Is Aunt Sally respectable




Years ago I had an argument with a teacher at Quirindi High School about some aspect of the English language.

We settled it through a column called Aunt Sally in a Sydney newspaper.

I have forgotten what the argument was about (another argument was on another teacher’s habit of talking about round circles) but I do remember thinking about Aunt Sally. I wondered why a metropolitan newspaper would call a column Aunt Sally. Sally was a perfectly respectable name and I knew several people called Sally, not all respectable.

I think the teacher was being polite. He was wondering how far I would go to get an answer.

A few hundred years ago William Shakespeare came up with his definition of an aunt, and I don’t think he was trying to be complimentary. Shakespeare defined an aunt as “an old woman, a gossip”.

Other authors went one better, describing an aunt, in the words of my 20-volume Oxford dictionary, as “a prostitute”.

Webster’s Dictionary has four definitions of an aunt, the third being “an old woman and a gossip” and the fourth being “a prostitute”.

And I had such a high opinion of aunts.

Those of my generation would regard an aunt as the sister of our father or mother, or the wife of our uncle. But it wasn’t always so.

The earliest use of aunt that I could find came in 1297, when the word was spelt aunte. It also was spelt for a while as naunt, from the expression “my naunt”.

Many words of that era lost their “n” over the years.

Captain Grose in his irreverent Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, described an aunt as “mine aunt, a bawd or procuress, a title of eminence for the senior dells”.

Okay, so your next question is “what is a dell?” A dell, according to the same 1811 dictionary, is “a young buxom wench, ripe and prone to venery, etc”. The word etc is my own, because this is a clean family newspaper and I’m in deep enough already.

I wonder if the gossipy and bawdy aunt of years past gave rise to the popular Aunt Sally, a fairground favourite who can still be found in some carnivals.

Aunt Sally became the target for those among us who wanted to throw things. By extension, she became the target for criticism.

I assume the newspaper’s column was for people to throw in criticism and then to get replies.

In recent years we had other expressions containing the word aunt, from trademarks dating back to the 19th century to characters in the world of literature. Who can forget the British farce Charley’s Aunt?

The BBC and the ABC were at times called Auntie. Those old enough might remember the drawing of an aunt at the top of Column 8 in the Sydney Morning Herald.

A comment about the BBC at the time when commercial television started was that the BBC was called auntie because it was “just like one of the family”.

Some hospitals have adopted the term auntie to refer to women, substitute mother figures, to help treat autistic patients.

I admit I don’t know why the newspaper had a column called Aunt Sally.

But if you are reading this, and you happen to be an aunt, you might like another dictionary definition that says it is a term of respect.

So if you don’t tell anyone anything differently, I won’t either.;


Don't bet on a dead ringer




Once upon a time a horse ran in a race he was not supposed to run in.

I am told there are plenty of other races where the runners should have been enjoying pastures out in the paddock instead of keeping punters entertained. That’s what I have been told, not that I believe everything I am told.

This horse looked the same as another horse, one that should have been well back in the field, but, surprise, surprise, it won.

This horse was a ring-in. He was not only similar to another horse he replaced in the hope that nobody would notice, but he was a dead ringer.

On the very few occasions I bet on races, I lost. But I can remember one occasion where I bet on the jockey. If my memory serves me correctly, Leon Fox at Inverell won nine races straight and I bet on him.

Okay, so you want to know what a dead ringer is.

Here is an expression that is supposedly Australian, but its origins are in the USA.

My big dictionary says ringer refers to many things, in fact the word covers several pages and when it comes to “an expert” it says “Australian slang”.

Under “ringer” it says US slang. The big dictionary says under ringer “a horse or other competitor substituted for another in a race or other supporting activity”.

But under “dead ringer” it gives the USA the title for coming up with the expression in the first place.

It gives some examples. The USA examples go back to 1891, but in a 1973 comment it says Hell has been described as “a dead ringer for the surface of Venus”. Of course, it quotes someone else.

My big dictionary says: “To be a dead ringer is to resemble closely or to be an exact counterpart of”.

John O’Grady listed many variations of dead, such as dead on his feet and dead marine. He said dead ringer was the same as “resemble”. Bill Hornadge came  up with some racing terms, such as “he was so slow his jockey needed a hurricane lamp” and “he couldn’t win if he started the night before” , but I couldn’t find dead ringer in my book, called The Australian Slanguage. He might have mentioned it in another book. GA Wilkes didn’t seem to mention it in the Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms.

American Christi Smith in a book I bought in Florida said dead ringer refers to an excellent imitation of something. She said “dead” meant completely on target and dead ringer was an absolutely convincing counterfeit.

The Geelong Grammar School Quarterly in 1894 used the expression “regular ringer”, but the meaning was the same.

My big dictionary has many descriptions of ringer, such as in the game of quoits, an expert, one who rings birds, a stockman, a shearer, an officer in the air force, a bell ringer,  a false registration on a number plate, a thief, a person making a telephone call and the name of an English physician. The list goes on.

A dead ringer is also described as a person who attaches himself to a political party to which he doesn’t belong – and then votes. That seems to be a United States phenomenon and I hadn’t heard of it before. It was described as a “gate crasher”. Maybe they use the term “branch stacking” in this country.;

What's your sauce



I was watching television the other night when a contestant was given four versions of Worcestershire and had to pick the one with the correct spelling.

I think the word the contestant picked was wrong.

I remembered the episode because we had a lot of people at our house and I think our supply of Worcestershire sauce dropped to alarming proportions. I can remember somebody saying “do we have any Worcestershire sauce?”

A few days later my wife and I went into a grocery store and I chose a brand we hadn’t had before.

Worcestershire sauce is different from your run-of-the-mill tomato sauce or other type of sauce.

The sauce takes its name from Worcester, the “capital” of Worcestershire.

Worcestershire is a county on the west midlands of England, roughly slightly west of a line between London and Liverpool.

The main ingredients of the sauce in the early stages, at least, have been barley malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions and garlic. Sometimes other bits have been added.

I don’t know who put all those bits together for consumption, but I consider he was a brave man when he, whoever he was, took his first gulp.

Some people say rotten fish has been involved but I would like to think that goes back to the early days. These days more hygienic methods are used.

The history of a similar sauce goes way back to the Roman empire.

A brand was commercialised in 1837 and the original label said the sauce came from “the recipe of a nobleman in the county”.

Was that an attempt to boost sales? Various interpretations have been put on that.

The company said this particular sauce came from India, but some attempts to check the facts produced many doubts.

How it came to England has produced many theories.

The label on a 1900 bottle said: “All dishes such as soups, fish, meat, gravy, game, salads etc are doubly appetizing and digestible when flavoured with…”

Even sandwiches and alcoholic drinks have been involved.

The sauce is said to come from a curry powder in a desk belonging to Mrs Grey, author of The Gambler’s Wife.

John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins tried to make the curry into a sauce, but they considered the finished produce was far too strong for human consumption. They put it aside and a few years later discovered the sauce had fermented and was now palatable, so they released the sauce to the public in 1838. Their company was later sold, and many companies now produce Worcestershire sauce

Lea and Perrins made their fortune and no longer have the sole rights to the sauce.

Several companies make the sauce in Australia.

The sauce is also made in many countries.

Henry Fielding, writing Tom Jones, said in 1749: “They found no fault with my Worcestershire Perry, which I sold them for champagne.” Maybe he received champagne in return for some bottles of sauce. Worcestershire sauce tastes nothing like champagne.

In the USA the recipe is different and I am told the bottles are wrapped in paper, but the producer claims the sauce is the oldest commercially bottled condiment in the US.

Worcestershire sauce is similar to an early Roman sauce known as garum. Various other varieties are produced in other countries.

But I would still like to know the name of the person who tried it first. He must have had a really bad hangover.;




Is sledging Australian?


Journalist Frank Devine says the toughest thing he ever said on the cricket field to an opponent was “mate, I think your arse is on fire”. But Devine denied that his comment, directed at a batsman, was sledging, seeing that his opponent’s rear end really was on fire after a fast ball had ignited a box of matches in the player’s pocket.

Australians are recognised worldwide as leaders in many sports and similar endeavours. They are also regarded as the world’s leading sledgers. unfairly, some would say.

The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary says of sledging “Australian cricket slang”.

Sledging could be regarded as similar to gamesmanship.

Over the years players from all over have engaged in what has generally been good-natured banter, but sometimes in the heat of the moment that good nature has been found wanting. The Australian cricket team after the controversial 1973-74 tour of New Zealand gained the title of the “Ugly Australians” because of various clashes, reported prominently in the press.

The Australian National Dictionary says sledging is an attempt by a fielder to break the concentration of a person batting by needling, or abuse.

Ian Chappell said the term sledging came into use around 1963-64. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on November 4, 1982, he said a cricketer who swore in the presence of a female was said to have been “as subtle as a sledgehammer”. At the time, a song in the top of the hit parades was a Percy Sledge number When a Man Loves a Woman. The use of the name Sledge made its way onto the cricket field, where it stayed.

The Sun-Herald in 1975 editorialised “sledging, or the gentle art of talking a player out, has no place in women’s cricket”.

My big dictionary says the term “comes from subtle as a sledgehammer”.

It goes on to quote the Age in 1979 as saying “a year or so earlier the Australian team coined sledging for needling or gamesmanship”.

John Ayto says “unsettling a batsman with taunts” and goes on to say “may have been derived from sledgehammer”.

Rudolph Brasch says the term represented knocking down all opposition.
Sledging seems to have moved on from cricket. When Paul Keating called John Howard “his oiliness” in 1975, Wilson Tuckey took the opportunity to respond in what the Sun-Herald of December 21 called “sledging”.

Footballers, golfers and tennis players, and apparently women’s netballers, have also been accused in recent years of having sledged.

In refereeing basketball at the national level I did not come across much sledging, simply because the rules provide that a technical foul can be called against a player who disrespectfully communicates with an opponent or uses language likely to offend the spectators. Under the “five fouls and you’re out” regime, this tends to ensure players think twice before they say too much.

One famous cricket comment, allegedly made by Dr WG Grace when he replaced the bails after having been bowled, was “these people haven’t come to watch you bowl; they came to watch me bat”.

As for Ian Chappell’s thoughts on the origin of the word, Frank Devine quoted Ian Lawry as responding “it’s too deep for me”.;








Difference between plebiscite and referendum



A long time ago I was asked the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum, but I declined to put my answer in print, firstly because it was too hard to answer in a way that people, including myself, would understand, and secondly because it was a dry subject.

The question has again been put to me. I will try to answer it this time, because it seems to have been upgraded to important in some people’s eyes.

In brief, the way I understand it, a plebiscite is a question to gauge the will of the people, but a referendum asks the people to vote on a piece of legislation that has been brought forward for the constitution.

Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary of 1881 said a plebiscite was a popular vote to ascertain the will of the sovereign.

This word, in print, goes back to 1553.
In 1658 it was said to represent law made by the common people.

Much later, a pleb came to represent one of the common people.

The plebe was adopted by the United States was a member of the lower class at a military or naval academy.

I couldn’t find any place where Shakespeare used it.

But in 1884 Herbert Spencer in Man Versus State asked: “If people by a plebiscite elect a man despot over them, do they remain free because the despotism was of their own making?”

Don’t expect me to answer. I’m just quoting someone else.

As for referendum, this goes back only to the 19th century. But the meaning is the voters receive a question and they are expected to vote on whether they want this question enacted in law.

The plural used to be referenda, but most books now accept referendums.

The explanation on this word and associated words goes on in my big dictionary for several pages.

In 1895 in England they had a referendum on the practice of referee baiting.

Plenty of examples exist where a parliament, or even a jury, can’t make up its mind.

Linguistically, the phrase seems to derive from the sense of “hung” to mean caught, suspended or delayed (“I got hung up at the office”).

That’s a good phrase that covers all eventualities when you were where you shouldn’t have been.

A hung parliament is one in which no political party has an absolute majority of seats. This term was first used in Britain in 1974, but hang or hung has been used to indicate a situation that’s indecisive since at least the 14th century, when it was became linked to the idea of suspense. The phrase hung jury -- one that cannot agree -- has been used in the USA at least since late in the 19th century.

A hung parliament results in a lot of horse trading before anything passes.

But we can all hope the Australian parliament, at least, can decide on legislation. Otherwise, we may all have to go to another election.

As for hung jury, I suppose it’s a bit better than some decisions that were reached in days of old, such as “if she floats, she’s a witch” or a defendant walking nine paces with a red-hot iron in both hands.;


Was Halloween American?


I heard a lot of criticism of Halloween, mainly along the lines of “we don’t want these American ideas pushed down our throats”.

The big question surrounded the expression ”these American ideas”.

Was Halloween American?

Hallow derives from the old English halig, which as an adjective developed into modern English holy,

My big dictionary dates hallow from the year 885 and says it referred to a saint.

Halloween referred to the evening of hallow, “shortened from the all-hallow-even”.

It apparently had little to do with America, or the United States of America.

Halloween referred to the evening before All Saints Day.

It is the name given to October 31, the day before All Saints Day. Halloween is its eve.

Its origin goes back to pre-Christian days and earlier meanings. In the old Celtic calendar the year began on November 1, so the last evening of October was all saints night, I suppose the night when they thought about the saints they had overlooked during the year.

Dr Rudolph Brasch in the Book of the Year, a book I gave my wife for Christmas in 1996 but to which I refer more than my wife does, says All Hallows Day commemorates in England all the saints known and unknown. It was specially instituted to honour saints who had died without their sanctity being recognised. I was particularly interested in the expression “in England”.

Brasch says the expression goes back to the seventh century.

My big dictionary says that in 1556 an explanation was given that the night was Halloween and the next day was Hallowday.

Dr Brasch explains that as the power of the sun waned with the onset of winter (remember this was in the northern hemisphere) people were afraid that life – not just the year -- was coming to an end. They imagined that life was haunted by ghosts and witches and more particularly by the dead. So they offered sacrifices to pacify the evil spirits. This was a long time ago.

Then along came Christianity, which partly succeeded paganism.

Christianity succeeded in making this night of dread a night of jollification, particularly for the young.

So, in modern times we see horded of youngsters dressed up in unusual gear knocking on doors  demanding a treat, usually in the form of sweets.

Dr Brasch comments that “they are usually divorced from the macabre roots of the festival”.

In 1808 J Jamieson writing in To Haud Halloween commented ”to observe the childish or superstitious rites appropriate to this evening”.

My big dictionary comments on other words, such as hallower, a sanctifier or consecrator, hallowing, the sanctification, Hallow Tide, the first week of November, Hallow Day, hallowed, blessed, and the list goes on.

Even Shakespeare had a go at it, or a word like it. In Richard 11 he says “she came adorned hither like sweet May; sent back like Hallowmas, or short’st of day”

He might have said more, but I couldn’t find it.

But of all the comments, I could find little American to criticise, unless the Americans  had little to do and thought promoting Halloween would be a good idea. I admit the Americans seemed to be keeping Halloween alive.

Incidentally, hallow means a saint, but is little used after 1500. I found its first use was 885.

The trend for “trick or treat” has extended to Australia. You can decide whether it’s good or bad.;




A lexicographer gets all sorts of mail



I read somewhere once that a small fortune teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large.

I also read that Santa’s helpers were subordinate clauses.

These were sent to me by a person you wouldn’t want to know. I get all sorts of mail like this from people who think I would be interested in such things.

I decided that if I wrote a column about such people, the emails would stop. I could then say “I’ve covered that subject”.

A word for people who receive such mail is lexiphile. I’m not sure if I qualify, but a lexiphile is supposed to be a lover of words.

I have seen this word spelt as lexophile, but I’m not sure if that’s a hater of words or if the sender simply couldn’t spell.

A lexicographer is the writer or compiler of a dictionary. You would think that once the dictionary has been written, there wouldn’t have any need to compile another one. What would you put in it? And what a dreary job it would be to write a dictionary. The plot would be a bit thin, for a start.

So far as I can tell, the earliest use of the word lexicon in print was in1603. Until about that time the words in a dictionary were printed in Latin or some other language that you and I wouldn’t understand.

The word comes from Greek and the word lexicon once related to a Greek dictionary for words.

Gradually, English adopted other words or made up other words and English dictionaries came to the fore.

Lexical related to the words or vocabulary of a language, a lexicographer related to the writer of a dictionary, lexicography was the writing of a dictionary and lexicographic related to lexicographical writing obviously.

There are a lot of other words, but you and I don’t need to know what they mean. They all seem to stem from the word lexicon.

I have several books by or relating to Samuel Johnson, who compiled the world’s first real dictionary -- well, in my opinion anyway.

James Boswell, who compiled a magnificent biography of Johnson, said: “He thought it right in a lexicon of our language to collect many words which had fallen into disuse.”

Johnson in his dictionary said a lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge”. Drudge generally refers to a person who has a boring job.

Ambrose Bierce, who wrote The Devil’s Dictionary in 1911, didn’t seem to have much time for lexicographers. In a very long entry he said a lexicographer was doing what he could to the language “to arrest its growth”. He wondered what the first users of the language did, before the time of dictionaries.

I tried to find something by Shakespeare, but perhaps it was before his time – or he couldn’t speak Greek.

Some of the sayings that were sent to me by many people in the expectation that I would be interested were:

. When she saw her first strands of grey hair she thought she’d dye;

. Those who get too big for their pants will be exposed in the end;

. A will is a dead giveaway;

. A thief who stole a calendar got twelve months;

. A dentist and a manicurist who married fought tooth and nail.

And those comments or something similar went on and on and on.;



Kids' ransom note




The ransom note specified where the money had to be sent, but instead of getting money the “kidnappers” found a note that said “keep him”.

So they tried again, but the next reply said “keep him at least two days more because I won't have time to fix tea tonight or tomorrow”.

Fortunately, little came from this kidnapping apart from a valuable lesson in the use of the English language.

This was an exercise conducted by a teacher at St AlbansPrimary School in Victoria. I won’t mention any of the teachers’ names because the exercise was many years ago and the chief teacher is probably a grandmother by now.

I can’t find the book either. I think I lent it to someone and it was never returned.

But the book showed some ingenuity by the teachers involved who found some other way of encouraging children to learn not only English but maths also and a whole host of other subjects, such as geography.

The children in one class, after discussing a political hostage drama overseas,

constructed their own ransom notes listing demands, conditions and meeting places. They then passed their list of demands to other teachers at the school, who entered the

spirit of the occasion with their own original replies.

The student “kidnappers” had to use complete sentences, subjects and verbs. Spelling had to be correct, as did all punctuation used.

The details of the exercise were listed in a booklet entitled The Newspaper in Your Classroom, prepared by the teachers of Victoria.

The booklet described various ideas implemented to encourage young people to take a greater interest in reading -- in this case reading newspapers. The ransom notes at St

Albans were cut out of headings in a newspaper.

Okay, I know some people will frown on an exercise encouraging children to write ransom notes, in case it encourages them to go out and repeat the exercise in a real-life environment.

I’m just reporting what happened.

I remember that the book had many other examples of how to encourage young students to take a greater interest in a range of assignments.

The teachers who wrote the book produced many ideas about a range of subjects.

Some slow readers showed a dramatic improvement when assigned to read the sports pages of the local newspaper each day. Not only did their reading improve, but so did their mathematics as they checked the football and cricket scores. Some of the teams came from other countries and this exercise encouraged young students to learn about the other countries.

Another teacher encouraged her students to write headlines, to emphasise the difficulty newspaper people have daily in contracting statements without losing the meaning.

The exercise produced a range of headlines from Australian and overseas newspapers.

Possibly one mentioned the commander who vowed to return: “MacArthur

flies back to front”.


Open Road apologised for publishing a photograph of a motor cycle travelling on the wrong side of the road.

Have you noticed that many TV advertisements have the cars travelling on the wrong side of the road and some of the speakers tend to have funny accents? These advertisements couldn’t be from the USA, could they?;                                                                                                                                                                               


Do you have a screw loose

I heard a song the other day on my computer and I just played it over and over again.

The song was called Screw Loose.

It was a feature song in the musical Cry Baby.

It reminded me of a few people I have met over the years. I can’t name them, because some are still my friends, or at least acquaintances.

As early as 1834 the expression loose screw was used to illustrate a flaw in state affairs. In Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens wrote “I see well enough there’s a screw loose in your affairs”.

But the word was used well before that.

For instance, in 1810 Sporting Magazine said “the others had got a screw loose”. I don’t know what the magazine meant by that.

But the same magazine in 1822 said “a screw, it seems, has been loose between Neat and the champions of England”. I don’t know what that meant either and I suspect the writer wasn’t too sure either, but the writer was suggesting something was wrong.

But I think the early meaning was implying something was wrong.

My opinion is that as the years progressed the meaning of “something wrong” gave way gradually to something wrong in a person’s head, without being too critical.

Now, whenever we say Bill has a screw loose we mean we don’t agree with his line of thinking. Of course, Bill might be correct and maybe we should take a close look at ourselves. We might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, as a local hardware store keeps telling us.

The expression isn’t meant to be too condemning. It says about the person it is aimed at that he or she is eccentric or a bit neurotic, without going too far.

There are many expressions that include screw. My big dictionary in eight pages says of screw: “The general name for that kind of mechanical appliance in which the operative portion is a helical groove or ridge (or two or more parallel helical grooves or ridges) cut either on the exterior surface of a cylinder (male screw) or on the interior surface of a cylindrical cavity (female screw), hence applied to various other contrivances resembling this”.

Phew. I’m glad I didn’t become a builder.

In the very early days screw came from the Latin to mean a female pig, possibly because of the corkscrew tail, and has had a few meanings since then, some unsavoury

The word screw has many meanings, applied to billiards, cricket and rowing and a few slang words in Australia. This country only seems to have the slang words.

But back to Cry Baby.

Ali Mauzey, the singer, said “I love that song” and I can understand why.

Cry Baby had only a short run. I didn’t see it, but I wish I had. The stage show was based on a film of the same name and received mixed reviews, with some reviewers saying the stage show lacked identity.

If you want some other words to explain your friends, you could try a sandwich short of a picnic, bats in the belfry, cockeyed, crackpot, out in the sun too long, round the bend and a few other words I could list but decline to do so in case they get me into trouble.

But be careful how you use them. Remember that some people don’t have a sense of humour and might just think you mean everything you say.

Then again, you might.;




I did smile at her once


A woman sat next to me at a public meeting and thrust a piece of paper into my hand. On it was written curmudgeon.

Now I don’t know whether she wanted the word explained to her or if she was suggesting I was a curmudgeon. Maybe she wanted both, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Then she stood up and left.

I put the piece of paper on my desk and forgot about it, but I moved something the other day and there was that piece of paper. It had probably been there for years, but I realised I would have to face up to it eventually.

In short, a curmudgeon is a person who is ill-tempered and is usually a grumpy old man. I remember I did smile at this woman once.

My wife was no help. She hesitated a bit too long before she gave me an answer.

Nevertheless, my curiosity got the better of me. I looked up curmudgeon and I found a site that said “how to become a curmudgeon”.

Definitions included be an independent thinker and go against the grain, don’t be a follower, focus on the greater good, develop a sense of humour (how can I be grumpy and laugh at the same time), stay traditional when society changes around you, avoid being part of the group, don’t assume authority is always right, pick your battles and show you have standards.

The site also said dress for comfort and take a bath regularly and, if I smoke, make it a cigar or pipe.

The site mentioned Walter Matthau, one of my favourite actors.

Now I am more confused than ever.

Another site said curmudgeon was stubborn and could describe the crusty grey-haired neighbour who refused to hand out lollies at Halloween. That opens up an entirely new subject.

The word curmudgeon goes back in print to at least 1577.

The word could have its origins in Holland, describing the “concealer or hoarder of corn”. But my big dictionary admits it does not know.

Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary described curmudgeon as “an avaritious churlish fellow”.

Author Craig Carver suggests curmudgeon these days suggests a “blunt but honest person, usually an older man”.

I don’t know why young people cannot be curmudgeons.

In 1604 Thomas Wright, writing in The Passions of the Minde, asked why “covetous cormodgeons” distilled the best substance of their brains to get rich. In 1656 Earl Henry Monmouth criticised “certain greedy curmuggions who value not the leaving of a good name behind them for posterity”.

I have the impression that the word was used as a criticism of rich people – “I had a rich uncle, a penurious accumulating curmudgeon”.

The word is little used these days. Maybe we’re all poor.

But a similar word is used even less than curmodgeon .

That is smellfungus. I have never heard it used.

Smellfungus made its debut in 1788. It was a name given by Laurence Sterne to Tobias Smollett on his travels through France and Italy in 1766 and was used to describe a grumbler, or a faultfinder.

Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary described “smellfeast” as one who haunts upon good tables and he mentioned the fly. He did not include the ant, which in his eyes was better behaved. He did not mention smellfungus.

But when I am a few years older I might come back to curmudgeon.;










Writing on walls W/E OCT 1

I saw some words scribbled on the side of a building once. The words said “no graffiti here please”.

The wording was very polite, but it was nevertheless graffiti, urging others not to follow the example that had just been set.

The word graffiti means something like scribbling, or scratching, usually or always anonymous.

Some parts of Australia have what is called graffiti days, special days where people try to paint over graffiti in an attempt to eradicate the defacing of walls, toilets and other places. Some people have put up special areas designed to provide a location for graffitists to exercise their art.

A word often associated with graffiti has been illicit. In other words, people have written on walls in the dead of the night where others could not see them do so. Stores have put spray cans behind bars, in the hope of deterring graffitists.

What is one piece of scribble on the side of a wall, or anywhere else for that matter?

It is graffito, a word we almost never hear in our part of the world.

Although scribbling on the side of walls, or on other unsuitable places, has been around for a long time, the modern word for it is reasonably new.

I have to admit that in my home town hundreds of big rocks have been the target of graffitists and in almost every case the graffiti has been something families have come to look at. The writing has been about reunions, or deaths in the family, or praise of the locality. Occasionally suggestions have been made that such graffiti be banned, but these suggestions have usually been received with deaf ears. Banning such graffiti on rocks would be an almost-impossible task.

My big dictionary gives a definition of graffito and then says the plural is graffiti, although in my opinion graffiti is coming around to mean the singular as well as the plural. How many times have you heard of graffito?

The word comes to us through Italian, meaning a scratch. My big dictionary gives as a definition “a scribbling on an ancient wall, such as those at Pompeii and Rome”. I can’t remember seeing any graffiti in Rome when I went there. Maybe I wasn’t looking for graffiti.

The dictionary also says graffiti is “a means of decoration”. It even gives examples such as “graffito decoration, -pottery and -ware”.

The first use of graffito I could find came in 1851 when Sir Daniel Wilson writing in the Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland said the slight scratching in ruins was “mere graffiti”. He didn’t say what he expected -- the Mona Lisa, perhaps.

In 1886 a comment was made about graffiti “as may be found in schoolgirls’ copy books”. I have to say that, in my opinion, school boys are more adept at graffiti than school girls, but I might be wrong.

Girls wouldn’t so such a thing, would they?

Some graffiti might be attractive, but people don’t like seeing scribble on their walls, no matter how attractive it might be.

I once saw a notice that said Bill Posters will be Prosecuted, and below it was a bit of graffiti that said “Bill Posters is Innocent”.;




What to call a woman W/E SEPT 24

I had always thought Mr was a good honorific for men and Mrs for women, whether married or not, but other people disagreed, even though Mrs was once used for all women.

In recent years a concerted campaign has been underway to use Ms for women, regardless of their marital status.

The word Mrs can be traced to 1612 and it referred to mistress.

But then the word had a gradual change and mistress developed connotations that some women disliked.

My big dictionary says that in the 17th century the form Mrs for mistress fell into disuse.

In 1632 Ben Jonson wrote that a person wanted to marry an emperor’s daughter “for his Mrs”.

Conditions were not as they are in the western world today and women did not have the status they now occupy.

The big dictionary goes on to say “originally distinctive of gentlewoman, the use of the prefix has gradually extended downwards”.  I think it means that anybody, no matter how humble, can have a Mrs these days.

Some feminists, trying to find a word that defined women regardless of their marital status, sought a compromise between Mrs and Miss.

They came up with the word Ms.

In 1952 the National Office of Management Associations, based in Philadelphia, decided to use Ms for all woman as a means of solving the problem of deciding who was married and who was not. “This modern style solves the age-old problem”, it said.

The word took off and various businesses stated in circulars that women employees could use Ms instead of Mrs or Miss. A few people objected.

Opinions differ on who came up with the word, or if anybody can really take the credit, or blame, depending on your point of view.

In the early days of the word a fair amount of criticism prevailed, with people reluctant to use the word and critical of anybody who used it.

American author Chrysti M Smith on a book called Herbivore’s Feast says the proposal first came from a man, Roy F Baily, of Norton, Kansas. Baily said the word overcame guessing whether a woman was married or not. Smith said the word was employed for the next two decades before the feminism movement picked it up.

Other sites suggest the term was first used in The Republican, of Springfield, Massachusetts on November 10, 1901. “To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss”, The Republican said.

Various others were known to have used the word.

English author John Ayto concedes that the word is “originally US” but says the word can be confused with manuscript. I can’t imagine a man saying “I will be married next Saturday to a manuscript”.

Stephen Murray-Smith, who died several years ago, said in his book Right Words that a sensible answer would be to ignore all honorifics. “This sensible practice is increasingly being adopted in the United States and seems worthy of emulation,” he said.

Some newspaper style guides say Ms should be used only if the woman requests it.

Many men I know have become accustomed to answering to “hey you”.;


Banned by the Mirror W/E SEPT 17

How many words can you think of that have been banned by a newspaper?

How about joyride?

In 1993 London’s Daily Mirror announced that it had banned joyride from its columns.

Okay, I know that a newspaper such as the Daily Mirror banning such a word is a bit hard to understand. It’s a bit like the old Truth banning the word divorce.

If you’re too young to remember Truth, my memory tells me, made its living from news of divorces and horse races, as well as anything sensational, but then some people might dispute that.

“Snedden died on the job” was one of its headings. If you don’t know what that meant, don’t ask me.

Truth eventually died a lonely death and I can still hear the cheering.

But back to joyride.

The word joyride, according to most dictionaries, describes a ride taken in a car. But the word these days represents a ride taken illegally.

In other words, while you were at home reading the paper, somebody was taking your car for a ride without your knowledge.

In 1993 the Daily Mirror had had enough.

It announced: “This is the last time the word joyride will appear in the Daily Mirror”.

I don’t know if succeeding journalists at the Daily Mirror have had a change of heart. They might have deliberately forgotten about the ban, because I could imagine the word was a key element in the Mirror’s coverage.

The word now means almost the exact opposite to the original meaning.

Originally the meaning was simply a pleasant ride in a motor car, or even an aeroplane.

Very soon, however, it developed connotations of not having the approval of the vehicle’s owner.

In 1908 the diary of WS Blunt said joyriders were London folk concerned with nothing but their own pleasure.

Then a few years later London City Council passed a law that prevented city officers from taking joyrides. I don’t know what that meant, either.

In 1910 the National Police Gazette said there was not much fun in taking a joyride in a taxi. That should not be taken as a reflection on local taxi drivers, but the word represented taking a risk or doing something that was frowned upon.

In 1973 the Scottish Sunday Express said a man who drove two cars for a joyride -- I presume one at a time – was fined 75 pounds.

The word quickly spread to Australia, but retained its meaning of taking a ride without the owner’s permission.

Obviously, it comes from the word joy.

This word has a much longer history. The first use, in writing, that I could find came in 1225 meaning gladness or delight or, in the words of my big dictionary, bliss.

My big dictionary says joy can also be used as a term of endearment for a sweetheart.

Shakespeare found a use for the word. But then if he couldn’t find a word to convey what he wanted to say, he simply made it up.

The dictionary says a joyflight is an aerial joyride.

So, don’t start thinking wild thoughts when you see that Jumbo parked at the airport. That’s not for you, even if the big dictionary says a meaning of joy is “to enjoy oneself”.

Other words you could throw into the conversation now and then include joyance (delight), joyancy (joyanceness), joyant (joyanceness again) and a lot of other words including the unusually spelt joyfnes (youth).

I think joyfnes sounds about right.;

An unfortunate ending W/E SEP 10

A few days ago I heard the words “He’s got the whole world in his hands” and it brought back memories.

Let me take you back a few, no, many years.

In the early days of the Rotary youth exchange program Inverell, in northern NSW, hosted a teenager, who proved to be one of the most popular exchange students the town had hosted. Most Inverell people would not remember her now, but she was the type of person anybody would love to have in their home.

On her departure she was given a reception in the town hall and then she revealed she would love to be known as a singer.
She sang “he’s got the whole world in his hands” to rapturous applause.

One of the words in that song was world.

Here is a word that goes back to at least 832.

World originally meant “age of man”.

My big dictionary says it started out as meaning human existence, or the life of man.

Then in the year 1000 it meant something like bring into this world, or even move into a better world.

Then it moved into various stages, including the state of human affairs or a period of human history, or even eternity.

It also referred to the whole human race.

But in 888 it also referred to the earth or a region of it, even the universe or a part of it.

It seemed to be the word to cover all eventualities.

These days most people when they use world seem to refer to the earth --”everywhere the world over; when all the world is still”.

Another site said London was the fairest city in the whole world. I’m just saying what the book said, so don’t blame me.

In Charles Dickens’ Bleak House he said “the whole world is before you”.

Shakespeare had several goes at it, In Love’s Labour Lost he referred to a world of torments.

That reminds me – in an election many years ago a man called Love represented the Labor Party. They lost and my headline said something like “Love’s Labor Lost”. He wouldn’t talk to me for weeks.

But he got over it.

The Macquarie’s first definition says world means “the earth or globe” as well as other meanings; Collins says world means “the planet that we live in” as well as other meanings; and Webster says “age of man”  as well as other meanings.

But back to the whole world in his hands.

This song was first recorded in the paperbound hymnal Spirituals Old and New in 1927.

It quickly became popular and was published in many other sites. It was a gospel song and many leading singers have included it in their repertoire.

It even became a football song – “we’ve got the whole world in our hands”.

The exchange girl returned to the USA to a big reception.

Everybody was happy to have her back among them.

I don’t know whether she sang at her welcome home party. But I know it was a great welcome home event and the reception was covered in The Inverell Times.

It was many years ago and I forget the details.

She probably revealed then that she wanted to be a singer.

A few days later she was in a road accident and she was killed.;

Don't call them drongo unless you know them W/E SEP 3


Drongo was a starter in the Melbourne Cup back in the 1920s.

Drongo, fancied at the time, finished back in the field. (In response to many questions, Archer won the race in its first two years – 1861 and 1862.)

Drongo had 37 attempts and didn’t win a race.

He had five second placings and seven thirds, but was always back in the field.

The owner, Dorothy Wood, couldn’t let Drongo go and neither could the press and public.

He was a popular horse.

The word quickly developed a meaning of a champion that never was.

But the term drongo, with a lower case D, developed as a hapless soul who couldn’t do anything right.

But Drongo was not really hopeless. He was only entered in city races and raced against the best of his era. But soon punters claimed a mug was a drongo.

The Australian Dictionary of Insults and Vulgarities says drongo means a stupid person or an idiot. ”To be a dill is unavoidable, to be a drongo is inexcusable,” the book said.

They even made a book called Drongo, The Immortal Loser, by Bruce Walkley. The front cover says “the horse whose name became part of Australia’s language”.

I like a comment made in1944 that refers to “even the tribes of Drongos, Dopes and Dills”.

My big dictionary firstly says it was the name of a bird but then said the version we are interested in was Australian slang.

We aren’t interested in the bird, only in the version that says a drongo is a foolish person or anybody slow-witted or clumsy.

I can think of many people who fit that description, and I’m sure you can too. But don’t call them a drongo to their face, unless you know them really well; maybe not even then.

Drongo often came very close to winning major races, coming second in a VRC Derby and St Leger, third in the AJC St Leger, and fifth in the Sydney Cup, but in 37 starts he never won a race. Soon after Drongo’s retirement, racegoers began applying his name to other unlucky horses, and then by extension to humans who were slow, clumsy or hopeless cases.

 The horse wasn’t unusually hopeless. Many horses never win a race. There was a 15-year gap between the end of Drongo’s racing career and the first proven use of drongo in the transferred pejorative sense. This was in the early 1940s when RAAF personnel began applying the term to slow-learning World War 2 recruits.

The book To Coin a Phrase says that in his own way Drongo made his name not only in the racing world but now far beyond it.

The Dinkum Aussie Dictionary says a drongo is a stupid person or an idiot.

The Dinkum Dictionary, a different book, says Drongo was unlucky rather than a complete no-hoper. “However, the Australian English has gained another localism for a complete idiot.”

The book What’s Their Storey said Drongo was not an absolute no-hoper and the Melbourne Argus once said Drongo was improving with every run.

Bill Hornage’s The Australian Slanguage says that on February 15, 1977, a Drongo Handicap was included in the Epson program at Flemington, for apprentice jockeys and horses who didn’t have a win to their name in the previous 12 months.

Obviously, the winner was no longer a drongo.;







Sex is sex, not gender W/E AUG 27



Gender refers to language and sex to people.

“This word is only used in grammar and not otherwise as a synonym for sex,” said the Collins book titled English Usage.

It was referring to the word gender, which it said should be used only for grammar – not for distinguishing men and women.

English is a living language and as you read this many words are undergoing a subtle change in meaning.

A word that has almost completed the change is gender.

I was in the audience recently when a young woman talked about the dominance of males over females. It was an excellent speech, but she chose to give it a title that included the word gender.

I can imagine somebody whispering to her in a horrified tone: “You can’t say sex.”

The word came to my attention, again, following the Melbourne Cup, when gender was thrown around like confetti at a wedding.

In brief: There are two sexes – male and female – and three genders in language -- male, female and neuter.

Stephen Murray-Smith in his book Right Words says “gender is the he, she, it distinction in language”.

Reader’s Digest says English has three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter.

Murray-Smith goes on to say “female forms of nouns should be avoided where they are likely to cause misunderstanding or give offence”.

In my opinion the move away from sex has been caused by one word – intercourse. If we say sex some people assume we mean intercourse.

My big dictionary says the word gender can refer to sex but “now only jocular”.

The dictionary says the word is now a euphemism (“especially feminine”) for the sex of a human being.

“I shouldn’t say sex; I should say gender.” So said a woman only a few weeks ago. She seemed worried that sex was one of those rude words people shouldn’t use in polite company.

Traditionally, we used the word sex to refer to male and female of a species. Gender had its main place in language distinctions. Fowler, admittedly early in the 20th century, said gender was a grammatical term only and to talk of people as male or female gender was either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder. Partridge said that, as a synonym for sex, gender was jocular and archaic.

The Oxford Companion to the English Language said gender was “a grammatical distinction”. It referred to language, not to people.

Pam Peters in the Cambridge Australian English Style Guide acknowledged that style guides were still insisting that gender should not be used for sex, but “there can be little doubt that the word has established its place in this field of discourse”.

In other words, another sex barrier has been broken down, and more scolding mothers will be saying to their offspring “don’t say sex, say gender”.

Even Julia Gillard attributed her political troubles, in part, on her gender.

Then a metropolitan newspaper referred to a boxer’s gender.

I would say very few people these days use the word sex, when they have the word gender at their disposal.

Some associated words for gender include gender-bender, a person wearing the clothes of the opposite sex (or gender, if you insist) and gender gap, especially in the United States, referring to the different attitudes between men and women.

So, there we have it. The word can be used, especially in a jocular way, to the sex of a human being.

As for me, I prefer sex.;




When you are not desperate W/E AUG 20



Have you ever heard of sperate, not desperate but sperate?

I was thinking of a word to write about when sperate crossed my desk, or what sometimes passes as my desk (“Move this junk, so I can get dinner ready”).

I must admit, I had never heard of sperate, until a person known as Dr Goodword sent it to me.

This word comes from speratus, that refers to “hoped for”. If you feel hopeless, you sometimes despair.

But the word sperate has almost never been used, at least in recent times. Dr Goodword said sperate had “been left to die alone in law offices”. He said the word had a meaning of “hoped for, anticipated, having some likelihood of recovering debts”.

So far as I can tell, the word sperate had its first use in 1551, when it referred to “sperate debtes”. Ten years later debts were referred to in the comment that nobody knew which debts were bad and which were sperate.

There was some hope of recovering sperate debts.

As late as 1798 an attempt was made to distinguish debts according to which were bad and which were sperate.

The word found limited general use. In 1824 the United States Supreme Court tried to distinguish when a vessel moved from a sperate to a desperate state “or arrives at a situation of unseaworthiness”.

You will have gathered by now that sperate has a connection to desperate.

Desperate has remained in our language, but sperate has died a lonely death, unlamented by all who knew it.

Eliezer Edwards’ dictionary of 1901 said sperate was an excellent word, although little used. “It means to hope reasonably and is the exact opposite of desperate”, the dictionary said.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson, in his dictionary, said sperable meant “such as may be hoped”. The current edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary says sperate means “giving some hope of being paid”.

What has sperate have to do with desperate?

Johnson in his 1755 dictionary said desperate meant violent. Then he gave an example -- “she fell desperately in love with him”. Okay, so they did things differently a few hundred years ago. Love is blind anyway, so maybe she didn’t mean to hit him.

My big Oxford dictionary says desperate means having lost or abandoned hope. In other words, I presume, you’ll never be paid.

They once had a television show headed Desperate Housewives. I never watched it, but I presume they weren’t paid either.

Desperate also means despairing, or extremely violent, ready to run any risk or go to any length.

You can think of associated words, such as desperado (“a person in a desperate condition”).

I like desperacy (“beyond recovery”). I can think of a few people that this word would define.

Desperate also means having been given an assignment “that there is no hope of carrying out”.

Despair, which in some respects has taken over from sperate, means lack of hope.


Shakespeare's language was English, and “wench”is still good English, although less common than it was in Shakespeare's day. It means a young woman. Nowadays it might have a connotation of being low by birth or of dubious character, but it had no such connotations in Shakespeare’s day. Far from being insulting, it was an affectionate word when used by Shakespeare. But don’t call your wife a wench – just be on the safe side.;

Baa Baa was black W/E AUG 13





A young woman from another state told me recently that she was not allowed to lead her young charges in singing Baa Baa Black Sheep because it contained the word black.


She was also not allowed lead in Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill and a few others because they had unfortunate stories.


I felt like making a comment but a kick from somewhere under the table reminded me that I should forever hold my peace. I hadn’t even started to speak, but she who must be obeyed knew what I felt like saying.


In my opinion, little kids are being enveloped in cotton wool these days and need to embrace the world around them.


I have covered Humpty Dumpty before.


Catherine Newley from Colchester, just north of London, told me the story of a cannon that stood on the wall around Colchester in 1648. In this Civil War, the cannon was hit and the royalists were unable to put the cannon together again.


Unfortunate story? Well, that is for you to decide.


Some confusion surrounds the Jack and Jill story.


Some people believe that it relates to Louis XVI of France, who lost his head in 1793  and Marie Antoinette who came tumbling after, but the rhyme pre-dated these events.


Several theories have been put forward (why fetch water at the top of a hill?) Even Shakespeare had a go at it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I do not know with certainty what it represents. Some comments were that it represented childbirth or a trip to the moon or even a tax on beer. I don’t think anyone will ever know with certainty.


As for Baa Baa Black Sheep, why would anyone complain because it contains the word black? Haven’t they heard the expression Black is Beautiful or several other similar expressions?


My book Massacre at Myall Creek quoted many people at the time as referring to blacks and whites, even though they were not really black or white. I found in other places many examples of blacks and whites as descriptions of race.


So far as Baa Baa Black Sheep is concerned, some say it referred to Plantagenet King Edward’s attempts to collect a tax on wool in every port in the country around the 13th century. After all, England had far more sheep than people, so here was a good source of money.


Some also say it referred to King Edward 11 and his attempts to encourage weavers and cloth dyers to improve the quality of the final English products. I suppose black wool was prized as it could be used without dying.


The first source in print that I could discover came in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of about 1744. The words were: Bah Bah Black Sheep, have you any wool? Yes, merry have I, three bags full. One for my master, one for my dame, one for the little boy that lives down the lane.


Later versions had “one for the little boy who cries in the lane”.


I was surprised to discover that some children’s schools have tried to change the words, eliminating black, which they saw as racist. Some even added happy, sad, hopping, rainbow, little and even pink. Some even considered changing “boy:” in case it was deemed sexist.


They did not succeed.; lbword@midcoast,




But was he important? W/E AUG 6



My uncle, who lived at Quirindi, northern NSW, was a shearing contractor. He was not a knight in training.

But he would regularly receive in the mail either the Women’s Weekly or the Northern Daily Leader, I can’t remember which one, addressed to him plus the suffix Esquire. Admittedly, this was in the last century, probably 60 or more years ago.

The Women’s Weekly was in the big format and it actually came out weekly, usually with a member of the royal family on the cover.

The address on this newspaper or magazine was the only occasion he was addressed as esquire. I had felt he must have been important. He probably was.

But he didn’t get the word esquire by attending knight school.

The word came from a boy who attended a knight, often carrying the knight’s shield. It comes from the French esquire, shield bearer. Knights eventually went out of style, when gunpowder was introduced.

The word esquire had lots of meanings. It meant raising to the rank of a squire or to attend to a lady as a squire. The word even led to many other words. How about esquiredom, or esquirehood, or esquireship, or esquiry?

They even had esquiress, a female squire. This last word dated from 1596 and sometimes meant a small slave girl carrying the musket.

I still don’t know why my uncle was called esquire. He was a shearing contractor for goodness sake. Of course, he was a good one and I learnt a lot in the shearing sheds around Quirindi, none of which I can repeat here.

I believe esquire is a longer version of squire.

The first use of the word that I could find came in 1290 and it represented a man of good birth (you should have heard those stories in the shearing sheds) who attended a knight. My big dictionary says it represented “one ranking next to a knight under the feudal system of military service and tenure”.

Many years later it was placed after the surname as a designation of rank, or a person who held a rank similar to a medieval squire. So a squire was a person who was similar to a squire. That sounds a bit redundant to me.

The word referred to a nobleman or “other high dignitary” but then the dictionary says the word was often used jestingly by Shakespeare.

The dictionary said the word has been used for a country gentleman not formally a squire.

It goes on to say the word has been used for a justice of the peace, a lawyer, or a judge, or more widely to any local dignitary.

The word has been used for a lover. My uncle loved sheep, but he had never been to New Zealand to my knowledge.

Finally, it says the word “squire” was sometimes in “contemptuous” use. Now we’re getting somewhere.

The word is apparently used more frequently in the United States than in Australia, or in New Zealand. It often means an escort to an escort. I think I know what that means.

If the word was used by the Women’s Weekly, I have to say that my uncle never read this magazine. He always handed it over to his wife.

I remember he always ended an argument by saying his wife gave his sheepdogs fleas. Then he would leave before she could think of an answer.;







Supplement is that bit added on W/E JUL 30


Throughout my newspaper career I have always thought those extra pages – say four pages or more – that were tacked on to newspapers were supplements

I had a cleanup the other day and was ready to throw out years of Rotary supplements prior to moving to new quarters.

I identified the three people who were most likely to make use of these supplements, which contained a wealth of information about the start of Rotary and the clubs in the district to which I belong.

I was surprised, almost unbelievably so, to receive a note from two of the three asking in almost the same words “what is a supplement”.

One said “what is a Rotary supplement” and another said “wot is a Rotary supplement”. I know, probably he can’t spell.

He also said “it sounds medicinal”.
And I had gone right through my newspaper career thinking everybody knew what a newspaper supplement was. I would like to start again, but my wife said something like “too late”.

I am in my third year of judging NSW regional newspaper supplements.

I consulted several dictionaries in my possession.

The Macquarie said an extension of a newspaper, Collins said it was a a separate or part of a newspaper, Webster said it was an addition to anything, especially a book, magazine or other publication and Readers Digest said it was an addition to a publication. They had other definitions also.

My big Oxford dictionary, in several pages, said it was a part added to complete a literary work.

To be fair, dictionaries added the word was also used for medicinal purposes.

The First English Dictionary, published in 1604, said supplement meant “that which maketh up or addeth that which wanteth in any thing”.

Eric Partridge said to supplement was to add something to that which was at first thought to be complete.

It has been related to supply.

Here is a word that entered our language a long time ago. My big dictionary cites the first use of the word supplement, in print, as the year 1382.  In 1483 it represented “supplying what is wanting”. Caxton in the same year said (the way he spelt it) “the feeste of all the sayntes was established.. .fyrste for the dedycacion of the temple and secondly for supplement of offences done”.

The word went through a phase of old and new clothes and then geometry (“the amount by which an arc is less then a semicircle” and so on), in law (“a writ issued from the court of sessions to compel” and so on), as well as an aid, oxygen, even aged care and all sorts of things that need a supplement.

But they kept using the word deficiency.

Supplementarily meant the condition of being supplementary and supplementary meant the nature of forming a supplement. So make of that what you will.

Supplement seems to have come from French and Latin, with a bit of Spanish.

If you have a habit of doing a bit of talking, you will need to remember supplemental, which means the air that remains in the lungs “after an ordinary expiration”.

You could ask a supplementary question, so long as the chairman approves, if the first answer was not to your liking.
Then again you could ask for a supplement to your diet if that is what turns you on, but be careful, depending on what sport you play.

Ignorance is no excuse.;



Don't go there W/E JUL 23



I was walking through a grocery store at Wauchope, northern NSW, when I went past a couple of doors that had signs saying something like: “Don’t go through these doors or you will be disciplined”.

My thoughts went back to high school days when students who were sent to the principal’s office were regaled with cakes while being lectured about their errant ways. If they timed things right, being sent to the principal’s office was a reward, rather than a punishment.

But I wondered what sort of discipline the manager of this grocery store had in mind. He had plenty of cakes on hand, but eating them might eat into his profits.

I resisted the temptation to find out.

Here is a word that goes back at least to 1382, when John Wyclif said “thou shall finde grace and good discipline”. They couldn’t spell much in those days. They probably had no high schools either, at least staffed by principals armed with cakes.

But in those days discipline meant much as it does today – an instruction to scholars, with emphasis on teaching, learning and schooling.

Even Shakespeare had a go at it in 1606.

Robert Cawdrey, in a 1604 book called The First English Dictionary, a book I bought in Vancouver, said discipline meant “instruction or training”. A disciple was a “scholler”. They couldn’t spell much in those days, either.

The church entered the fray also. My big dictionary says the word referred to “modes of procedure held to have been observed in the early church in gradually teaching the mysteries of the Christian faith and concealing them from the initiated”.

But in 1434 the word was also used in the sense of “proper conduct” and “the training of scholars”. 

In 1607 Francis Bacon referred to a “wife” handing out discipline. Some things never change.

Discipline was also used in the sense of training or skill in military affairs or “the art of war”.

Then came a course of training and a system for the maintenance of order and “the system by which order is maintained in a church”.

Nothing about grocery stores there, but the Presbyterians were mentioned, as well as the Reformed Church of Scotland.

Did I ever tell you that the person who gave us the first real dictionary, Samuel Johnson, once said, when referring to oats, “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”? Judging by some of his other comments, he wasn’t intending to be complimentary about people from Scotland.

Anyway, the word gained some strength with the definitions “a beating” and “a whip, one used for religious penance”.

But, finally, my big dictionary says “a master in a school employed not to teach, but to keep order among the pupils”.

It doesn’t say anything about cake.

But if I can throw in my penny’s worth, the bloke who gave out cake to the errant students probably knew what he was doing. He was treating those students with respect and showing that a kindness given deserves some kindness in return.

And for at least some of those students, that was a principle that should be carried through life.

That’s what I have been told anyway.

I never got to eat cake in the principal’s office.

They say treachery will overcome adversity every time.;

When they said skedaddle W/E JUL 16



When I was a young boy at Cardiff, one of my mother’s favourite words was skedaddle.

I took “skedaddle” to mean something like “get lost”.

On a cold and wet day recently I watched the movie Cheyenne Autumn.

I love westerns, but I can just imagine the people at the TV station saying something like “they’ve seen this a hundred times, but show it again; they might not notice”.

Surely other people like watching a good western, even if Carroll Baker at the end of a long walk looked as though she had just strolled through the garden smelling the roses.

John Ford’s film told the story of 300 half-starved Cheyennes’ long walk from the reservation in the Oklahoma Territory to their home in Wyoming.

It was a long movie, with the so-called intermission taken up by a bizarre short segment starring James Stewart. Some outlets refused to show the Stewart segment, because it had nothing to do with the remainder of the movie. The role of the Cheyennes was supposedly taken by modern Navajo Indians, who slipped in some off-colour jokes spoken in Navajo.

Twice in the movie (we called them pictures when we went to the Star at Cardiff in my younger days) they used the word skedaddle. I said to my wife “Here’s where they say skedaddle” but she wasn’t that interested.

On the second occasion a man near a railway line was asked if he had seen them and he replied that they seemed “to have skedaddled”.

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

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

My big Oxford says the word skedaddle, of uncertain origin, was probably Swedish or Danish, and it became prominent in the Civil War.

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. Also spelt skidaddle, the word’s meaning was something like fleeing the battlefield.

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

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

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

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

The big dictionary says that in general use the word means to depart hurriedly. It could find only one use of skedaddle in the milk sense when the New York Times in 1863 said somebody was “skedaddling all that milk”.

I have no idea what that meant.;


plebiscite and referendum W/E JUIY 9



I have been confused at times between a plebiscite and a referendum.

Even my small Macquarie dictionary has difficulties. Under plebiscite, with several definitions, it includes just one word -- “referendum”.

I include plebiscite and referendum this week, even though I have mentioned them previously, because they have been talked about a lot lately.

One day, perhaps, the Australian people will be called upon to vote on a question, possibly a plebiscite.

Some dictionaries are not as precise in their definitions of plebiscite and referendum as some people would like.

But they do describe a plebeian as one of the lower classes and say that some people have plebeian taste.

And here we thought class no place in Australian society. Maybe they were foreign dictionaries.

Actually, the Collins dictionary had an example that in my opinion could have been put better – “he had a rather thick, short, plebeian neck”.

The Collins dictionary had an example for referendum – “the citizens of Massachusetts voted yes in a referendum to cut property tax”.

Now, I ask you – couldn’t they have chosen better examples?

Les’s go straight to the definitions, from no less a group than the Australian Electoral Commission.

The commission, talking about a referendum, says at a referendum the proposed amendment must be approved by a national majority of voters and a majority of voters in a majority of the states – four in Australia.

An issue put to the vote which does not affect the constitution is called a plebiscite and a plebiscite is not defined in the Australian Constitution. A plebiscite can also be referred to as a simple national vote. The government is not bound by a plebiscite as it is by the result of a constitutional referendum.

That comes from the Australian Electoral Commission and it has pages of other details which I don’t think would interest you.

The word plebiscite comes from the Latin plebis citurn, a law enacted by the plebs or common people of a district. The Penguin Working Words says plebs were the common people of ancient Rome, so Mrs Bucket would not qualify. Working Words went on to say it now referred to the uneducated masses “or someone coarse or vulgar”.

In ancient Rome the original plebiscite was a law enacted by the assembled plebs.

The Rigby Joy of Knowledge said a referendum was held for the first time in Britain in 1975.

My big dictionary records the word plebiscite as first used, in print, in 1533, when John Bellenden covering the history of Rome referred to laws.

Then in 1880 James Muirhead said “a lex is a law established by the whole body of the people; a plebiscit (without the e)  one enacted and established by the plebeian members”. Lex had a whole range of meanings, but I think it referred to what was called bossism.

The big dictionary said the word referendum referred mainly to the Swiss constitution and it referred to a question put to the whole body of voters.

Incidentally, most books said they preferred referendums as the plural.

Several words have links with referendum. How about referee, people acting as advisers in royal or papal courts, or anybody who is consulted about some matter.

But plebiscite has more associated words. The list is as long as your arm.

But the big dictionary under plebeian refers to “a proposed change in the constitution” – and I think that is where I came in.;




Is the word currently overused W/E JUL 2


I can find little use for the word currently.

I went to a computer class recently and somebody placed on the door a sign saying “room currently in use”. If the sign had said “room in use” would the meaning have changed?

I have seen street stalls say something like “this stall is currently unoccupied”. Disregarding the obvious – nobody was there -- if the sign had said “this stall is unoccupied” would that have been different from the sign saying “currently”?

I have learnt not to make a scene, because my wife doesn’t like it.

But I seethe in silence and usually go and have a cup of coffee while I calm down.

I don’t claim to be the world’s best in my choice of words, but I react most times I see the word currently.

I am learning to control my feelings, however.

The word had a quiet existence for years until the past thirty or so years when people suddenly decided to use it in all the unusual places.

Currently goes back many years. In 1380 the word meant the flowing of a stream.

Shakespeare had many goes at this word, when he said currents that glorify the banks that ”bound them in” . He made use of this word on other occasions.

Emily Fitzsmmons in The Great Gatsby said in 1925 “boats against the current”.

Diana Hopkinson talks about the Sea of Galilee in the same breath as current.

All the early references for currently refer to water, whether flowing along a steam or flowing from a roof or a gutter “to let the water run off”.

In 1753 reference is made to peasants saving their villages by diverting the river.

In 1874 Edward Knight in his Dictionary of Mechanics said gulleys usually had a current of a quarter of an inch to the foot.

Around the fourteenth century the word started to take on an expanded meaning. For instance., the word referred to the passage of time or a person’s speech.

The word, so far as I can tell, means “running”. It comes from old French corant which came from Latin courre. You can get courier and even corridor from this, if you try hard enough.

This reminds me: I used to race another boy in wheelchairs through the corridors of the old WallsendHospital, until they banned the practice. Anyway, that had nothing to do with currently.

John Ayto, who knows about such things, says the sense of “in the present time” seems to have started in the 17th century. He gives no explanation, however.

Probably some words that are synonyms for currently are at the present time, straight away, forthwith, pronto, right now, right away.

But even these don’t apply in such a cases as “the room is currently in use”.

The Macmillan Dictionary gives as an example “Davis is currently appearing in a play at the Thorndike Theatre”. Now I ask you: What is wrong with saying “Davis is appearing in a play at the Thorndike Theatre”?

My big dictionary recorded the first use, in print, for currently as 1841, when  James Henry Leigh Hunt said in Seer (or common places refreshed) “we are truly in a state of transition, of currency rather”.

Don’t ask me what he meant.

Of course, the dictionary went through all the other meanings of currency, such as money.

Burt we can trace currently to James Henry Leigh Hunt in 1841. He will forever be in my bad books.;





Vulgar and rude words W/E JUN 25


I bought a second-hand book at Bellingen, northern NSW, many years ago.

The book was called the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. A friend in Bellingen insisted on borrowing the book and then looked for the rude words. The friend was most upset when the book contained very few words that would make the vicar drop the crockery and told me I had been “had”.

It wasn’t supposed to be a book of rude words.

Despite the book, vulgar is one of those words that have come down in status in our language over the years.

Vulgar language was the language of the ordinary people, not the language of what we now, sometimes questionably, regard as rude words.

The earliest use of the word vulgar that I could find was in 1430, and it was then described as the common, or usual, language of a country.

Even an edition of the Bible, produced many years earlier, was called vulgar. This Bible was compiled in the fourth century, when Latin was still a living language. Michael Quinion said that Bible contained nothing that people would not approve.

A bloke called Needham said a long time ago the vulgar edition came from the Hebrew original, “which is lost”.

Over the years the word has gone downhill, very slowly.

The word started, so far as I can tell, as the common language of a country.

It took on a vernacular tone after that.

Robert Cawdrey said in the First English Dictionary of 1604 that “vlgar” meant common. I don’t know why it was spelt this way. It might have been what newspaper people call a “typo”.

I Chamberlain said in 1707 “there were more good and more bad books printed and published in the English tongue than in all the vulgar languages in Europe”.

Some people were given vulgar nicknames.

Then the word was used by people pointing to errors and prejudices in the language. A writer called Macarthur said in Own Times of 1879 “one of the vulgarest fallacies of statecraft”. It could be a good word for politicians.

The word now means something like lacking in refinement, even offensive.

“They said that you were, dare I speak the vulgar word – a Christian” said  Frederic Farrar writing in Darkness and Dawn in 1891.

The word has spawned many other words and expressions.

A vulgarian is also a well-to-do person of vulgar manners. You can decide who that person might be.

In 1933 DL Sayers described Charles Dickens as “that incomparable vulgarisateur” and I don’t think the word was meant to be complimentary.

Other words included vulgarish (somewhat vulgar), volgarist, vulgarism, vulgarity, vulgarise, vulgarly and vulgarness. There are many more.

I counted at least ten occasions when vulgar or vulgarity was used in William Hazlitt’s essay On Familiar Style and he was suggesting that writers could rise above the vulgarity of the common people.

He also said “I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them,” but I will leave that for another day.

The Vulgate Bible is described as “the old Italic version of the Bible, preceding that of Saint Jerome”.

Wescott and Horte, writing in 1881, said “the name Vulgate has long denoted exclusively the Latin Bible as revised by Jerome”.

And what of the vulgar fraction?

They were not rude fractions, but I suppose factions that got their name when such things were ordinary or customary.

And what did the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue say about vulgar?

It didn’t mention it.;