Can an emoji be a word? W/E JAN 16


Those groups, usually dictionary groups, that come up with the words of the year seem to be trying very hard to outdo each other.

The Oxford people have come up not with a word but with an emoji.

Okay, so you want to know what an emoji is.

It’s a bit difficult to explain, but to me an emoji is something like those little things that people put at the end of some emails.

An emoji might be a sad face, or a happy face, or some other type of face, or not even a face at all.

But how can an emoji – any emoji -- be the word of the year? A face is not even a word. Some people described it as a picturegraph.

I had thought the people at Oxford would not allow themselves to reach this level, but I was wrong.

At least they didn’t decide that w00t was their word, as the Merrian Webster group decided a few years back. I have never seen w00t used as a word before or since, but I admit I have led a sheltered life, so that might be the reason.

The Merrian-Webster people, from the USA but the list was from the UK and the USA, decided w00t was “a small word that packs a pretty big punch”.

Why can’t they just stick with words? They didn’t decide on the picturegraph of the year. Maybe they have run out of words. We need another Shakespeare.

I can tell you all about a smiling face or an unhappy face at the end of emails, but what’s the point?

The Oxford people said the picturegraph was included “for the first time ever”. Why the word “ever”? Let’s hope it is for the last time ever. Some people have already described the emoji as ridiculous in a quest for the word of the year.

They topped their list of people including emojis with Hillary Clinton. The list even included Dominos Pizza. Make of that what you will.

The Oxford people said the emoji “best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015”. So if you haven’t used it during the past year, you should have.

Words that made the short list included refugee, they (a person of unspecified sex) and even lumbersexual, a young urban male who adopts the style of dress that makes him out to be the rugged outdoor type.

Some other dictionary groups have yet to announce their words of the year, but let’s hope the list doesn’t include another emoji, or even a w00t.

What are some of the words from years past?

Some people thought flapper should have been chosen as the word of the year in 1915, but the idea of dictionaries choosing a word of the year did not start until about 1990.

Macquarie has chosen expressions such as binge watching, bamboo ceiling and life hacking.

It also included, mansplain  (“it assumes that a woman will be ignorant of the subject matter”). I didn’t say it. That’s what the Macquarie people said.

One of the most relevant, if unusual, words was the American Dialect Society’s bushlips, as in George W. Bush’s comment “read my lips”.

Maverick made it in 2008. This was the subject for one of my columns in 1995.

My mother used to say “because”. That word covered all eventualities.

I have just noticed that most of the words have little red lines under them as I type them on my computer. Does that mean they still aren’t recognised by the world’s dictionaries?;

Teetotallers used to be drunk W/E JAN 9

I have met some drunks over the years, although the frequency has dropped in recent years, no doubt because of breath tests and the closure of some clubs.

I was a guest speaker with no notice at a dinner in Tulare, California, once but the chairman placed me between the bar and the toilet, which was not a wise move, and I finished up being a traffic cop for the people who couldn’t wait because they had consumed too much alcohol.

Then there was a wedding at Singleton when the groom was laid out and placed on a stretcher before the “I do” bit.

Dr Rudolph Brasch, a religious man whose many books include How Did Sex Begin, said in the book How Did It Begin that the Bible gave Noah the credit for making the first wine.

But I digress.

I set out to write about teetotaller, a word that describes those people who don’t want to be associated with strong liquor.

The word has a few origins.

Richard (“Dicky”) Turner went to a temperance meeting in Preston, Lancashire, in September 1833 while he was still half drunk.

Richard used the word teetotaller. Some say he stuttered and the “tee” was his attempt to say nothing but total abstention would do. His speech allegedly was in favour of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors, in preference to abstinence from ardent spirits only, as practised from early temperance reformers.

But the word teetotal caught on. Opponents of those who abstained from strong liquor made fun of those teetotallers, so the temperance people adopted the word.

The first use I could find came from the Preston Temperance Advocate of April 29, 1834, when a signed letter mentioned a person who “is now a tee-total abstinence member and is an ornament to the society”.

The same magazine on May 31 of the same year said its membership was about 196 “and the tee-totals about 30”.

In 1840 a man was described as “a very useless member of society and a tee-total non-productive”. I won’t mention his name, in case you are related to him.

The Devil’s Advocate of 1881 said a teetotaller described someone who abstained from strong drink “sometimes tolerably totally”. So, you could belong to the temperance society if you were only half drunk.

Some say the letter T stands for temperance, but I could find no proof of that.

Subsequent discoveries showed that Richard Turner was not the first to use the word teetotal. Eliezer Edwards in his 1901 dictionary says it was used in Sir James Spence’s Tour in Ireland in 1829 as an adverb used by the working classes, but with no reference to alcohol. John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins says James Hall used it in his Legends of West Philadelphia, possibly to give emphasis to the word total.

Webster’s Dictionary (an American dictionary) says “teetotaler” is a cant word formed in England.

My big Oxford dictionary says teetotaller or teetotaler is “a total abstainer” from any alcoholic drink.

The headstone where Richard Turner is buried reads “author of the word teetotal as applied to the abstinence from all intoxicating liquors, who departed this life on the 27th day of October, 1846, aged 56 years”.;



When Humpty fell off that wall W/E JAN 2


A recent mention in this column of Jane Taylor sitting in her upstairs bedroom in Colchester and writing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star produced a flurry of questions.

While some newspapers are in recess (news apparently takes a holiday at this time of the year) I thought I would bring you again the story of Jane Taylor and of Humpty Dumpty, which also owed its origins to the same English town. Actually, the story goes that Old King Cole and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders  have local links also.

Jane Taylor spent much of her time in an upstairs bedroom in West Stockwell Street, Colchester, in 1806 in the English town of Colchester and she dabbled in poetry, as did other members of her family. Her biggest claim to fame was in writing the five-verses of The Star.

You know the poem: Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, and so on.

Later this poem was set to music (some say Mozart’s music). Incidentally, another story: I was going through a European town and somebody remarked “that building needs some renovation work” and the guide said “that’s where Mozart was born” and continued walking. People are rarely acknowledged in their home town.

Details about Jane Taylor were given to me a long time ago by Catherine Newley, from the tourist association in or near Colchester. It was almost an after-thought in response to my inquiry about Humpty Dumpty.

Ages ago I read a report, headed “Humpty Dumpty falls from favour”, suggesting Australian parents were losing the capacity to recite nursery rhymes.

My trail led to the old English city of Colchester, 90kms north-east of London, population 104,000. Local businesses included the Humpty Dumpty Brewery and the HumptyDumptyPre-School.

The Humpty Dumpty story goes like this:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The most popular story said Humpty was a cannon used to defend Colchester during the English Civil War in 1648. It was mounted on top of the St Mary’s at the WallChurch and manned by a bloke called Thompson.  Colchester, a Royalist stronghold, was besieged by Roundheads for 11 weeks before falling. The church tower was hit by cannon fire, sending Humpty to the ground. The Royalists’ attempts to mend the cannon were unsuccessful.

Tourists who go to the site can read the verse that says:

In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight

When England suffered the pains of state

The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town

Where the king's men still fought for the crown

There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall

A gunner of deadliest aim of all

From St. Mary's Tower his cannon he fired

Humpty-Dumpty was its name

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...

Catherine Newley, assistant curator of community history at Colchester, wrote me a long letter, explaining the story.

She added in passing that the name Colchester was said to hark back to the medieval story of Old King Cole and his daughter, St Helena.

However, if you should be passing through Colchester and you want to see where Humpty Dumpty fell off that wall, go to St Mary at the WallsChurch, Colchester, dig a hole in the road and see what you can find.;







They banned Christmas W/E DEC 26

Can you imagine the government banning Christmas? Occasionally some ministers of religion have spoken out against the commercialisation associated with Santa Claus, but Christmas itself?

With people sharing different beliefs in Australia, we have seen a few occasions when some people have questioned our annual Christian celebration. Some schools in particular, have baulked at the singing of carols in case people of other faiths should be offended.

But there was a time when the people governing England, of all places, banned Christmas.

Their reason? They thought people were having too much of a good time. Also, the Puritans, who were in charge at the time, felt the date was wrong and they found no scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas.

If you’re looking for an expert in this subject, you had better look somewhere else, but the way I understand it, Oliver Cromwell, supported by his Puritan forces, took charge of England in 1645 and decided he was going to rid the country of its decadence. He brought in an act of parliament banning Christmas. According to historian Marta Patino, Cromwell was upset at the celebrations that included drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling and “other forms of excess”. Cromwell said that nowhere in the Bible were the people being called upon to celebrate in this manner. He also saw Christmas as an unwanted remnant of the Roman Catholic Church and a tool of encouragement for the dissentient community. The Puritan war on Christmas lasted until 1660.

Needless to say, Cromwell’s action was unpopular in many quarters. According to some sources he was hanged a couple of years after (yes, after) he died. His head seems to have been the subject of some controversy

Some of the arguments against the form of Christmas celebration also moved to parts of the United States. Various other religious groups around the world have refused to accept Christmas as we know it.

In England, novelist Charles Dickens has been given some credit for reinventing the spirit of Christmas.

The word puritan became a part of our language.

Another word associated with this December Christmas merriment was wassail. Yet another, probably associated with the Christmas excesses that some people still experience, is accidie.

The Anglo-Saxons used the term wassail to mean something like “good health”. So far as it goes, I’m sure a fair bit of wassailing is going on around the country right now.

But those Puritans had another view of wassailing, especially the drunks knocking on their doors at night urging all inside to join in a drink to everybody’s health.

The earliest use of wassail that I could find came in 1205, but it was a popular word for many years (“he was much addicted to wine and wassail”). My big dictionary describes a wassailer as “one who takes part in riotous festivities”. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary describes wassail as “a drunken bout”. No doubt the nuisance value of wassailing was what encouraged the Puritans to take a dim view of wassailers at Christmas.

And accidie?  You won’t find this in many dictionaries, but accidie can be associated with the sin of sloth, almost like a Christmas hangover when you feel like doing nothing except having a good sleep, in the hope that things will be better in the morning.

A final warning: This holiday season, when you are inclined to indulge in a bit too much drinking and a quick kiss under the mistletoe, just remember Cromwell and the day he banned Christmas.;

The start of Silent Night W/E DEC 19


They say some of our best creations were accidents. People did not expect others would find delight in what had been created in the loungeroom or bedroom one dark and stormy night. I am sure Jane Taylor sitting in her upstairs bedroom in Colchester and writing The Star had no thoughts that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star would turn out to be such a worldwide favourite.

I was in a coach going through a German town when the driver mentioned a happening in a local church one Christmas Eve many years ago. He asked if anybody knew what it was. He gave many clues. I thought I knew the answer but I kept my mouth shut in case I was wrong.

This was the place where Silent Night was written.

He said he would have stopped, but the neighbours had allegedly complained about tourist buses and so he kept on moving to Sound of Music territory.

You all know Silent Night, the Christmas song that was made popular by, wait for it, the American singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

In German it was called Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.

The story is that in Obernorf the local Catholic church’s organ had died on Christmas Eve in 1818. The church was St Nicholas parish church.

The curate, Father Mohr, needed a Christmas song for that evening’s Christmas service, so he asked the church’s musician and schoolmaster Franz Gruber, if he had anything.

Gruber came up with a poem Father Mohr had written much earlier. So the two put the poem to music, Franz Gruber is given credit for the music and they came up with Silent Night, to guitar accompaniment, for that evening’s service.

Some versions of the story allege that Mohn had written the poem on Christmas Eve, but he had written the poem in Mariapfarr much earlier, as much as two years earlier, and the poem was produced for public display that Christmas Eve. The tune is a simple one, so they might have completed the tune on Christmas Eve.

The organ might not have been broken and it is possible that the locals simply enjoyed singing simple melodies without organ accompaniment. They entered the church late on Christmas Eve and went home on Christmas Day. They probably also had a nativity scene and enjoyed Christmas the way it was intended to be celebrated.

The song that we sing today is slightly different from the original version.

The English version was written by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young in New York in 1859. This standard version that we sing today contains only three verses, whereas the original version, so I believe, contained six verses. The original version was also more sprightly than the version we sing today.

You remember the words of course. It starts like this: “Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright.”

The song was declared an intangible national heritage by UNESCO in 2011. A very popular version is by Bing Crosby.

The original manuscript has been lost, but an early manuscript was found in 1820.

What was I doing in the area? I was on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest. I recommend it.

During the wartime Christmas truce of 1914, Allied and German troops sang Silent Night.

People all over the world instantly recognise Silent Night,

Silent, incidentally, comes from a word that means “stop speaking” and the name has found many uses. It has even been adapted as a chemist’s formula for keeping infants quiet at night.;























Fell and cruelty W/E DEC 12

Is it one fell swoop or one foul swoop or even something else?

If I had a dollar each time that question was asked, I would be a rich man—or I would know where my next feed was coming from.

Probably both versions make sense, but only one goes back a long way and is regarded as “correct”.

Would you believe Bill Shakespeare came up with the expression one fell swoop?

He did, and it was in Hamlet.

When Macduff hears that his family has been destroyed, he has difficulty coming to terms with what has happened.

He asks, almost in disbelief, “at one fell swoop?”

Let us go back a bit and discuss the word fell.

This word has many meanings, including a hill, a knockout blow, the skin of an animal, weapons and even a church bishop who lived a few hundred years ago.

But the sense we are dealing with is cruelty and ruthlessness.

This word goes back at least to the year 1300, but you and I would have difficulty understanding it if I reproduced the words here.

In 1400, however, Sir John Maundeville said “Herode was a full wikkid man and a fell”.

In 1864 John Hill Burton writing some notes on Scotland said “with all the fell ferocity of men falling on their bitterest feudal enemy”.

In 1593 Shakespeare (and possibly others) wrote, in Henry 6, “these fell-lurking Curres”.

“Fell-lurking” seems to have fallen by the wayside, but so far as I am concerned Shakespeare came up with “fell swoop”.

In Macbeth, written in 1606, King Macbeth had ordered the murder of Macduff’s wife, children and servants. Macduff has difficulty accepting what he has been told and exclaims:

All my pretty ones?

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?

This use of fell can take in every meaning of fell, but especially cruelty.

Macduff also used hell-kite (the kite was a vicious bird of prey).

Old Bill had a way with words and much of what we say now can be traced to him.

And what about foul-swoop, that we often hear? Well, I do; I don’t know about you.

This word goes back to a meaning of foul, or putrid. It might have been heard with swoop, but it is not the word we should use if we want to be correct.

Foul can also mean corruption.

And in my years as a basketball referee I have called “foul” in every game. I didn’t mean players were corrupt, or full of dirt or infested with parasites.

I suppose if you have visions of grandeur and you want to be recognised as another Shakespeare, you could use foul swoop wherever you go, but I think people would probably think to themselves that you don’t know what you are talking about.

I get that a lot.

I have sometimes heard people use fowl swoop or even foul stoop, even though this is going a long way from fell swoop.

Authors Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis have pointed to other expressions that cause people trouble.

For instance, we sometimes use damp squid instead of damp squib (fireworks), to the manor born instead of to the manner born and preying mantis instead of praying mantis.

Are they wrong? With this living language, we can get away with almost anything, but don’t say I said so.;




The Katzenjammer Kids W/E DEC 5


I wonder how many people remember The Katzenjammer Kids.

In my younger days I read this comic strip without realising the important role it played in the development of comic strips throughout the world.

The Katzenjammer Kids is the world’s longest running comic strip.

It made its debut in 1897 in William Randolph Hearst’s Sunday edition of the New York Journal.

The creator was German immigrant Rudolph Dirks, but a long time artist was Harold H Knerr.

It created balloons with the words of the characters, something very new at the time.

The strip revolves around two boys, who always seem to find trouble and often found themselves in conflict with others, especially their parents and school officials.

The thing that surprised me was that the word katzenjammer was an American colloquial word.

The first use I could find came in 1849 in a US congress report that said a group of men had kept up a drunken frolic all night – “a general kakenjammer”.

In 1948 came a report of a person who tried to drink himself to death in “one of the most colossal katzenjammers ever recorded”.

I had trouble reconciling the two images — one of a hangover and the other of two children.

But the comic strip adopted the tenor of a confused uproar, the rebellion against authority, rather than a hangover.

The two children were called Hans and Fritz and the strip had a German flavour.

The strip had a tumultuous existence and at least one legal battle ensued when, so I have been told, the creator wanted to take a holiday but the newspaper objected.

The strip made its debut in the New York Journal because the paper’s editor, Rudolf Block, was seeking a strip that could rival R F Outcault’s The Yellow Kid.

During the war years the title was changed to The Shenanigan Kids.

My big dictionary says katzenjammer is American colloquial that represents the wailing of cats or a hangover. Some people find Dutch connections also, and this was emphasised during the war years.

My book Panel by Panel, by John Ryan, described The Katzenjammer Kids as “the most important strip in the history of comics”. It led to many imitations.

The word led to a few bands with the word katzenjammer in the name, although I can’t understand why a band would include the word that represents the wailing of a cat.

Blackwoor’s Edinburgh Magazine of 1884, in trying to describe katzenjammer, said: “In English you would call it reaction; but whole pages of English cannot express the sick, empty, weary, vacant feeling.”

Some organisations these days are advertising hangover pills “to avoid a katzenjammer”.

I don’t think the kids in The Katzenjammer Kids had a hangover; they were simply unruly, or perhaps even disagreeable.

Incidentally, if you are interested, a band called the Katzenjammer will tour throughout Europe this year. But I keep thinking about the wailing of cats.

And I wonder where you can find the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids these days.;


Over a railway line? W/E NOV 28

I saw a wedding photograph recently that attracted my interest.

The groom was sitting on a chair at the side of a railway line.

The bride was sitting on his lap, but part of the bride was over the railway line. It just looked as if the groom was waiting for a train to come by and then…

And where was the wedding?

It was at or very close to Donnybrook.

My first thought was that this wedding was off to a shaky start.

It was a delightful photograph, by the way. It showed that the photographer had some imagination.

But a railway line?

Many Donnybrooks can be found, but the photograph reminded me of a place called Donnybook just south of Perth.

My wife and I were walking past a sports ground several years ago and we saw a sign that Donnybrook was playing someone, I think Bunbury, in Aussie rules. We simply walked in and watched the match.

Players and officials were running in all directions and my wife remarked at some stage – “who are playing, the players or the officials?”

But the game concluded without a hint of a fight.

The people who live in Donnybrook, no matter what country the town might be in, must have a stressful time. Do people expect them to be a pugilistic lot?

Donnybrook, to most people, represents fighting.

Why is this so?

Well, the Donnybrook I want to talk about is a suburb of Dublin, Ireland.

In the year 1204 King John gave Donnybrook permission to hold a two-week fair every August.

As the years wore on, everybody who was anybody had to be seen at the Donnybrook fair and the alcohol flowed freely.

The fair was eventually reduced to one week, but by this stage Donnybrook became almost synonymous with one big punch-up.

They even had a committee pushing for the fair to be abandoned.

My big dictionary says that in 1852 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine commented that Irish patriots insisted on having a donnybrook to themselves.

In 1915 the Literary Digest said the New York World had called a campaign a donnybrook.

In 1966 The Economist said “imagine the donnybrook there would be in France or Italy”.

Soon the word, written in lower case, represented a fight, no matter where it was held, even though the original Donnybrook fair was abandoned around 1855.

The word began appearing in dictionaries to represent fighting.

One dictionary said a donnybrook was larger than a brewhaha but smaller than a fight. Another said it was an inordinately wild fight.

American author Chrysti Smith in a book I bought in Orlando, Florida, says a donnybrook is a loud, uncontrolled argument in the spirit of the rowdy fairs of the old Irish district.

I have no doubt she was speaking of that Dublin suburb, “three miles south-east of the city centre”.

Over the years the donnybrook name has been given to an Irish jig, even to some shops.

I did see a site saying “romantic accommodation” could be found in Donnybrook.

Imagine if you will – “our romance got off to a good start; we found a place in Donnybrook”.

Synonyms include a free for all, a brawl, a quarrel, a dispute.

But, and apologies to the good people from Donnybrook, wherever it might be, the word to me represents a fight, or at least a brewhaha.;

Be careful about carte blanche W/E Nov 21


Many years ago, just after credit cards were introduced to Australia, I went overseas and I thought I would take a credit card with me, “just in case”.

Bankcards had just been started and my memory tells me that Bankcard was available only in Australia. Not many cards were available, so I decided to enrol with Carte Blanche.

It was not a good move.

I bought up big at a few shops in New Zealand and handed over my card, but all I got was a blank stare.

I was running out of money when I saw a Carte Blanche sign at the front of a shop.

I bought up big again and handed over my card.

The shopkeeper looked at the card and handed it back to me.

The shopkeeper’s reply was something like: “Is that what the sign at the front door means? We’ve just bought the shop and didn’t know what the sign meant so we left it on there in the hope that someone would tell us one day.”

A bank branch at Bay of Islands helped me finish the holiday with some money in my pocket.

When I returned to Australia my protestations to Carte Blanche produced a reply that the credit card firm had just pulled out of New Zealand. My money was refunded.

If you still have a Carte Blanche card don’t bother handing it over for your purchase.

But the expression carte blanche has been around for a few hundred years.

In the early days it was spelt in French as charte blanche.

It was described in my big dictionary as “a blank paper”. I could understand that.

Actually it was a blank paper on which anyone could write his conditions.

The first use I could find was in 1651.

It was a popular addition to a card game called piquet. Cards with low numbers were taken from the pack and were replaced by white cards, which had a better value.

Over the years the term came to represent a meaning of defeat, with the victors being handed a blank card on which they could write conditions.

Some people who were sent on a peace mission were handed a carte blanche with a signature. They were authorised to set their own conditions.

Seniors would sometimes use a blank sheet to impose conditions on juniors. (“Go down to the shop and buy me a left-handed hammer.”)

These days carte blanche means a person who has a job to do and has no limits imposed.

So, I suppose that was why the credit card people decided to call their card Carte Blanche.

Then Carte Blanche faded out of existence, but one day, so I understand, it might return in a different format. But don’t hold your breath.

When I was a child we sometimes had for sweets a delicacy I knew as Blue Mange. I could never understand this, because it was white. Then I discovered the blue was spelt blanche – the actual spelling dropped the e and was blanchmange -- and what I thought was blue was meant to signify white.


Rotary district governor Maurie Stack said the Dorrigo Gazette was still printed using metal blocks and he added “probably the last place in the world”. The last time I checked the paper had the delightful name the Don Dorrigo Gazette and the production department still had that beautiful aroma that applied only to newspaper production departments.;



Are you a nagger? W/E NOV 14



I was asked twice on the same day to define nag, and it had nothing to do with horses.

I don’t know why I was asked and I refuse to speculate.

But some people ask me the most difficult questions. I think the hope is that my answer might get them out of trouble – “well, he said…”.

This word probably originated in Scandinavia, and I have nothing against Scandinavians.

Its early meaning was to irritate, even to be painful or to ache persistently.

Originally the word was spelt in many ways. Naig, knaig or even gnaig were popular spellings. One of the earliest meanings was to nibble, such as a child gnawing at a crust.

Say you’ve been at the club for longer than was intended, and then you come home and your partner starts. It’s a bit like gnawing at a crust.

Of course, the answer is not to stay out late, but I decline to take sides.

I suppose you could say nag means to harass somebody with things they don’t want to hear.

My big dictionary says to nag is to annoy a person with persistent fault-finding.

In 1825 John Brockett writing in A Glossary of North Country Words attempted to define nagging and said that to nag was to gnaw at anything hard.

In 1828  a glossary of words said that to “knag” was to raise peevish  objections.

In 1863 the Saturday Review said “man was formed to bully, as woman was formed to nag”. I don’t know what that means either, but I do record that some women have little else but words that they can use against often more forceful opponents.

The word nagging is associated with nag.

Nagging can mean persistent annoyance, irritation or fault-finding.

So when you come home late from the hotel or club don’t expect your wife to say something like “you can stay a little longer if they’ve got some beer left”.

In 1865 a Miss Yonge said at a trial that “his grumbling remarks too often were that sort of censure that is expressively called knagging”. Note she was talking about a man.

Incidentally, if you have a toothache, that word nagging could be used. Often people say they have a nagging toothache. That word means what it was originally intended to mean – an ache that won’t go away. It was nothing to do with that person you married.

I have on record a bloke, telling his life story, who said that his fits of naughtiness were caused “by the incessant nagging I received”.

So, when you feel a fit of nagging coming on, remember that it could cause your partner to fall into fits of naughtiness, and you can’t have that.


I have just received the latest issue of Oz Words, published by the Australian National Dictionary Centre. Competition number 45 wants an Australian twist to some well-known movie titles. For instance, Gone With the Wind could be Shot Through with the Southerly Buster. Psycho could be Dingbats.

Don’t blame me. I’m just recording what they say.

Competition 44 covered a few words on an Australian book or poem. Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter got a mention with Ned Kelly saying “I was a good bloke”. Remember, a younger Ned Kelly saved a boy from drowning and Ned received bravery recognition. Things could have been different.

Such is life.;

Did you get the wooden spoon? W/E NOV 7



What do the Newcastle Knights have on common with the Carlton Blues?

They both came last in their respective football competitions, the NRL and the AFL.

And why do I mention this?

The newsreader on radio said both teams had come last in their competitions.

He said it twice, only he didn’t say they came last.

On both occasions, he said they gained the wooden spoon.

It sounded like a great honour. After all, only one team can gain the wooden spoon – unless a tie is involved.

I started thinking about why teams gain the wooden spoon and why they don’t simply come last.

My big dictionary, in 16 pages of words associated with wood, said wooden spoon originated in CambridgeUniversity.

Just imagine: “I went to Cambridge. I didn’t learn much, but I learnt all about wooden spoon.”

Apparently at Cambridge the person who came last among those taking honours in the mathematical tripos got a wooden spoon

Okay, so you want to know what a tripos means.

I didn’t go to Cambridge, but I did pass primary school. My understanding is that the mathematical tripos is the taught mathematics course in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. You can look up the rest, if you are that interested.

The big dictionary said such a person was “a loser”.

It added that Yale adopted the principle, but the person who got the wooden spoon was “the most popular student” in the class.

We had the most popular student in my class at Quirindi High once. Then he was expelled.

Anyway, this academic honour was started at Cambridge in 1803 for “wooden heads”. The spoon changed shape many times and became bigger and bigger, and many a photograph was taken of students honoured to receive the spoon. The idea was abandoned many years later.

In 1820 George Gordon Byron, writing in Don Juan, said Byron’s “wooden spoon” invention must be down to zero.

In the meantime, many sporting groups thought the term “wooden spoon” was a great idea and so adopted the term to signify a team that came last.

Naturally, the country that is readily identified with slang, Australia, had to be in on the act and hence the news on the radio a few weeks back.

I found many words in my big dictionary associated with wood.

Under wood, the dictionary referred to a tree or objects associated with a tree, and many other definitions.

Then it came to wood-acid, wood-agate, wood-alcohol, wood-and water joey (“Australian slang for an odd job man” -- I knew we had to get in there somewhere) and a whole host of wood terms going right through the dictionary.

A woodwright is a worker in wood.

If somebody said you are “wood” the dictionary definition for this term is “insane, lunatic”. It goes on to say you are “passionate” or “enraged”, so take your pick.

Have you ever heard a person make some outrageous comment and then say “touch wood”? When more people were superstitious, touching wood was said to secure sustained happiness, and a church would offer sanctuary. All you had to do was reach the church door and touch the wooden door.

Try it if you wish, but I don’t think it counts for much these days.;



There's something about a dictionary W/E OCT 31


I find few pleasures more exhilarating than walking through a bookstore.

Even when I have no intention of buying a book, I cannot pass a bookstore.

I think the feeling developed in Garrihy’s Newsagency at Quirindi many years ago, although it probably started many years before that.

I can still smell that distinctive aroma of newspapers and magazines that permeated this particular newsagency, and no doubt all others. They had very few magazines in those days, but the aroma inside a newsagency was unlike any other.

I don’t know how all the magazines exist today. In fact, I worry about some newspaper companies’ attempts at rationalisation that will force abandonment of some print editions.

That’s my Nostradamus moment.

As a high school student I would walk into that newsagency just to take in the aromas. Every few weeks I would go to Sonny Raymond’s barber shop at the back of the newsagency and take in the aromas as I walked through.

But I didn’t set out to write about that newsagency at Quirindi.

Of all the questions I receive, by far the most involve my big dictionary.

They come from all over Australia, and sometimes from overseas. I received one today, and that is why I write this column.

I hesitate to mention the brand of the dictionary, although I have mentioned it many times over the 21 years I have been writing this column.

I know the big dictionary is unique. No other company has attempted a feat this size.

It contains the history of the English language. The letter A takes up seven big pages of very small type.

When my family bought the dictionary as a birthday present, it was selling for $5000. The girl asked if we would prefer the disk, which cost only $800. I said no.

Disks and computers will never replace books and newspapers so far as I am concerned.

There are many types of dictionaries, from slang to medical terms.

If you have ever read The Surgeon of Crowthorne you will have read a deal about the history of this dictionary. I bought this book in Sydney and everybody else discovered it several months later.

The period from go to whoa lasted about 50 years and thousands of volunteers were involved.

The person most associated with this dictionary was James Murray.

The story started about 1857 in London when the Philological Society was told about some deficiencies in word definitions of the day.

A couple of years later the society decided to do something about it and people started sending in words they had seen published.

I won’t go through the history of this work, because it would take many pages.

But one of the major contributors was Dr WC Minor, who had seen and participated in some of the most horrible elements of the American Civil War.

Dr Minor finished up in an asylum at Crowthorne.

Dr James Murray tried many times to thank Dr Minor for the work that he was doing in sending in clippings, but Dr Minor was not willing to accept praise and his reluctance was confusing to Dr Murray.

Eventually, Dr Murray went to Crowthorne and knocked on the front door of the asylum and asked to see Dr Minor.

It was then that he learned Dr Minor did not run the asylum. He was a patient.

He had been sent to England to take him away from the Civil War experience but then had killed a man who was not a threat but had been simply going to work early in the morning.;





Super in their sights W/E OCT 24


A metropolitan newspaper had a seven-column front page heading to a report that said “super in crosshairs”.

The word crosshairs was not mentioned anywhere in the story.

A friend pointed to the newspaper among a pile in the newsagency. The point suggested the friend did not know what the word meant – and he was asking me.

The first rule of a newspaper is not to use a word that will send readers to the dictionary. That was a rule that was drummed into me in my early days as a cadet journalist, but a rule that has more significance these days as newspapers struggle to keep their spot in the marketplace.

Most readers have heard of words such as crossroads, but crosshairs does not seem to have been used much in Australia.

My big dictionary let me down with this one.

Under “cross-hair” it said “spider line”. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean. But I checked spider line and all I found was a list of people wanting to sell me things.

I found no reference in my Macquarie, Collins, Readers Digest or American dictionaries, reinforcing my opinion that the newspaper shouldn’t have used it, especially in a front page headline.

The Fine Dictionary said: “Either of two fine mutually perpendicular lines that cross in the focus plane of an optical instrument and are use for sighting or calibration.”

Elsewhere, and I don’t know where I saw it, crosshair was supposed to mean the cross that people see in some rifle sights.

Someone else offered the opinion: “Crosshairs are most commonly represented as intersecting lines in the shape of a cross.”

Someone said he had a crosshair that took up the whole of the TV screen, which was no help whatsoever.

The Merriam-Webster people from the United States said a crosshair was a very thin wire or thread seen when people look into a microscope.

Wikipedia said crosshairs represented the names of several characters in the transformers franchise.

I even found out how to disable crosshairs.

But I was left wondering why this metropolitan newspaper had a seven-column front page heading that said “super in crosshairs”.

My only conclusion is that a sub-editor remembered he had seen the word once and that it represented something that was in a rifle’s sights. So he wrote a headline with that in mind – in other words super is under attack.

Or the government might be planning changes that ordinary people will not like.

I found a huge number of words that began with cross.

But while I was at it I checked the word crossroads. I found many references to a shop, to an Education Department program and to a movie starring Britney Spears.

Then I saw, under crossroads, that one in two Australians would experience a mental health disorder “during their lifetime”. Would they experience this disorder “after they died”? It was badly worded.

At this stage, I decided to have a Bex and a good lie down.;



It Ain't Necessarily So W/E OCT 17

Many years ago, a long time before the recent goings-on in Canberra, an Australian Prime Minister was asked about a change in his party’s leadership. His reply was “it ain’t going to happen”.

I thought about this as I listened to a Porgy and Bess song, It Ain’t Necessarily So, recently.

Many distinguished people have used a word that to many is the four-letter word of the English language.

Why do we have this love-hate relationship with ain't? The word is seen by many as the province of the illiterate. Others, by no means illiterate, take great delight in using it.

It probably originated in the southern states of the USA.

Malcolm Turnbull said many years ago that the Queen was recognised as a great Englishwoman but “an Aussie she ain't”.

The word has inspired a few well-known sayings over the years, including “ain't love grand” and “if it ain't broke, why fix it?”

If we understand contractions such as can't, don't or isn't then we are part of the way to understanding ain't. Whether we accept it is another matter.

Very few authorities give a suitable explanation of ain't, a word that according to the Oxford Dictionary saw the light of day in written form in 1778.

My Big Dictionary, also published by Oxford, says the word (which it describes as colloquial) is a contracted form of are not, but is also used for am not, is not, has not and have not. The many forms, I suggest, are some reasons why it is so unpopular.

The first use the big dictionary recorded was in 1778 by a Miss Burney in Evelina: “those you are engaged to ain’t half so near related to you as we are”.

It is often seen as an example of careless speech.

Although the Cambridge Australian English Style Guide gives an explanation of ain't, the best history of the word that I found comes in the American book The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, which I picked up in a Singapore bookshop.

We need to keep in mind variations in dialects over the past couple of hundred years, but the earliest printed evidence for ain't shows that it was a contraction for am not, or amn't.

William Congreve in 1695 wrote in Love for Love the words "I an't deaf" and "nor I an't dumb". This was a contraction for am not. Other writers used the form a'n't, again referring to a contraction for am not. All this led eventually to ain't. The oral expression of amn't is difficult and most people these days would say I'm not instead of I amn't.

Sir John Vanbrugh in The Relapse (1696) had a character comment that "these shoes a'n't ugly", the expression in this case referring to aren't or are not. Again the a'n't adopted the form ain't.

An’t is difficult to find after the 1870s.

An't continued to be in popular use in literature into the 19th century. The 1778 referred to by the Oxford Dictionary is the year Fanny Burney's novel Evelina was published, containing the word ain't.

The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide said Websters Dictionary created a furore when it first included ain't in 1961. These days most people agree that saying ain't is wrong -- and my computer put a red line under it every time I mentioned it.

But that ain't necessarily so.;


The good old days W/E OCT 10


Nostalgia used to be a disease. Perhaps it still is.

Joseph Banks, the bloke who looked for botanic specimens while going for a sail with Captain Cook, said in 1770 the ship’s company had longed for home “which the physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of nostalgia”.

Ten years later James Thacher said in his writings on the American Civil War the indisposition had been called “by Dr Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness”.

The word’s meaning has been expanded over the years.

From my point of view, I often wondered what happened to the kids from my class at school. Some I have heard about, such as the girl who starred in the television show Prisoner and finished up in court on a serious charge a few weeks ago, or the woman we all complained about in the sports department at the Newcastle Herald because she talked too much.

But I have often wondered about the boy from Newcastle Boys’ High who was set to become a Catholic priest, or the boy who was brilliant in his studies but could not read a word out aloud (“he can’t read sir”) or the girl at Quirindi High I used to call Boots only to annoy her. We have probably crossed paths many times over the years without realising.

Nostalgia is one of those words that occupied the minds of medicos for many years in the eighteenth century. “I hope I have treated his nostalgia successfully,” said one.

I can’t imagine many people would go to the doctor’s these days and say “I have a bad case of nostalgia. Do I need an operation?”

Nostalgia used to refer only to a place and it meant a longing to return home, or a form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one’s home.

These days we call it home sickness.

I believe Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in 1688, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain.

As the years wore on, nostalgia referred not only to a place but to conditions, such as schooldays. Reader’s Digest has a sentence that says “the old man looked back with nostalgia on the days of his youth”.

Eric Partridge in his Guide to Good English says nostalgia means home sickness in acute form, “verging on the psychopathic”. He goes on to say that the word’s origins could find this meaning “classed as archaic”.

A correspondent in The Times Literacy Supplement commented on October 6, 1945, that the word meant “a painful desire to return home”. That was the original meaning. In 1943 John Marquand in his novel So Little Time said the word had been worked to death. It had been applied to dresses, perfumes, furniture and even saddle horses.

These days the word’s meaning has been expanded. I haven’t heard it used for dresses, perfumes, furniture or saddle horses, but I accept Mr Marquand’s word.

I have, however, heard it used in the context of “the good old days”. Were they so good? Well, that’s up to the individual to decide.

But I often wonder if that boy from Newcastle became a Catholic priest or if that girl from Quirindi married a shopkeeper wearing thongs and had ten kids.

That to me is what nostalgia is all about.

I am supported by Stephen Murray-Smith, who says in Right Words: “The word has been used for so long and so widely to mean a longing for something experienced in the past that to insist on a narrower meaning is useless and silly.”;












A reply from California W/E OCT 3



Most of the columns I write get a nil reaction. But some get a big reaction, something like two or even three responses.

Take the column on apostrophes, published a couple of weeks ago. The responses came from a wide area, even California. I had happened to mention the name of Jeff Rubin, from the USA but I did not know where he lived. The next morning the same Jeff Rubin, of Pinole, California, sent me a note saying the article was excellent. He invited me to call in one day for morning tea. Perhaps he thought I lived around the corner.

I have visited nearby Tulare occasionally.

The article, in case you missed it, asked why we persevere in writing things like “member’s testimonials” knowing that the organisation we are writing about has more than one member. I had seen Jeff Rubin in a photograph pointing to such a sign.

Then I received a note from David Taylor, of Dubbo.

He didn’t just complain about apostrophes. He threw in his opinions on such subjects as newspaper proof readers (“is that a joke nowadays”) hear hear (“I’ve seen that as here, here”), “he told you and I” and a whole host of other matters that I don’t have room for here.

I have to say, however, that editorial quality was not the job of the proof reading department but of sub-editors or copy editors, who spent a lot of time checking material submitted to them. The proof readers, under the old system, ensured that the printers set into type what the journalists wanted. Of course, if there was a mistake the subs could always say “those proof readers didn’t pick it up”. Naturally, I never did that.

The responses I got to the column indicated that many people think about apostrophes and the grammar we use. I saw another sentence the other day that said “the charity’s I have been involved with”. It went on to say “charity’s like…” indicating that it wasn’t just a typo.

I know that some people say things like “If you speak it you don’t indicate where the apostrophe goes” but that does not mean our writing should be sloppy.

The apostrophe can indicate a missing letter (don’t instead of do not) or can indicate possession (Bill’s car).

It has a long history, but can be traced to Greek meaning something like turning away, but I didn’t study Greek, even though David Taylor did.

I saw a sign recently that said something like “we are out of banana’s. I once saw a correction to a recipe that said something like “in our recipe for banana cake last week we accidentally left out the bananas”. That was nothing to do with apostrophes, so you can stop looking.

But I also saw a sign that said goods for sale were suitable for “school’s, stag’s, hen’s, pub’s and club’s”.

David Taylor mentioned that I had written about apostrophes a year or so back. I can’t remember it but I do remember seeing a big sign in a Dubbo main street shopping centre that made me cringe every time I saw it. It was still there last time I looked.


I saw the last episode of the Peter Allen story.

Did you notice that whenever Judy Garland entered a restaurant she was almost invisible to the other patrons?

Maybe they thought she worked there, or just stepped off the rainbow.;





Holocaust is a word never to forget W/E SEP 26



Some words arouse the passions in people whenever they are uttered.

Take holocaust, for instance.

This word brings to the fore some of the most despicable elements of the second world war.

The Jewish element will never forget some aspects of the second world war and their feelings can best be summed up by one word – holocaust. Usually when we see the word in the context of the war it is written with a capital H.

But here is a word that has been around since earlier than the year 1250.

I won’t say that in that year it represented entirely innocent activities because, according to my research, it didn’t.

In 1250 it represented a burnt offering, or a sacrifice entirely consumed by fire.

The first use I discovered was in the story of Genesis and Exodus, 1250. It continued in that vein through the ages, always with the meaning of being consumed by fire.

In 1661 it had a slight shift in meaning to complete destruction by fire or a great slaughter, or even a massacre.

In many cases it was spelt with a capital H. I’m not quite sure how a capital changes the meaning, except perhaps to emphasise the enormity of the deed. In 1680 we had the “altar of Holocausts” but in 1940 Hansard of the British House of Commons reported “the general holocaust of civilised standards”. I’m not sure what that means.

Then came the Holocaust, with the meaning most people understand. The word was applied to the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis in the war of 1939-45.

The specific application was introduced by historians during the 1950s They apparently sought a word to describe what they were trying to convey, but the first use in this context that I could find was in the News Chronicle of December 5, 1942. The News Chronicle added that: “The word has gone forth that the Jewish peoples are to be exterminated. The conscience of humanity stands aghast.”

The word has gone down in history to represent the foulest of deeds against many people.

In 1985 A Ramati in And Violins Stopped Playing said “there are memorials for all the nations whose people died there, except for the Gypsies”.

The Greeks had a word holos, which I understand meant entire or whole, and kaustas, which meant burnt. Related words these days are caustic and cauterise.

The poet John Milton used the word holocaust in the late 17th century in the context of complete destruction by fire.

William Tindale mentioned holocaust in his 1526 translation of the Bible.


On another matter, I came across a 2011 letter from Margaret Hurle of the New England region (I keep moving things and finding new letters) that said Bob Hawke claimed Tony Abbott was as mad as a cut snake.

“Having encountered a number of snakes I have to think that a cut snake is angry. 

It seems a pity that someone who projects Australianism doesn't know much about cut snakes”, Margaret said.

I don’t know about angry, but Tony Abbott would not be too happy this week.;






Only one member??? W/E SEP 19



A special day is coming around soon that I’m sure you won’t want to miss.

I was reminded of it when I saw a photograph of a man pointing to a sign that said “member’s testimonials”.

I have seen such a sign, or signs that looked like it, increasingly in recent years. I don’t know if it signifies the standard of education that young people receive. I would not say that schoolteachers have much to answer for, but I do wonder at times. Maybe the club, or whatever it was, had only one member.

It’s become an epidemic. The proliferation of such signs is almost as bad as the misplaced modifier. I received something in the letterbox the other day. It was a folder from a real estate agent that said something like: “Offering exceptional value, Greg welcomes your early inquiries.”

Okay, so you want to know what’s wrong with “member’s testimonials”. Firstly, tell yourself what school you want to and then narrow it down to the teacher. Then, at 2am tomorrow ring the teacher and ask him or her what’s wrong with “member’s testimonials”.

But I started out by mentioning a special day.

September 24 is that special day.

Jeff Rubin decided that September 24 was to be recognised, in the United States of America at least, as National Punctuation Day.

Let’s have National Punctuation Day in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the USA. We can think of lots of material for the day.

In my years as a newspaper copy editor I had some frustrating moments.

I remember telling a reporter that in most cases the apostrophe to mark the possessive of a singular noun went before the s and for a plural noun went after the s. Soon after, I received a report about a childrens’ organisation. When I mentioned that the apostrophe was in the wrong place, he said something like “well, you said…”

The book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves touches on many of our punctuation mistakes. The title allegedly referred to a panda that entered a restaurant, shot the waiter and departed. I know some people have called the book by other than its correct name, but I won’t fall into that trap.The book shows the differences in meaning that can be caused by the wrong placement of a punctuation mark.

We’ve all read the signs about banana’s for sale, new CD’s just in or 1000’s of bargains.

What can you do on National Punctuation Day?

You could read a newspaper and mark with a red pen all the punctuation errors you see (remembering that you and not the newspaper might be wrong), you could make a note of all the incorrect street signs and then send a rude letter to the council, you could annoy your neighbourhood signwriter or you could prepare for National Grammar Day, which I’m told falls on March 4.

The errors in our society are abundant, but be careful about pointing them out in case your superior attitude comes back to bite you one day.

But hope lives, while we have the Apostrophe Protection Society looking after our literary health and while we can make use of National Punctuation Day.;

Are you one of the lower classes? W/E SEP 12



In 1865 when Mrs CJ  Newby writing in Common Sense remarked that the well-dressed boy was “so unlike a pleb”, she was suggesting that the plebs were the common people, even the “lower classes”.

You can determine whether you qualify as a pleb, according to Mrs Newby’s definition.

Actually, my big dictionary calls a pleb one of the “lower classes” and it gives several examples. In 1977, for instance, J Wainright, writing in Nest of Rats, commented “you were an aristocrat and you turned pleb”.

John Ayto described plebs as the “common people”.

Samuel Johnson, in the first real dictionary, published in 1755, described plebs as “vulgar, low, common” people.

Why do a mention this?

Well, over the past few weeks several people have asked me to comment on the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. They were starting to think about a question that federal parliament might ask some time in the future.

I don’t want to suggest you are one of the lower classes.

Federal parliament will decide the question for you to vote on. You need only answer the question, if one is asked.

I can suggest, however, that if the Libs call the vote a plebiscite, they risk losing half of their voting base. Plebiscite is associated with pleb.

A plebiscite, according to the big Oxford dictionary, is “a direct vote of the whole of the electors of a state (in this case, Australia) to decide a question of public importance.

A referendum, in the words of the same dictionary, is the submission of a question to the whole body of voters.

So, you might ask “what is the difference?”

I was afraid you would ask that.

My understanding ­-- and I have been wrong before -- is that, according to election expert Antony Green from the ABC, referendum comes directly from Latin and plebiscite comes to English from Latin via French, but you didn’t want to know that.

Then Green gets on to meatier stuff when he says the word referendum is generally reserved for votes to amend the Australian Constitution, even though the word is not referred to in the constitution.

So, you lower classes can vote after all, but don’t make a habit of it.

But to amend the constitution a referendum requires a majority of the national vote and a majority of the states in Australia.

So, we have six states. That means four states must vote in favour for the referendum to succeed.

But, and I have to say this, very few such votes have succeeded over the years. I think it is only eight out of 44, or about that.

I think if we have a vote to change the Australian Constitution, it will be called a referendum, and all you people of the “lower classes” will be expected to vote.

You can’t use the excuse “I’m one of the lower classes, and I didn’t think I had to vote”.

And leave me out of it.


Incidentally, some of the newspapers that carry this column have entered the statewide regional newspaper supplements competition and the results will be announced in Pokolbin on October 23. I am the only judge.

Now, if people who want a better score will line up on the left, I will see what I can do.

But those in the lower classes need not apply.;







When does hospital need a wayfinder W/E SEP 5



If you want to find your way around unfamiliar territory you could find a guide.

You wouldn’t want to seek a wayfinder, or that’s my understanding.

But I received a letter the other day from a person most irate because his northern NSW inland hospital had replaced the word guide with the word wayfinder.

I hesitate to say where that person lives, or the local hospital, because this is a column about the meaning of words and not a place to criticise hospitals who employ wayfinders.

But I couldn’t find wayfinder in the dictionaries I consulted.

Guide on the other hand was in all the dictionaries. The first reference I found came in 1362.

My big dictionary in several pages devoted to the word guide and its derivatives said guide meant “one who is hired to conduct a traveller or tourist over a mountain, through a forest or over a city or building and to point out objects of interest”.

I refrain from discussing why a hospital would need guides, but some of the bigger hospitals obviously do see such a need. “There’s the canteen on the right and you can have a cup of coffee while you’re recovering from the heart by-pass in the operating theatre on the left.”

My correspondent was not so kind toward his local hospital.

“They have, wait for it, wayfinder,” he said with the vitriol pouring out of every word in his long letter.

“What visitors are going to do when they look for a volunteer guide to assist them navigate the hospital I shall never know”, he said.

“As far as I can determine there has been no public announcement that guides are not available and visitors will have to find a wayfinder, if they know what that is, to guide them to their destination.”

He said a lot more, but I think you get the message.

Being a conscientious receiver of emails, I immediately contacted the Health Department to find out whether this was a general instruction to hospitals, but I contacted the federal department in error. I have to say, however, that the department replied within about five minutes to say this was a state matter – which I should have realised.

I then contacted the state department and was told the relevant person was on holidays. This person replied immediately the holiday was over and we realised we had once worked at the same place.

Then the person said “I got your bio online”, which worried me a bit. I didn’t know I had a “bio”.

Eventually, we got around to discussing wayfinder.

The Health Department official said this hospital had started defining guides as “wayfinding volunteers” but had changed the title to “welcome volunteers” only recently to assist patients and visitors.

“This might include signage, colour schemes and volunteers.” the letter said.

That raises another question. My northern inland correspondent had said “it would have cost several thousand badly needed dollars” and so on.

But if you’re lying half dead in a hospital and you need to know where the operating theatre is, you would feel much better looking for a “welcome volunteer” than a guide.

But then, is the welcome volunteer’s office down the hallway to the left or the right?;






Chit -- amount owed or a receipt W/E AUG 29

We bought a meal at Changi Airport, Singapore.

We paid cash, but in return we received a chit.

I hadn’t heard of chit for years, but there it was. Everybody who paid received piece of paper headed as a chit.

The word was accepted as another word for a receipt. It was in most dictionaries and I read it in A Town Like Alice, which I happened to be reading on my holidays. Okay, I’m a bit behind in my reading, but I’ll catch up one day.

I had always thought a chit was a reminder of an amount owing, and many of the dictionaries I consulted seemed to bear this out.

The Urban Dictionary described it as “a sum owed”.

Collins said it was “a voucher for a sum of money owed”.

Oxford said it was “a short, official note recording a sum owed”.

Macquarie said the word represented “a voucher showing money owed for food, drink, etc”.

Merriam-Webster said a chit represented “a signed voucher of a small debt”, but then it added the meaningless “a small slip of paper with writing on it”.

The Free Dictionary said it represented “a sum of money owed” but it added “any receipt of an informal nature”. That was the only dictionary that used the word “receipt”.

Most dictionaries, in different words, said a chit was a short, official note, typically recording a sum owed.

In India, it was a memorandum of a debt not yet paid.

But in Singapore we paid in advance and so did other people. They all received a chit.

There are many words spelt as chit, mostly referring to a child, or a baby, a person “no better than a child” or a small “insignificant” person. I’m not sure what sort of a person would be regarded as insignificant.

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined chit as “an infant or baby”.

The word chit that harks back to that note I received in Singapore seems to come from Hindi, but developed in the United States and United Kingdom as a hand-written note as a reminder, or even as a scrip, but mostly as a reminder of a debt.

The first use I could find for chit, “short for chitty”, came in 1785 in a comment that “they may know his terms by sending a chit”.

In 1879 ES Bridges in Round World said he signed the chit for drinks.

A good definition came in 1892 when the Daily News of London described the chit system: “The chit system is the very general practice of putting the name on a piece of paper for every article that is purchased instead of paying cash down.”

A person who collected the accounts was described in Peking Picnic (1932) as a chit-coolie.

The word has other meanings.

Macquarie said “a young person, especially an imprudent girl”. Oxford said “applied, contemptuously to a child, a very young child, now mostly of a girl or young woman”.

A chit fund is a kind of savings scheme practised in India.

The dictionaries I consulted said nothing about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 1968 film starring Dick Van Dyke.

But I’ll go with the Free Dictionary definition of chit. I know I paid the bill and the chit I received was a receipt.;

What is a Caucasian W/E AUG 22




I find that after 20 years or so writing this column, people often ask me questions and then step back awaiting an answer, even if I don’t know the answer.

Take Caucasian for example, a word I hear constantly, usually in police descriptions.

When police are searching for somebody, they often say the person is Caucasian or has some other appearance.

I have been asked often about the word Caucasian but I have side-stepped the issue, largely because some people can see the word as racist even when attempts are being made not to be racist.

I think those people who use the word regard it as another way of saying the person is white and looking like most Australians, without being accused of racism.

But a true Caucasian is a person who comes from the region of the Caucasia Mountains.

My big dictionary says Caucasia is a mountain range between the Black Sea and the Caspian. A Caucasian is a person from that region; or a name given to the white race of mankind.

The term has even been used by people such as Johann Blumenbach to measure the skull. Blumenbach in the early 19th century tried to divide the world’s people into five groups – American Indians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Malayans and Caucasians.

The word goes back in print only to 1807, when William Lawrence said Caucasian referred to “those nations which in the form of their skulls and other physical characters resemble Europeans”.

Then in 1843 JC Pritchard writing in The Natural History of Man said the name Caucasian was given to “the proper or aboriginal inhabitants of the Caucasian region”.

In 1964 JH Roberts in his “Q Document” said “she was quite obviously the only Caucasian in the crowd of formally dressed Japanese”.

But then in 1967 The Economist reported that the top business jobs in Hawaii tended to be reserved for Caucasians.

So, is the word a racist term? Should we find another word to describe people who have what some would regard as white skin?

Several dictionaries I consulted said the word represented a white-skinned person of European origin; or a person from southern Russia. Some referred to “very light” skin.

Several people have asked if the word represented “white”. How much white?

Incidentally, a Caucasic person is also Caucasian.

In the United States and I suggest in Australia the term Caucasian is used primarily as a convenient way of saying the skin colour is white. But then is the skin colour always white? How about sun-tanned or off-white? Who tells the difference? Is the skin colour of a person many see as black really black? And how is Barack Obama described?

Caucasian as a term of description is becoming increasing rare in Britain because it is becoming more vague.

New Zealanders, so I am told, are tending to avoid the word and are often using European New Zealander or simply New Zealander.

We can hardly say Caucasian refers to all Australians.

Perhaps “white Australian” is becoming more acceptable than Caucasian.

Certainly some people feel that Caucasian represents people of acceptable physical appearance and is in itself racist and they question the origins of the word. Most people who use the term Caucasian have no idea where the Caucasus Mountains are. The term seems a bit pretentious but perhaps less coarse than “white”.

I suggest the term Caucasian has lost much of its meaning.

Maybe we need a better word.;


What is an Australian W/E AUG 15


 Many years ago I was asked to define an Australian.

I thought about it, but never did anything more.

But that word has stayed with me, calling for a definition.

In recent times I felt that, as an Australian, I should not be too timid in describing a person who came from my own country.

Not so long ago I was thumbing through my copy of the Oxford Australian National Dictionary.

The first entry under Australian said “l. An Aboriginal”.

Aboriginal Australian or Vietnamese Australian, Italian Australian or Greek Australian or any other type of Australian were not mentioned. The entry was under “Australian”.

I wondered why so much is made these days about different classes of Australian.

Number 2 in this dictionary was stated to be “a non-Aboriginal person native to or resident in Australia”.

I decided to see what other books said about the word Australian.

The Oxford Companion to the English Language said that at the time of white settlement in 1788 at least 200 languages had been spoken in Australia. Speculation has existed about terra Australia incognita (Latin for unknown southern land).

The book went on to say the term Australian referred to firstly “a native of Terra Australis and its islands” and then to a host of other people and things.

The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide said the word Australian “was first applied to Aboriginal people in 1814 by Matthew Flinders, but within ten years it also referred to others living on the continent”.

Readers Digest said an Australian was “a native or inhabitant of Australia”.

The Oxford Companion to Australian History (I was given a mention in its 719 pages) said Matthew Flinders had said “in 1805” that the whole body of land should be designated under the one general name, having antiquity to recommend it.

The book said the names for Aboriginal people had presented a problem but mostly the terms Aboriginals, Aborigines and Aboriginal people had been used.

The Bulletin many years later allegedly said Aborigines were pitiable but not Australians. I couldn’t find the date.

The Australian Natives Association was formed in Melbourne in 1871, with membership restricted to men born in Australia.

The Oxford Australian National Dictionary under “Australasia” as its first entry said a non-Aboriginal Australian and then secondly an Aboriginal, as if having a bob each way compared with its entry for Australian.

This same book, under Australian, said Matthew Flinders had reported in 1814 the natives “without showing that timidity so usual with the Australians”.

In 1828 R Mudie had reported in Picture of Australia “the Australians are cunning and treacherous”.

I was getting the impression that another word for Australians was Aborigines, so I decided to go to my big 20-volume Oxford dictionary to see what it said about Australians.

It said an Australian was “an aboriginal native of, or later, a colonist or resident in, the island continent of Australia”.

A “new Australian” was a recent immigrant.

The same book said later an Australian was “of or belonging to Australia”.

A few years ago I reported a comment from a student at Quirindi High School.

The comment has remained with me through the years because this girl did not want to be regarded as different from the other students.

She said: “I want to be regarded as Australian, the same as everybody else.”;





History twice W/E AUG 8

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, so I was told, topped the Australian charts longer than A Pub With No Beer and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport combined until Ashcroft pulled it from airplay.

In a conversation with Johnny Ashcroft he revealed that my column was published on his website,

Steven Walls will be 60 on August 27.

In case you have forgotten the story, I repeat much of this 2010 column:

Australians like to take ownership of the expression “little boy lost” because it represents a satisfying chapter in our national history.

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, northern NSW, 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.

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 a 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.

Despite its Australian success, the release of his song in the United States was delayed by forces in that country 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.

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

But when his song was at the top of the hit parades Ashcroft 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.

Johnny Ashcroft now lives in retirement on the Gold Coast.

I own up to a misunderstanding of a question that led me to describe Dorrie Walls as “the late” Dorrie Walls. She rang me from Guyra a couple of weeks later and I compounded the embarrassment by asking her “where are you calling from?”;

Don't change your mind W/E AUG 1




One word spoken in the hearing of a person close to me is sure to get a reaction.

The word? Backflip.

“Why can’t they say you changed your mind?” would be the immediate comment.

I heard the word a couple of times last week and I knew the reaction I would get.

I remember hearing a comment from somebody in the distant, or not so distant, past. It was along the lines that people in the media loved to hear somebody give a black and white answer, because that answer would be stored away in the bottom drawer until that politician had a change of mind. And then the word backflip would come out. It’s much better than saying the person changed his or her mind.

It can convey the impression of weakness, in the face of difficult polls.

It can also convey an impression of underhand dealings and therefore it has become a favourite word for some media outlets. I won’t say which ones, because some of my best friends are journalists.

But some politicians say a lot without saying anything. Maybe they have been caught by “backflip” before.

Another favourite word for some journalists is “gotcha”.

Most dictionaries, those that mention the word at all, have only one meaning for backflip. This is an acrobatic manoeuvre, sometimes apparently also known as a back tuck, a somi, or a salto. With this move, your body makes a 360 degree rotation, beginning in a standing position and landing in a standing position.

Some people have been known to use the word frontflip, which presumably means you go the other way.

But don’t ask me. I sometimes have trouble just standing up.

If you are in the United States you could hear the expression flip-flop, which goes back to 1890 and has a long history. In this context it doesn’t mean anything to do with shoes or thongs. In the United Kingdom you might hear the expression U-turn. Both have had good use in politics.

But we are concerned about backflip in Australian politics. Some overseas dictionaries say the word is used only in Australia and New Zealand.

In political circles, some people have received new information. Others have looked at the polls. Whatever, it means they have changed their minds.

What do you think? Look out for backflip, coming soon to your place.


I heard the other day use of the word antidisestablishmentarianism. When I was a 12-year-old in Cardiff I read in the Newcastle Herald that a girl my own age had won a sum of money by spelling that word. I learnt how to spell it, but nobody offered me any money.

The word disestablishmentarianism has been used a few times to mean something like the withdrawal of support for the established church, especially the Anglican Church in 19th century England.

Some people who support antidisestablishmentarianism believe no country should have an “official” religion.

Most of these people have adopted the word antidisestablishmentarianism.

Others say the word, barring a few medical and technical terms, is one of the longest words in the English language.

But I will be very upset if someone gets prizemoney for spelling antidisestablishmentarianism.

I think I have waited longer.;

Don't act like a goose W/E JUL 25



Not very often do we find people organising a campaign to have a word included in the dictionary. But it does happen occasionally.

Take ganderflanking for example. The campaign to have this word included in the Oxford dictionary started in 2013 and, to my knowledge, it is still going.

I hesitate to say whether I believe ganderflanking should be included in the Oxford. But I will say that an associated word, gander, is in the dictionary -- and maybe women should stop reading now.

That reminds me: A caller to a newspaper somewhere in Australia or New Zealand – I won’t say which one -- assumed I was female and berated the person on the other end of the line because of pro-female tendencies in this column. I wish to say I am not female – and I never have been. I also do not know what I have done to make him think I was female, not that I find anything wrong with women.

Anyway back to ganderflanking.

This made-up word made its debut in November 2013 on a BBC show.

Mervin Grist used the word to mean aimlessly messing about. The show’s producer thought it was a good word and started a campaign to put it in the Oxford English Dictionary. It made it into Hansard but people weren’t sure whether it was a rude word or not.

Wordsmith Michael Quinion says “it’s very unlikely it will ever be included in the Oxford English Dictionary”. The word, however, has made it into the English Dialect Dictionary, given the meaning of playing the fool or wasting time over unprofitable work.

If you think of geese, you might get an idea where the word comes from.

The word gander goes back to the year 1000, but it has many meanings such as “a dull or stupid person” or a horsemen riding at full speed trying to pull the greased head off a goose which is suspended by its feet. Okay, I don’t recommend the practice; I’m just saying it’s on page 352 of my big dictionary’s volume 6

But, hang on, here’s another definition of gander. Gander month or gandermoon is defined as “the month after a wife’s confinement, allusion to the gander’s aimless wondering while the goose is sitting”. A gandermooner is defined as a husband during this period. The term goes back to 1636. Again, I don’t recommend the practice – I’m just saying it’s in the dictionary.

The big dictionary includes several other “gander” terms. Did you know that gander is defined as “to wander aimlessly or with a foolish air like that of a gander”, or “to ramble in talk”.

Of course, you know about “take a gander”, which means take a look. This came relatively late and is only a couple of hundred years old.

Michael Quinion quotes Spike Milligan, of the Goon Show who, when he died, provided the quote “I told you I was sick”. Milligan had Harry Secombe entering an antique show and asking the shopkeeper “mind if I take a gander around the shop” The shopkeeper replied “only if he’s housetrained”.

But back to ganderflanker.

Last year the BBC announced that a campaign had been launched to try to have this word included in the Oxford English Dictionary. The word had been looked up a couple of hundred times but was not yet a Scrabble word.

I imagine it would be a good word for politicians.

And it has been added to the Glossary of Words used in the County of Wiltshire.

As for the dictionary, don’t hold your breath.; lbword@midcoast,


It was in the news W/E JUL 18





A person of my acquaintance told all around him recently that the word news came about because it represented the four points of the compass – north, east, west and south.

That was a reasonable assumption, but it failed to take into account that the word has undergone several different spellings, from nuze to niewse to newys.

This is the problem with coming up with a suitable explanation for simple words.

I try to hold my tongue, for instance, when somebody assures all in earshot that the word golf means gentlemen only, ladies forbidden, or an explanation along the lines of store high in transit, failing to take into account that the word wasn’t always spelt that way.

Anyway, that Bible fellow Wyclif in 1392 spoke about “the days of newes” and he didn’t have a compass in his hand. At least I don’t suppose he did, but I wasn’t around at the time.

My big dictionary has several meanings for news, over several pages, ranging from “new things” to “the report of recent events” to “a television or radio programme”. It covers associated words from news agency, to gossip, to news desk to news sheet “a printed sheet containing the news”.

That word news led to newspapers and subsequently to radio and television news sessions. Remember Randy Stone on radio before the days of television? “My name is Randy Stone of the daily. Stories start in many different ways. This one began…”

We have heard many prophets of gloom telling us that newspapers have had their day. Causes ranged from the development of news sessions on radio and television stations to computers.

Those big companies that control most of the regional newspapers these days are determined to cut costs and as a result keep shareholders happy.

I started with a country newspaper that didn’t have shareholders as we know them but was determined to print all the news so the community would know what was going on. I don’t think many regional newspapers can make that boast these days – but I could be wrong.

I still buy several papers but my account comes from a place hundreds of miles away and some country papers have much of their work done in another country, all in the name of keeping costs down and keeping shareholders and accountants happy.

I was given a kindle a couple of years ago and a comment to me recently was “has the novelty worn off yet?” I hope the novelty does wear off and newspapers return to their days of glory.

Anyway, back to news. Ivor Evans, in his revision of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, says the suggestion that news comes from the four corners of the compass is an “ingenious conceit”.

The word comes from the French nouvelles, which means new. I studied French at high school but I can’t speak a word of it now.

The word is regarded as singular, but there was a time when it was regarded as plural. Queen Victoria in a letter to the King of Belgium in 1861 said “the news from Austria are very sad”.

I see television news sessions that occasionally tell us they are about to tell us some “breaking news”. I have yet to understand that.

So far as I am concerned, news is news, whether it breaks or not.;


Drinking, no way W/E JUL 11



I read the other day that a Rotary group was planning a “peace” symposium. I can’t remember whether they planned to discuss the world’s problems or the state of the alcohol industry.

But my first thought – unfair, I admit -- was that they would likely all be a bit sloshed at the end of the discussion.

Symposium had moved up in the world of words in recent years, but there was a time when it carried around some extra baggage. Maybe it still does.

Then I read that some church leaders would have a symposium to discuss, no doubt, religious matters. I tried hard, but I couldn’t imagine a group of religious leaders staggering through their retreat, all waving stubbies of their favourite brew.

Australian Rotary Health in a full page of its facts booklet wrote about the various symposiums it has conducted.

Here is a word that goes back several hundred years, even to the time of Plato.

Plato, according to several sites, recorded that some men tried to describe the word love at a symposium “or drinking party”.

The sites did not record whether the drink was in stubbies, or cans, or draught, but you can bet the drink wasn’t creaming soda.

The first meaning of symposium in my big dictionary is “a drinking party”. Then it adds “a convivial meeting for drinking and intellectual entertainment, properly among the ancient Greeks”.

Those Greeks have a lot to answer for.

In 1748, the Earl of Chesterfield, in a letter to his son advising on manners, said he took it for granted that the son’s symposium was intended to promote conversation rather than drinking. In modern times, an article on ancient Greece said that if Socrates went to a symposium he was likely to stay all night.

You should have gained the impression by now that a symposium was a drinking session rather than a serious discussion on the state of the world.

The word is based on the Greek syn meaning together and pino meaning drink (related to the word poison. Haven’t you ever heard the man whose turn it is to shout ask “what’s your poison?”).

So the Greeks of old – I would never suggest modern Greeks do such a thing – would drink wine together and engage in intellectual conversation. I would not suggest the wine came before the Greeks started to solve the world’s problems.

I think it did, however.

In classical Greece the symposium consisted of two parts – firstly the food and secondly the drink. Each guest was expected to contribute something to the festivities, such as a story, or a joke or even a musical item. But probably by then they were too drunk to care about the contribution.

I have to say the word symposium went through the gentlemen’s club era and these days occupies a much higher plane in our language.

Can you imagine a room full of drunks engaging in an intellectual conversation?

And that’s where we came in.

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, described symposiack, little used these days, as “related to merry making, happening where company is drinking together”. My big dictionary describes symposiack (“rare”) as meaning much the same as symposium.

The word symposium these days means the intellectual conversation on some imagined problem. Of course, they serve coffee and biscuits for morning tea.

But be wary if hubbie says he is off to a symposium.;



Red turns into blue W/E JUL 4


Some people have difficulty accepting that the writer of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin could then go on and write Red Dog.

But the story now goes ahead another step, as I am about to tell.

Louis de Bernieres wrote many books, some of them being regarded as novels that everybody should read. I hesitate to use the word classical, but many people have used that term.

Remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? In 1941 Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, was posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. At first he was ostracised by the locals, but his main aim was to have a “peaceful” war.

This was one of many books by Louis de Bernieres.

The book won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Novel in 1994.

Then he came to Australia.

While attending a literary dinner in Karratha, he heard the story of Red Dog. After visiting the dog’s statue, de Bernieres decided to write a book about Red Dog.

The book led to a movie and this movie was one of the biggest movies in Australia, also becoming allegedly the highest-selling DVD of all time in Australia.

Now the producer of the movie Red Dog is to make a sequel

What will it be called? Well, then can’t call in Red Dog, so they have decided to call it Blue Dog.

I don’t know much about the movie, but it will be filmed in the Pilbara and presumably will have some connections with Red Dog.

But it was the film’s name that grabbed my attention.

My big dictionary devotes nine pages to the colour blue and various words that have developed from blue.

What it doesn’t mention – or at least I couldn’t find it – is that Blue Dog is an American term for some members of the Democratic Party.

I don’t want to confuse you, and me, but my understanding of a Blue Dog Democrat is a person who follows a lot of beliefs that many Americans do not follow. Blue Dog Democrats have attracted to themselves some contempt by those who do not consider themselves Blue Dog Democrats. If you’re interested in more information, you can look it up.

But I wonder how the movie will go in the USA, with moviegoers who think they are going to see a political movie discovering it’s a movie about a dog.

I mentioned that the word blue covered nine pages in my big dictionary.

The word, “a common Romantic word”, is now spelt in a form that was hardly known in the 16th and 17th centuries. It became common under French influence only after 1700.

Some words you might be interested in: Blue blood (blue veins showing through the skin); blue in the face (livid with excitement); blue stocking (a learned woman, from a society in the 17th century); blue coat (soldier in the American Civil War); blue eye (an Australian bird); blue grass (grass in Kentucky and Virginia); blue nosed (a term of contempt); blue rinse (elderly lady); blue tongue (Australian lizard).

But I couldn’t find Blue Dog anywhere.

Will the film be a hit? I don’t expect it will be a political movie, but time will tell.;





A great basketball move W/E JUN 27




I was watching a television news segment that featured an Australian basketballer.

The sports journalist said something like: “Wasn’t that a great alley-oop?”

One of two news anchors, both of whom appeared to be much older (I have to be careful here) said “a what?”

Sports reporter: “Haven’t you heard of alley-oop?”

Both anchors almost in unison: “No”.

The sports journalist then went on to explain the meaning of alley-oop in basketball.

An hour later I just happened to be watching as the news came around again (it was a wet day).

The sports reporter said to an anchor “and that was that?”

The male anchor: “That was an alley-oop”.
The anchor then asked another question: “Is that alley-hoop or alley-oop.”
The sports reporter: “Alley-oop”.

By this stage I was becoming frustrated. I thought everybody knew what an alley-oop was. I must admit, after 50 years of refereeing basketball alley-oop had become a key part of my language.

In very simplistic terms, during an alley-oop one player that everyone thinks is about to score throws the ball near the basket to a teammate who jumps, catches the ball in mid air and immediately scores. In some cases, spectacular cases I add, only one player is involved. I don’t need to explain it and don’t try it at home.

The term is relatively new, although the action has been around almost since the time basketball was invented.

Various players have been credited with popularising the move and only a few players have made the move a part of their reputation.

The term alley-oop is well known in the French allez hop, a cry of a circus acrobat about to leap.

Some say the term in basketball was first used by the San Francisco 49ers, but others disagree and point to other teams.

But the term existed many years before it became standard basketball jargon.

It arose around World War I, most likely a coinage by American soldiers imitating the French. They combined the French word allez(meaning “you go”) with an imitation French pronunciation of the word “up” oop.

The words combined to essentially mean "up you go”. The original use of the phrase alley-oop was an exclamation uttered upon lifting something heavy.
In the late 1950s, the term alley-oop was adopted by basketball players to denote the impressive acrobatic assist plus dunk.

The Oxford dictionary says alley-oop is used to encourage or draw attention to the performance of an acrobatic feat. It also describes a high basketball pass caught by a leaping teammate who tries to dunk the ball before landing. The Oxford says it is an early 20th century term.

It was originally a term of encouragement, but has become a standard, if difficult, basketball move.

The sport is getting a bit more publicity now, but in the 1960s when I tried to publicise it in the Sydney Morning Herald I would get comments such as “is this men’s rules or women’s rules?” The fact that it was played at night didn’t help with publicity.

These days the term has become popular in areas apart from basketball.

For instance, it can describe a comic strip, a tourist attraction, a skateboard move, a type style or even a restaurant.

But it has become known the world over, except for a couple of television news anchors, as a basketball move.;


Pass the cackleberries W/E JUN 30



Cackleberry is in the dictionary.

I was sitting in the back row at a meeting recently when a woman sat beside me.

“Do you know what cackleberry means?” she asked.

She said her grandson had used the word recently. She hadn’t heard the word used since she was a teenager.

I assured her the word has not a rude word, but I think she already knew that.

Then she left.

When I got home I immediately looked in my big dictionary.

And there, to my amazement, was cackleberry, going back a long way.

For those who were born only recently, the word cackleberry refers to an egg.

I must admit, I didn’t expect to see it in the dictionary. I had thought it was a bit of slang the kids picked up from playing with the wrong crowd.

But there it was. Several dictionaries had the word cackle, but I was looking for cackleberry.

My big dictionary said cackleberry was slang for an egg, “originally US”. It quoted a 1916 comment that said “pass the cackleberries”. Then in 1925 a comment said slang was sometimes complicated in its suggestiveness, “like cackleberry, meaning egg”. Then John o’London of June 14 said a cackleberry was an egg “in nautical slang”.

Cackleberry comes directly from cackle, meaning the noise a hen makes after laying an egg.

The word comes from cackle plus berry, as if you hadn’t worked that out by now.

Some other dictionaries are starting to include cackleberry.

It’s not always complimentary, however. The big dictionary said, of persons, “to be full of noise, an inconsequent talk, to talk loudly or fussily about a petty achievement”. Tell that to the hen.

The word became popular during the 1950s, when boys, being boys, used it to refer to eggs. Anything but the correct word would do in those days.

The word cackle can be traced at least to the year 1225. The big dictionary admits that it does not know whether the word imitated the sound of a hen or came from another language. It gives some examples, but it doesn’t say where the hen came from.

I quote without comment a big dictionary entry from 1841 “hundreds of cackling women and girls”. It also said “a noisy person”, so it could have referred to a man.

The word could also refer to other farmyard animals, such as a goose.

But my big dictionary doesn’t say why the word was “originally US”.

But I understand the word cackleberry has had other uses. For instance, an airport in Michigan is called CackleberryAirport and an island in Canada is called CackleberryIsland.

I don’t know why.

The word was also used by a publisher of children’s books.

As for egg, I was told once that it was called an eye. Apparently, in southern England a long time ago they called an egg an eye.;








Those galligaskins W/E JUN 16




Rip Van Winkle wore galligaskins, even if they were his father’s hand-me-downs.

I know this because it’s in the book given to me when I was in class 3A at CardiffPublic School in 1949. The person who signed the book was a teacher, IM Jenkins.

I wonder what happened to IM Jenkins.

Anyway, the reason I am writing about galligaskins is that I recently came across a Galligaskins sandwich shop, one of many I have since discovered. I don’t know why the shop was called Galligaskins. It even admitted it had a funny name. But I remembered having read about Galligaskins somewhere.

Eventually I found it. On page 11 it said: “equipped in a pair of his father’s cast-off galligaskins”.

You don’t need to know the full story, but it was written by Washington Irving, who wrote for the Knickerbocker magazine and eventually was buried in Sleepy Hollow. It is all about a boy, of Dutch descent, who had too much to drink (he had an excuse) and went to sleep for about 20 years, missing all the fun of the American Revolution.

Galligaskins are loose trousers. My big dictionary says galligaskin “now chiefly in plural” is “a more or less ludicrous term for loose breeches in general”.

I don’t know why the dictionary had to say “ludicrous”. Actually, I probably do. I have seen many people wear breeches that should have gone to the scrapheap many years ago, and those people have looked a bit ludicrous.

The term seemed to have started as galligaskin breeches. The word started in the Greek language and then moved to English through the French via a word that seemed nothing like galligaskin. Actually, Michael Quinion found another word, venetians, that seemed to signify the same thing. These days we use the word venetians to describe blinds. Galligaskin breeches were popular, apparently, with sailors in the early days.

You don’t hear much about galligaskins these days, except in sandwich shops. A sandwich shop I found was proud that its friendly staff served fresh food -- “never frozen”.

Michael Quinion found the word galligaskins in a Sherlock Holmes story, but suggests that in this story it referred to dry skin used as rough leather overalls.

The word seems to have entered our language in 1577, when a gentleman was described as having worn galligaskins for three score years.

In 1859 the word was used to refer to leggings.

I read in Rip Van Winkle that the father was “an obedient henpecked husband”. The dog Wolf was also henpecked. Another word that you can use in describing your wife if you are game enough is “termagant”, used on page 14.

But I have learnt long ago that you don’t believe everything you read.


If you’re a basketball fan you will know all about knickerbockers, which were men’s, boys’ and women’s clothing from old New York, introduced by the Dutch, but I couldn’t find a mention of this word in Rip Van Winkle.

But I did find the name of Peter Stuyvesant.

Peter, also known as Petrus, was a very controversial person, again of Dutch heritage. He was a politician who became a major figure in the early history of what is now known as New York.

And you all thought he was a cigarette.;



At least his teeth were screwed in W/E JUN 3


I was sitting in the back of a meeting.

The chairman opened the meeting with an apology. He said he had just had his false teeth screwed in, because he kept losing the old ones.

Then he said his eyesight had improved.

Somebody at the back of the meeting said his eye tooth was now probably screwed in properly.

The meeting continued in that vein.

The chairman said the club had just returned from a trip to Sydney, where he had experienced a panoply of “star events”.

Panoply was not a word I heard every day, but I thought it had something to do with armour.

The word’s meaning has extended over the years.

In print, it goes back to at least 1576, from the Greek referring to “all” and “arms”.

In 1632 Ben Johnson referred to “a thin linen armour”.

In 1650 Samuel Clarke in The Marrow of Ecclesiastical Historie said “patience is the panoply or whole armour of the man of God”.

In 1838 Bishop Thirlwell wrote “their short spears and daggers were ill-fitted to make an impression on the Spartan panoply”.

The word extended in meaning to brightness and splendour and then took on the meaning of any kind of complete defence.

In modern times, as my big dictionary explains, say from the 18th century, it has also meant “something brilliant”.

I have to assume that the chairman had his false teeth screwed in and he had a good time in Sydney, with a panoply of star events to keep him occupied.

At the same meeting a man asked me what myall meant.

This man had just read my book Massacre at Myall Creek, the story of the killing of blacks on June 10, 1838.

He had heard of a few myalls but did not know what the term meant.

My copy of Morris’s Dictionary of Australian Words, dated 1896, said myall was a word with two “different” meanings (I don’t know what the word different adds to the sentence).

It went on to say it was not certain whether there was any connection between the two.

One definition was an acacia tree and the other was of wild natives, used especially in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, the local equivalent of the more common form murrai.

I don’t want to be accused of any form of racism here, but the Australian National Dictionary said myall meant “in Aboriginal use, a stranger, or one who was placed in an unfamiliar environment or one who was unaccustomed to white society”.

I also heard the description of wild cattle -- I can’t find it now-- but Rolf Boldrewood in his book Robbery Under Arms had a character talk about myall cattle. My copy of the book has Peter Finch and a very young David McCallum (the forensic bloke from NCIS) on the cover.

As late as 1964 HM Barker in Camels and Outback said: “I had a young black boy with me, Sambo, He was a real myall when I got him. Straight from the desert.”

I quoted that, but I think we as a society have moved on in recent years.

If you want a copy of Massacre at Myall Creek – the only occasion when white men were hanged for killing blacks – you can get a $20 copy from Sid Harta Publications of Melbourne or from bookshops.;


Bligh blamed others W/E MAY 30


Poor old William Bligh, that bloke who was in charge of the Bounty, must have had a hard life. He was always trying to defend himself, and he didn’t have a press office to help him.

On a cold and windy day recently I was reading Bligh’s account of the mutiny on the Bounty. My first thought was that in Bligh’s case we usually hear of the mutineers’ actions; rarely an account by the accused.

Here, in a 190-page book, are Bligh’s words, including some unusual styles: “It will very naturally be asked, what could be the reason for such a revolt? in answer to which I can only conjecture that the mutineers had flattered themselves with the hopes of a more happy life among the Otaheiteans, than they could possibly enjoy in England; and this, joined to some female connexions, most probably occasioned the whole transaction.”

My concern was with the “verb” conjecture. He didn’t use conject, a verb based on ideas thrown together or even guesswork.

Bligh “conjectured” that the mutineers wanted an easy life with the women. That seemed to have been their only complaint, according to Bligh.

He said he had the ship in perfect order and his door was always open. He added the women were handsome, mild and cheerful in their manners and conversation, just in case you wanted to know.

My understanding of the word conjecture was that it represented a conclusion based on an imaginary case, or an opinion based on insufficient proof.

Some of my friends will not hear any criticism of Bligh in the Bounty mutiny or the rebellion later in Sydney.

But I was looking for something that would justify Bligh’s conclusion that the reason for the Bounty mutiny was based on sex. I don’t disagree with him; I just wanted evidence to counter the negative press Bligh had had to suffer over the years.

My big dictionary says conjecture means an opinion based on insufficient evidence, or even “a contrivance for an evil purpose”, or simply a “suspicion”. It says the word comes from throwing ideas together, or an inference.

But then it quoted Sir Thomas Browne as saying “authentic conjecture”.

Shakespeare used the word several times, including “dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds”, but poor old Bligh didn’t get a mention in my dictionaries.

Bligh in his account of the mutiny asked Fletcher Christian why Christian was acting as he did, and the reply was “I am in hell”.

The word conjecture comes from the Latin conjectura, which broadly means facts or opinions thrown together to reach a conclusion.

Other dictionaries say the word represents an opinion or theory based on insufficient evidence, or even guesswork.

So those mutineers didn’t necessarily base their actions on their liking for the island women, but Bligh wasn’t really going to use his own behaviour as a reason for the mutiny, was he?

Anyway, a man who can steer a rowboat through about 6700kms of open sea can’t be all that bad.

And it’s not his fault that the slaves didn’t like the breadfruit.;