday, February 5, 1960, and ended the following Monday, after thousands had participated in a search that typified the values that made this nation great.

The young lad strayed from the scrubby area where his father had been caring for some sheep.

Singer Johnny Ashcroft wrote and sang the song Little Boy Lost – a song that topped the hit parades for longer than A Pub With No Beer and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport combined.

For me, a teenager with a sense of adventure, joining thousands of others combing the wild bush country around Guyra was simply the thing to do at the time. We didn’t have a sense of making history; but rather we saw the search as way of joining others in doing something worthwhile.

Fortunately, the boy knew how to look after himself and the outcome was as everybody had hoped.

Johnny Ashcroft’s experience with the song, however, showed how words can convey different meanings from one country to the next.

Despite its Australian success, the release of his song in the United States was delayed to the extent that the Ashcroft version was seen in that country as simply another version of a Jimmy Dean song.

In Britain, Tommy Steele stripped the believability of the song with a rewrite that proved decidedly unsuccessful. Among the changes, the wild New England ranges became the wild and distant ranges, the bush horses became saddle horses, the mention of Steven Walls was removed, the mention of Dorrie Walls praying for her little boy lost was changed to her tears falling on the pillow where he’d laid his little head, the scrubby gully became a hidden valley, and the story that the townsfolk and bushmen often tell became a story around the campfire.

Ashcroft was disappointed that the changes made a significant historical song just another pop song – and one that bombed overseas. If anything, the experience showed that newspapers aren’t the only ones that can change things around with unfortunate results.

Johnny Ashcroft told me many years ago that the search brought Australians together as a nation and gave them a renewed sense of pride.

The singer also made his own professional sacrifice in the period following the search.

When his song was at the top of the hit parades he had it pulled from the airwaves because of the search for another little boy lost, Graeme Thorne, the kidnap victim who was eventually found, murdered. No other songwriter or recording artist is known to have deliberately killed the airplay of his own hit record in such a fashion, but Ashcroft told me he had no hesitation in taking the action that in time gave him another special place in Australian music history.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au





Make sure it's "necessary" first W/E SEP 13



Several dictionaries described massacre as the “unnecessary” killing of human beings.

I had trouble with that. I tried to think of occasions when the killing of human beings would be described as “necessary”.

I suppose a case could be made out for the killing of a person who was about to kill another, but would that be a massacre?

That word “unnecessary” associated with massacre could be found in several dictionaries in my possession.

My 20-volume Oxford dictionary (a writer last week said my big dictionary must be huge) described massacre as the unnecessary indiscriminate killing of human beings;  a general slaughter; carnage, butchery; also occasionally the wholesale killing of wild animals.

Shakespeare found a use for the word, but he did not invent it. It has been around since at least 1581, to my knowledge.

My Macquarie also mentions “unnecessary”

The word can be associated with slaughter house, or butchery. Its origins are associated with these words.

In 1586 a fellow called TB La Primaud said “there is no corner of this kingdome where the people have not committed infinite and cruel massacres”.

Shakespeare used the word several times. In Titus Andronicus he wrote that he must talk of “murthers, rapes and massacres”.

Over the century hundreds of examples could be given of massacres, including the St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890 and the Myall Creek Massacre in Australia of June 10, 1838.

This month we had the anniversary of the Milperra massacre.

I won’t mention the Macdonalds and the Campbells or that massacre in 1692. I have friends in both camps and I’m not sure whether they still harbour some animosities. They seem to get on okay.

I bet someone had fun in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

My foray into writing included the book Massacre at Myall Creek. Eleven people were charged (one escaped) with the murders of 28 people and the verdict, after a one-day trial, was not guilty. Seven of those charged were brought before the court two weeks later, were found guilty and were hanged on December 18, 1838. It was the first time (and I believe the only time) white people were hanged for killing aborigines.

Some dictionaries mention carnage. That reminds me of a person in my home town who complained about the carnage of flower beds in the local park. You should have seen the blood…

My big dictionary says massacre can also be applied to “a cruel or particularly atrocious murder”. It mentions an example of some bloke torn to pieces by horses pulling in opposite directions, but you don’t want the details.

Then there is the example of a sporting massacre. This involves the result where one team’s win over the other team is so big that the sporting editor of the local paper can say “they massacred ‘em”.

But my advice is to use that example sparingly. You don’t want to be accused of sensationalism.

But I still keep coming back to that dictionary definition of massacre as the “unnecessary” killing of people.

Have I missed something?

You have probably thought about it at times, but that doesn’t count.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au.


Are you ready for World Punctuation Day W/E SEPT 6

A world-shattering event will take place on September 24. Are you ready for it?

Jeff Rubin, from the United States of America, is. Some newspapers might give it a passing mention. The rest of us will be lost in our own complacency and the event will go without ay recognition.

The event? It’s Punctuation Day.

Aren’t you excited?

I thought not.

A few years ago Jeff Rubin decided he’d had enough. He couldn’t walk past a shop without noticing the poor punctuation on some signs, so he started to take his thick pen with him and made himself either popular or unpopular by correcting these signs.

Over the years I have heard of some people who have said something like “you don’t need punctuation, just so long as people get the message”.

I don’t like that comment, because I believe people can easily get the wrong message if the punctuation is wrong.

I remember an exercise from a few years ago. People were asked to put the correct punctuation on words that said, I think: a woman without her man is nothing.

The men wrote: A woman, without her man, is nothing.

The women wrote: A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Jeff Rubin , a former newspaperman, found many examples of incorrect punctuation and he would take his pen out and correct signs he saw outside shops. Of course, the shopkeepers didn’t like his actions.

But I know how he felt, and probably still feels. He says he and his wife taught children to use punctuation marks properly.

He suggested people celebrate Punctuation Day by correcting store signs, taking a long shower and taking a long nap. No, I don’t know the reason either, but Rubin had a list of about 15 things people could do and it seemed impressive.

Rubin says punctuation still matters.

In his long list of punctuation marks he includes misplaced apostrophes, exclamation marks, commas, semi-colons and quotation marks.

Have you ever seen somebody write about a children’s school and spell it as a childrens’ school? The young reporter I castigated a long time ago said I had told him the apostrophe should go after the s when writing about plurals -- so that’s what he did.

A few minutes ago, while writing this, I received a note about a licensed club annual meeting that mentions its first class service “for member’s and visitor’s”.

But I will leave quotation marks for my Tamworth friend, Bill Forrest, who wants to be known as the president of the Australian Apostrophic Society – and who am I to argue?

People have developed a liking for exclamation marks at the end of strong comments instead of at the end of exclamations. “This is a good argument, so I will put an exclamation mark at the end so you’ll know it’s a good argument.”

Jeff Rubin created National Punctuation Day only a couple of years ago. No doubt he was elated when the United Nations embraced the idea. Since then, the “day” has extended from the USA to Australia and many other countries.

But would the job be too great?

And would anybody be that interested?


I wrote a few weeks ago about Hamburgers from Hamburg. I have since received letters from various parts of Australia telling me of Hamburgers they knew. George Hardy, from places unknown, but I think the western suburbs of Sydney, said he knew of a Hamburger who “speaks without an accent”. Food for thought.

www.lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoaast.com.au


A troll can be ugly, so be careful! W/E AUG 30

The “in” word at the moment in newspapers and the electronic media is troll.

Disregard the fact that the word is about 500 years old.

Computers brought it back into the public domain and more people started talking about it following the recent death of American actor and comedian Robin Williams.

Williams had the capacity to make a spontaneous remark that would encourage people to laugh. Maybe the effort in coming up with such comments was a contributing factor in his death.

But following his death his daughter was attacked by harmful internet trolls.

So, what is a troll?

The word has its origins as something in Scandinavian folklore. A troll can represent a very ugly person, so don’t leave this item lying about at the dinner table. In the early days a troll was a supernatural being – witches and many other magical figures who often lived in rocks and were rarely helpful to human beings. Trolls started out as being giants, but by some means you wouldn’t believe developed into dwarfs. A lot of mischief was involved in early stories of trolls.

A trollop was probably ugly too, but don’t let us get sidetracked.

Later trolls were slow-witted and in many cases looked like human beings – not you of course.

The earliest mention I could find of a troll was in 1616. In that year the word was used in a Shetland court case concerning witches “seeing the trollis ryse out of the kyrk yeard”. I don’t know what it means either, but I assume the trolls were ugly.

Then the Scandinavian men fancied themselves surrounded by trolls, who had a capacity for work. The trolls presumably had lost their ugliness, or Scandinavian men in those days were easily satisfied.

A dictionary of science said in 1867 that trolls were “superior to men in strength and stature”, but by 1869 a boy allegedly escaped from a troll. The article doesn’t say whether the troll was ugly or whether the boy was just difficult to please.

The word by some means developed into the meaning of to move around, or to ramble, or to hunt. Maybe  those ugly people sought new fields to conquer.

So the word was always with us, but it seemed to remain in the background, even with jokes that were misunderstood by new users and the targeting and abusing of unsuspecting people.

Then trolling was linked with computers – and that’s when the trouble started. Trolls started finding people on computers who couldn’t see that they were being made the target of unpleasantness.

My computer gave an example of a recent prominent troll – a person who wanted voters to vote for Candidate A said on his computer how hopeless Candidate B was. Candidate B eventually won the election, so that little exercise didn’t work.

Trolling has occurred in Australia and New Zealand and some sort of regulation has been considered.

The most recent examples concerned Zelda Williams, the daughter of comedian Robin Williams.

She described the trolling as cruel.

In case you should ever find a use for it, trolldom is the practice of witchcraft. A troller is one who trolls, as if you didn’t know. A trolley is a cart that some people push around. Troll-madam is described as “a game played by ladies” but I’ll let you think about that for a while.

A trollop is “an untidy or slovenly woman, sometimes a morally loose woman”.

But, coward that I am, I’ll leave her name to you.

www.lauriebarber.com or lbword@midcoast.com.au

A baby? Lock grandma up for the night W/E AUG 23






I walked under a ladder the other day.

I thought little of it, but a friend said something like” “You shouldn’t have done that; now you’ll have bad luck all day”.

Bad luck?

Nobody was on the ladder. It wasn’t even supporting a can of paint that could spill over me.

The word superstition came to mind.

Here is a word that, apparently, still rules the lives of some people. They can’t lean a broom on the bed, they watch out for black cats or occasionally the chill they feel means that somebody is walking over their grave – even if they’re not dead.

I looked up some superstitions. There seem to be hundreds of them. One says simply “it is bad luck to walk under a ladder”, not “don’t walk under a ladder when a person is on top of it, because that person might drop something that could cause you an injury”.

What about: Seeing an ambulance can be unlucky unless you hold your breath until you see a black or brown dog. Do ambulance stations have dogs tied up in the back yard to help customers with poor eyesight?

And what about wedding superstitions? How about: “The person who gives the third gift to be opened will soon have a baby”.

Lock grandma up for the night.

The word superstition is a very old one.

The first use I could find of superstition came in 1402. The meaning of the word came from “to stand over” and the word meant an unreasoning awe of something unknown, “especially in connection with religion”. Shakespeare in 1608 made a comment about clearing the ship of the dead and then added “that’s your superstition”. In 1856 RA Vaughan, in his Mystics, commented that the soul of a man who had left some deed not finished “is frequently known to enter into another person”.

I was more interested in some of the superstitions that direct the lives of some people who should know better.

A friend put some new shoes on a kitchen bench, along with some groceries, and was criticised. He asked me about it. I could understand an argument against putting dirty shoes on the kitchen bench (what with birds’ poo and all the other nasties from the roadway), so I looked up the superstition about shoes and it made mention of “shoes”, not “new shoes”. The wording I found said: “Do not place shoes upon a table, for this will bring bad luck for the day and you might even lose your job”.

Breaking mirrors means seven years bad luck, unless you can bury the pieces or run them into a stream.

When you sneeze, put your hand in front of your mouth, because “your soul might escape otherwise”.

It’s bad luck to let milk boil over. Boy, now I know why I’m always in trouble at my place.

Don’t wear opals unless you were born in October. Will you tell the people at Lightning Ridge, or will I?

I also discovered that more than 10 per cent of high rise buildings lack a 13th floor, many airports skip the 13th gate, many hospitals and hotels do not have a room numbered 13 and a whole lot of information about number 13 that you needn’t know about, unless you are superstitious.

I don’t have room for the hundreds of superstitions, but I had thought fairies at the bottom of the garden had died long ago.

www.lauriebarber.com or lbword@midcoast.com.au


What happened to the positives W/E AUG 2 2014


We were sitting at the club having a cup of coffee and discussing the reckless behaviour of a person of our acquaintance.

Somebody then looked at me and asked why this person had to be classed as reckless. “With a bit of training, couldn’t he be reck?” the questioner asked.

I promised I would answer it one day.

How many of these words have slipped through the cracks over the years.

Why can’t we suscitate, why can’t we be gruntled just occasionally? And wouldn’t it be great if everybody was ruth in their behaviour and if we could conciliate with other races without having to be reconciliated.

Actually, suscitate was asked of me in the distant past and I don’t think I ever answered it. Probably too much coffee.

In the early 1500s the word suscitate meant something like stirring up a rebellion, or causing people to be excited.

Then came a slight change, the meaning being to raise a person out of activity. But during the 1800s the word fell out of favour. One of the last usages in print came from Richard Cumberland with the comment “his spirit was alive in every feature; it did not need the aid of suscitation”.

I have often been asked why we can’t be gruntled. Why do we always have to be disgruntled?

Well, you can be gruntled if you wish.

Just think of a happy pig in mud. No, I don’t know why pigs have to be in mud, because they are actually quite clean -- once the mud is washed off.

The gruntle is the snout of a pig, or other animal, even the face of a man.

But gruntle, the verb, isn’t the opposite of disgruntle. My big dictionary says that to gruntle is to complain, or grumble – “to grunt in a low or murmuring tone, as a sickly cow”. Probably we humans adopted disgruntle so we could complain without having to be compared with sick cows.

And what about reck? Most of us have gruntled at some time against the teenager down the street (it always has to be a teenager) who drives recklessly. “He will kill somebody some day.”

Reck originally described a person who was considerate to other people and had regard for their feelings.

In 1568 a publication called Jacob and Esau described a person as having “no recke” in the way he walked. Reck still means to care for others’ feelings, but it has been superseded by reckless.

Actually, Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary said reck was already “out of use” in all places except Scotland. Johnson, by the way, had little time for Scotland.

Then we have reconciliation. Can we have reconciliation between the races before having had conciliation? In a land where we are all supposed to be “Australians” conciliation or reconciliation should be unnecessary.

When will somebody announce that all Australians are now reconciliated – and who will that person be?

What about shevelled? You might complain about the bloke down the road being dishevelled, but shevelled, described as “rare and archaic”, means something similar, such as “shevelled hair”.

And what about feck? This originally meant vigour and energy but the word feckless meant something like valueless, weak, helpless. We sometimes hear of feckless but the word feck seems to have gone out of favour.

My mother was called Ruth, so I won’t comment on ruthless.

But so many good words have been lost in our rush to find something more demeaning.

To be in fashion, I blame it on the newspapers.

myword@midcoast.com.au or lbarber.simplesite.com












I hesitate to criticise another newspaper because that paper can often come back with its own criticism. But sometimes I can’t help myself.

I know newspapers are having their own battles against technology that threatens to change the face of newspapers as we once knew them. For instance many papers can no longer afford those people who check material for accuracy -- and I find that to be a pity.

Another newspaper, not this one, commented recently that somebody was in “dire straights”. That was a good example of a reporter remembering the expression had been heard somewhere but the reporter did not feel inclined to check. I should be charitable to the reporter and suggest that this person was too busy, because of staff cuts.

The reporter might have considered the reader would not pick up the mistake or would not care anyway. It sounded right and maybe that’s all that mattered.

The newspaper in question, and I repeat not this one, is a good source of material for this column.

The expression the reporter was looking for was dire straits.

Obviously, it is made up of two words, dire and straits.

Dire goes back at least to 1400. Shakespeare used the word in Macbeth when writing about “schreemes of death” and “accents terrible”. It meant then something like horrible, evil to a great degree. It still means something similar, perhaps a bit too unpleasant or objectionable.

And what of straits?

The word originally meant something like a tight fit, having little room to move.

Various suggestions have been made about how dire and straits came to be associated.

The expression “dire straits” is very old and is regarded as a cliché expression.

It came to be used originally, let’s say the 15th century, by seagoing navigators, with dire meaning causing fear and strait meaning a narrow opening between two waterways.

Along the way dire meant something like showing the way. It also meant a musical performance.

The Collins dictionary, describing strait, refers to a narrow opening joining two large areas of sea but goes on to mention people in desperate straits and says such people are in serious trouble.

These days the expression can be used in less-serious circumstance such as when describing the local football team’s chances of reaching the grand final.

I mentioned music.  You probably already know that a band has been called Dire Straits, but I decline to say whether the music is worth listening to.

Eliezer Edwards in his 1901 dictionary writing about straits and straights said “these two words are often confounded”. He then explained that “straight:” meant anything not crooked and strait meant narrow or close.

He also said strait could mean strict, as in “the strictest sect of our religion”.

And, yes, I still sometimes see the expression dire straights – but only from people who think they have heard the expression somewhere before but have no idea what it is supposed to mean.


On a similar subject, I came across the words of a former newspaper company boss, John Parker, which included: “Just as many people read the details of Sunday's bowls, which reporters hate writing, as those who read the beat up front page story about a single, irate ratepayer.” He said that instead of country newspapers reporting what was happening in their communities too many stories were being “created”. I agree, but do you care?

lbword@midcoast.com.au and www.lbarber.simplesite.com

'Hey mate, you've got some straw in your shoe' -- W/E AUGUST 16



Years ago somebody mentioned the term “straw man” and the expression went over my head, because I had no idea what it meant.

But I do know that throughout my newspaper career I refrained from using refute to mean deny and I made sure reporters and contributors in my sphere of influence did not use refute to mean deny.

In recent times, however, refute has found its way into our news media more frequently. I am inclined to think it is because some elements in the news media want to make their reports appear stronger. I dare not mention the word sensational.

But let’s come back to straw man.

Here is an obscure term representing a situation that might be making a comeback, if it ever left us.

Its origins seem to be unknown. My big dictionary takes up several pages to define straw, but when it comes to straw man it simply says “a man of straw” – decidedly unhelpful. I might ask for my money back.

A popular explanation for straw men is that it used to represent a person who stood outside a court with a straw in his shoe, meaning his testimony could be bought. He would deny anything.

Can you imagine a person standing outside a courthouse these days with a bit of straw in his shoe? Somebody might walk up to him and say “hey mate, you’ve got a bit of straw in your shoe”, but it is more likely that he would be told to move on or a good lawyer would destroy his evidence in court.

I can accept that a straw man was a man without assets. He didn’t have to be dishonest to have no assets.

The term also covered some proposed legislation, put forward in draft form, to determine what the public thought of it before amendments were made.

I have a concern that some media outlets – not this newspaper of course – will deliberately, or accidentally, misread an argument so they can reject it. It might be better if I don’t record a specific example, but I know that many times I have screamed at the television, or sometimes newspapers, something like “he didn’t say that”.

Anyway, what about refute and deny?

We used to say a person denied something. The word refute meant, and in my book still refers to, denying something and offering proof.

So when you appear in court you can say to the judge “I didn’t do it” and watch as his eyes glaze over and he says to himself “I think I’ve heard this before”. That’s a denial.

But you can refute the argument that you stole lollies at Spencer Street station last Saturday if you can prove that you were in Afghanistan at the time of the theft.

Incidentally, when I was a little boy a popular term at the time was Afghanistanism. That meant newspapers having a preoccupation with nothing of importance – or anything that had nothing to do with anything else. These days, Afghanistan does mean something. I just thought I would throw that in.

But next time you hear a television station say something like “he refuted the suggestion” that station almost certainly means he denied the suggestion.

I concede that in our living language, a refutation is coming around to a denial.

But just remember not to stand in front of the courthouse with a bit of straw in your shoe.

www.lauriebarber.com orlbword@midcoast.com.au.



Laurie Barber has been writing the My Word column for 20 years. It has appeared weekly  in newspapers throughout Australia and New Zealand. He has worked on city and regional newspapers. In 1980 he was runner-up in the award of Australia's journalist of the year and was the only Australian journalist in the international Golden Quill award. He is a past Rotary district governor and serves on the board of Australian Rotary Health. Other interests are Probus, University of the Third Age, Douglas Vale Heritage Museum, basketball (where he was a state representative referee) and bowls. He is patron of the Fellowship of Writers in his home district. He was the 2014 senior citizen of the year in his home district and has judged statewide newspapers for Country Press Australia. He has written four books, Please Print for Country Press Australia and My Word, Ringo and the historical book Massacre at Myall Creek for Sid Harta Publishers. He lives at Port Macquarie, Australia.