what was all the fuss about



A woman sat down next to me recently and placed in my hand a note.

I can’t remember ever getting a note from a member of the opposite sex since I was at primary school, and probably not even then.

I opened the note full of anticipation

And the note had one word on it – kerfuffle.

Then she left.

I presume she was only interested in me because of the word kerfuffle.

I was surprised to discover that this informal word doesn’t have a long history. In fact, if my big dictionary is to believed, it has a very short history,

People used to use it used during speeches but it was rarely written down.

Some people believe it has a Scottish influence, or even Irish.

In the early days, it was spelt curfuffle. But then, around 1946, the word was standardised as kerfuffle as dictionaries started to be used more.

But before that, Frank Sargeson wrote in That Summer and Other Stories that a domestic row ended as “a good old kafuffle”. Note the different spelling.

Then in 1959 J Fleming wrote kerfuffle in the context of some stolen jewels.

My understanding of the word is that it means a minor fuss, or even a commotion, often caused by some conflicting views. The use of the “ker” in some ways added emphasis.

In 2006 President Bush caused a minor kerfuffle when he uttered the word in Ohio, according to Michael Quinion, and his handlers had to explain the meaning of the word “from the man who gave us misunderestimated”.

Many years ago Scottish English used the word fuffle, meaning, so far as I can tell, to dishevel.

It could have also meant a turn, which was an old Irish meaning.

Then they added the cur, meaning wrong.

Curfuffle became the word until it changed to kerfuffle, I don’t know why, butI assume the prefix ker added emphasis and people were starting to consult dictionaries more.

It has had many spellings, such as kafuffle, kerfluff and kerfuffle, but the meaning has always been a brouhaha, a fracas, a hubbub or a mess.

In 1960 EW Hildrick writing in Jim Starling and Colonel wrote “Butcher said he didn’t know what all the kerfuffle was about”.

I don’t know the context, but I can just imagine Mrs Smith going into the butcher shop to complain about the meat she had bought.

The sausages were probably too long.

And so kerfuffle has adopted this meaning down to the present day.

But I must tell you about a sentence from the Free Dictionary: “Among the oldest corpses from which DNA has been extracted is a Neanderthal man. Imagine the kerfuffle if somebody managed to clone him.”

I imagine kerfuffle in the previous sentence might need to be changed to something like tumult, or even disaster.

Who would want to clone a Neanderthal man anyway?

In 1973 K Anus said in Riverside Villas Murder: “A lot of our readers are going to think all this kerfuffle over an old skeleton being snatched is a bit of a joke.”

Now when I meet this woman who handed me the note with kerfuffle on it, I will ask her why she decided it needed an explanation.

She could have added to the note something, anything, such as “meet me behind the bike shed at midday” or something.

Anything but kerfuffle.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au





Men did the can-can

There was a time when men did the can-can – and some still do.

Several sites suggested men danced the can-can.

According to the Texas Siftings, “he” danced the cancan.

This was quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I wonder how many times “he” did it

There also was a time when women, well…

The Collins says of can-can: ”The can-can  is a dance in which women kick their legs in the air and shake their skirts to fast music”.

When the dance first appeared early in the 19th century. it was considered a scandalous dance. Some people still consider it scandalous, even though not as scandalous as when it first appeared.

In the mid-19th century it was thought to be extremely inappropriate by respectable society.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the can-can was viewed as much more erotic because the dancers made use of the extravagant underwear of the period, and the contrasting black stockings.

They lifted and manipulated their skirts much more, and incorporated a move sometimes considered the most cheeky and provocative.

Let me tell you the story.

The dance was once forbidden, during a time when women weren’t supposed to show their ankles, or their underwear.

The cancan, spelling as in the original French, is a high-energy dance which became a popular music hall dance in the 1840s, continuing in popularity in French cabaret to this day.

Originally danced by both sexes, it is now traditionally associated with a chorus line of female dancers.

The main features of the dance are the high kickssplits and cartwheels.

The Infernal Galop from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld is the tune most associated with the can-can.

The name can-can may be derived from the French scandal. However, the dance was also referred to as the coin-coin and this may have become corrupted into can-can. In its early days, the dance was also called the chahut (French for noise or uproar).

The can-can is believed to have evolved from the final figure in the quadrille, which is a social dance by four couples. The exact origin of the dance is unknown 

The dance was considered scandalous, and for a while, there were attempts to repress it. This may have been partly because in the 19th century, women wore pantalettes, which had an open crotch, meaning that a high kick could be revealing.  Occasionally, people dancing the can-can were arrested, but there is no record of it being banned, as some accounts claim.

Throughout the 1830s, it was often groups of men, particularly students, who danced the can-can at public dance-halls.

As the dance became more popular, professional performers emerged, although it was still danced by individuals not by a chorus line. A few men became cancan stars in the 1840s to 1861 and an all-male group known as the Quadrille des Clodoches performed in London in 1870

However women performers were much more widely known. By the 1890s, it was possible to earn a living as a full-time dancer and stars such as La Goulue and Jane Avril emerged, who were highly paid for their appearances at the Moulin Rouge and elsewhere

The can-can is now considered a part of world dance culture. Often the main feature observed today is how physically demanding and tiring the dance is to perform, but it still retains a bawdy, suggestive element.

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


Motion comes first



When I was a young journalist, admittedly a long time ago, one of the first things impressed on me was the difference between a motion and a resolution.

Maybe the person who told me this was wrong.

Whenever I go to public meetings these days I hear about a resolution to be put to the meeting.
The other day a chairman of a meeting even issued a correction saying a motion should have been a resolution. That was before people had a vote on it.

The way it was put to me, a meeting receives a motion and if the motion is passed the meeting resolves to do something. In other words, the motion has to be passed before it becomes a resolution. If it is defeated, it doesn’t become anything.

Of course, I could be wrong.

My 20-volume Oxford says, among many definitions, that a resolution is the “removal of doubt”; the Macquarie says a resolution is “a formal determination”; Collins says a resolution is “a firm determination to do something”; and my American Webster says a resolution is “a firm decision”.

Samuel Johnson in what I regard as the first real dictionary said in 1755 that the word  resolution meant “free from doubt” but the First Dictionary, published in 1604, said to resolve was “to satisfy”.

William Shakespeare had many goes at this word. In Romeo and Juliet he says “be strong … in this resolve”.

Here is a word that had its beginning in our language, with its present meaning, around 1591. One of the first users was Shakespeare, who gave us many of the words we now use.

My big dictionary contains several pages with the word resolution or resolve or words with a similar meaning, even the meaning of resolve as the softening of a hard tumour or to dissipate pain. The many meanings will have to wait until another day.

The dictionaries also include re-solution, which some of them describe as a repeated resolution.

 Motion in print goes back several hundred years, but with this meaning the first use in print seems to have been in1579. A book on Aristides suggests Aristides made a motion concerning all the cities of Greece.

Several motions were made after that date, from putting something on the table to changing the monarchy to a republic -- even a complaint from some bloke that people wouldn’t listen to his motion.

The Macquarie Dictionary gives a good definition of motion, It says a motion is “an idea or plan of action formally put to an assembly for consideration”. Collins says a motion is a formal proposal which the people present vote on. Webster says a motion is a suggestion or a proposal formally made to a deliberative assembly.

So far as I am concerned, and it’s a bit too late to change things now, a resolution cannot be achieved without first applying a motion. If the motion is defeated, then no resolution can be achieved.

But no doubt meeting chairmen will continue to ask for a resolution when they mean motion.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au









Can guy refer to women?

 Does the word guy refer to women as well as men?

Maybe it once referred to men only, but in my opinion in now refers to women as well as men.

A lot of publicity has been given lately to the question of whether guy can refer to women as well as men. I don’t know how the subject reached the news columns, but it obviously started with somebody who had little else to do.

The American Heritage Dictionaries editors say in their book Word Histories and Mysteries that the word is used for “a group of persons of either sex”, Wilfred Funk says the word is used as a synonym for an individual”, several dictionaries use the word for “fellow”. Fellow can refer to women. Wikipedia says it can generally refer to people of either gender and I can quote myself as saying in a column piece 21 years ago that guy applies equally to women as well as men.

I found a few other sites that said words have the meanings that usage gives them. I can understand this. I have found that words are constantly changing in their meaning.

Quora said guys was gender-neutral. (Gender, that should mean sex, is covered in another column).

Admittedly, some old dictionaries said that the word guys refers only to men, but these dictionaries are gradually changing their definitions.

Most dictionaries said guys covered persons of grotesque appearance, but I know this is not always the case. Don’t blame me. I’m just quoting the books. President Bush, the earlier one, once called the president of Jordan a guy and got away with it.

I think guy was a hangover from the time of Guy Fawkes.

Do you remember the case of Guy Fawkes?

Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido Fawkes, was born in York in 1570 into a Protestant family but later converted to Catholicism.

He fought for many years war on the side of Catholic Spain in what was called the Eighty Years War.

Then, because of his knowledge of gunpowder, he was conscripted by a group of English Catholics to blow up the houses of parliament and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. But he was discovered and he leapt to his death to escape being drawn and quartered. He was 35 years old.

Since then November 5 was commemorated and, in Britain at least, his effigy was burned on a bonfire and usually this was accompanied by a fireworks display.

These effigies came to be referred to as guys.

Some people didn’t like Guy Fawkes and this was why Guy was regarded as a person of grotesque appearance. Some dictionaries use the word odd.

Guy Fawkes Day was sometimes referred to as Pope Day.

Guy has many other uses For instance, running away, to direct the course of a vehicle, to command an army, to manage an office, to direct as person in his actions.

Guy was in use a couple of hundred years before Guy Fawkes was born. It had many meanings, including a leader, a rope used to lower something, or  a suspension bridge. I have found it in use in print in 1350, but Guy Fawkes wasn’t born until 1570. The guy I am referring to seems to have been Spanish in origin.

But I like the bit about an office manager being referred to as a guy.

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




Blokes watch the footy


Have you ever used the word blokess?

I haven’t, but I know some who have.

Blokess was a popular term in the period from 1900.

It was used by the Melbourne Standard, the Truth, the Gundagai Independent, The Adelaide News, the World’s News in Sydney, words author Sidney Baker, other authors and the Townsville Bulletin a few times, plus other publications.

Some of those publications have gone out of existence, or at least I haven’t heard of them.

The word is described in The Australian National Dictionary as “a woman , used elsewhere but chiefly Australian”.

It comes from bloke at a time when ess was added to many other words, such as actress.

You won’t find it in many dictionaries.

The Sydney Austral says blokess is a well documented egalitarian Australian tradition.

The Gundagai Independent reported in 1926: “After the childred have danced themselves tired the big blokes and blokesses will take the floor”.

Sidney Baker said a blokess was a female blokc

I didn’t set out to write about blokess. That was a distraction.

I set out to write about bloke.

Here is a word that is recognised as Australian, but only partly Australian. It goes back to at least 1250.

It is recognised as English, or Romany, or gypsy.

Collins says it is an informal word used in British English.

My Australian National Dictionary says a bloke is a person in authority or of superior status.  That rules out most of my friends.

But it does say it is transferred use of man, fellow. My big dictionary agrees.

Readers Digest says the word is subtle in Australia and the meaning depends on how the word is said.

Author and wordsmith Michael Quinion says the word, for a male person, is traditionally British, recorded from the early 19th century.
He wonders if it is a variation on the slightly older gloak ( a pickpocket) or even blake (a bloke who was hanged for housebreaking), or even broak (a gentleman).

Quinion says it took off in Australia, where it was used for some person of status, even for a ship’s commander.

But Quinion says the experts aren’t sure where the word came from. He suggests the word could come from Romany, or from some gypsies.

I like his suggestion that it refers to a stupid person, such as a blockhead.

Sidney Baker says bloke achieved greater currency in Australia than in England. He gives an example of irritability “like a bloke with boils on his arse”. But I wondered why the bloke was irritable in the first place. I know, he had boils.

Then we come to the Australian Dictionary of Insults and Vulgarities, which I refer to often. It ways some blokes are pretty good blokes; others are dead set bastards.

Bill Hornage in his Australian Slanguage sayd bloke refers to a casual acquaintance. It appears in a poem that goes on and on, over several pages.

John (Nino) O’Grady says some blokes are not worth feeding, but most of the blokes will put their hands in their pockets to buy you a drink – “proving there are more good blokes than bad blokes”.

The Dinkum Aussie Dictionary says most blokes are good, but some are “right bastards”.

GA Wilkes quotes CJ Dennis in the line “blokes an ‘coves an’coots and says bloke could always be the person in authority.

Susan Butler in The Dinkum Dictionary suggests bloke comes from the gypsies and means a man in authority.

I like the Macquarie Dictionary definition: “Blokey behaviour means to drink

beer and watch the footy”

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au


Scrabble not graffiti




Many years ago a woman sent me some booklets on scrabble and she thought I might find a place for the word scrabble in a column one day.

I put the booklets on my desk and I put a piece of paper on the booklets.

Last week I removed the paper and the booklets were still there.

If you haven’t been to my house, and in particular my study, you wouldn’t understand.

The booklets were dated 1995 and they came from Audrey Jackman.

She said in an accompanying letter that Robert somebody was playing in the Asian championships in Bangkok, but scrabble championships were not very lucrative except for the world championships.

I happened to have had The Scrabble Book, whose author was Derryn Hinch. In answer to your question, I don’t know, but the clues led to the politician before he became a politician.

Scrabble became a popular board game around 1950, but the word goes back to at least 1547, when it meant a bad writer.

Scrabble in those days meant scribbling on gates. These days some people might call it graffiti.

But according to my big dictionary, it meant to scrawl upon something, to scratch about hurriedly with the claws or paws, to scramble on hands and feet and to write in a scrawling style.

Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary said scrabble meant to paw with hands (paw meant the foot of an animal, but this isn’t about paws).

William Safire in his book On Language comments on the Scrabble people trying to stop random  use of Scrabble but Arthur J Morgan of New York said in the same publication  “I’d spit in their eye if they tried to stop me from using the word in its pristine sense”. He quoted Samuel from the Bible.

In 1625 Miss AE Baker made a comment about boys (not girls) making words with chalk on a wall or gate.

They still do.

But then she said they wrote in an uncouth and unsightly manner.

In his book, Derryn Hinch comments that Sophia Loran consoled Richard Burton during one of his estrangements from Elizabeth Taylor (“I know, let’s play Scrabble” – I find that difficult to believe) and that the Queen Mother was a novice at it.

Scrabble was invented by an out-of-work architect, Alfred Butts, during the depression, and became the most successful word game in history, according to Derryn Hinch.

Mrs Butts said that halfway up a mountain in Japan some people were resting and playing Scrabble.

Mickey Spillane in his novel The Erection Set tells of the word TRAP as a warning on page 269.

The Queen Mother bought a deluxe set in New York in 1954.

“I was looking through the booklets sen to me by Audrey Jackman. Enid Blyton was described as “tiny blonde” and sauciness was described as “causes sin”. I don’t

know what they had do with Scrabble, but it’s in the book

The size of the print in the booklets caused some consternation

The booklets advertised the Norfolk Island Scrabble Festival and commented on discourtesy among some players. They even had a fighting fund.

There was an item about a man who was at sea and his wife played Scrabble with her next door neighbour.

But then they talked about a word I’m not allowed mention.

But it led me to wonder what they get up to at Scrabble tournaments,






All about omelettes



Omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs.

That is an old French proverb that means something like you cannot achieve something worthwhile without sacrificing something that is in itself valuable.

Don’t ask me for an illustration. Work it out for yourself.

Many people have eggs for breakfast. Some have eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But I thought about eggs when I had a pain in the stomach recently.

Did you know omelettes were named after thin plates?

Let me tell you a story.

A long time ago, let’s say a few hundred years, the word we now know as omelette resembled a thin plate.

Only it wasn’t spelt omelette then.

The Latin word for a small plate, so I am told, was something like lamina, vastly different from omelette. But read on.

I often wonder if omelette, the word we now know, was the result of a series of blunders. But who am I to say?

The spelling undertook many changes over the years, including lemelle (blade of a knife), lamelle, alumette, alamette and eventually omelette.

The influence of early Romans and French played its part in the changes of spelling.

And, remember, spelling was not so standardised in those days.

But apparently an omelette resembled a small, thin plate.

My big dictionary describes the changes in spelling as metathesis, and I don’t have room to tell you about the various changes, not that you are interested anyway. It’s all to do with suffixes and things like that.

Now I suppose you want to know about metathesis or suffix.

Anyway, I think the word was chosen because of its long, thin shape and they didn’t have much imagination a few hundred years ago.

Actually, I wonder who was the first bloke to eat an egg. That might be another column.

These days an omelette is made from eggs whipped up and supplemented by various extras such as cheese, apples, parsley, chopped ham, fish and mushrooms and so on.

Don’t you have all the extras? Well, I suppose you can have an omelette just with eggs, but the extras make it so much tastier.

The first reference in print that I could find came in 1611, when I found an omelette described as “a pancake of eggs”.

In 1655 the Comical History of Francion commented that a person had been commanded to make an aumelet, ”it being Friday”.

I don‘t know what Friday had to do with it. Maybe they thought the eggs came from fish.

They actually had omelette frying pans. Maybe they still do. I found “a small omelette ferrying pan is necessary for cooking it well”. My wife says I need a map to find the laundry, so don’t make me to be an expert.

Somebody has even made an omelette with strawberries. In 1958 I found a recipe of an omelette with strawberries described as “en surprise”, so maybe it wasn’t such a success.

Even people can be omeletted,  if the Westminster Gazette can be taken as a guide, when it reported a person as saying “I don’t want to be omeletted”.

The Americans spell the word omelet  -- which seems to make sense – but elsewhere it is spelt omelette.

You could always find another word for omelette. I found about 100 words, but they were in different languages.

Anyway, what’s wrong with omelette?

I suppose you could put in different fillings and call it something else, but I don’t think it will catch on.

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









Counterfeit was a forgery

A very long time ago my wife and I went for a cup of coffee in a Darwin street. We handed over what I think was a $20 note. The employee called the manager over and the manager rejected the note.

“It’s a forgery,” he said.
After a long discussion I handed over another note and he accepted it.

While we had our cup of coffee we watched as the manager put up a sign saying he would not accept $20 notes.

Apparently the note I handed over did not have the name of the person whose image was displayed.

It was a long time ago, but I think the details are correct.

When I returned home I contacted the mint and I was told the note had been legal.

My memory tells me the person at the mint said they had decided to place names under the images because too many people were asking something like “who’s that?”

Counterfeit is a word that goes back a long way.

My big dictionary records that he first time in print the dictionary could find was 1292.

The word had many spellings. They included counterfeet, counterfayte and counterfeight.

In 1292 the word was used  to mean that which was an imitation

of the genuine article.

In 1393 the word meant writing was forged

In 1450 it meant misshapen or deformed.

In 1463 the word was used to mean made to a pattern.

In 1483 the meaning was transformed in appearance.

In 1530 it meant a person pretending to be what he was not.

In 1574 it meant an imposter.

In 1724 the meaning was somebody who was disguised.

Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary said a word countercaster was a word of contempt for an arithmetician.

My big dictionary had exactly the same meaning.

I met an old maths master from my old school, Newcastle Boys High, in the past few days. I’m sure he was never called a countercaster.

Counterfesance meant an act of counterfeiting or a forgery.

Counterrol meant a means of preserving the power of detecting frauds by a counter account.

Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary of 1881 said counterfeit meant “similar in appearance but of a different order of merit”.

In other words, counterfeiting something was to make something look like the genuine article in order to deceive people.

Usually, it was to make a profit and usually it was of inferior quality.

I can’t think of an article of superior quality that was counterfeited. That to me would defeat the object of the exercise.

The word comes from Latin contra-facere.

Counterfeiting would involve artworks, watches, handbags, shoes, even the man who chases you up the street in some Asian country offering to sell you a Rolex watch,

Linda and Roger Flavell said that in the olden days a stick was cut in two and the two pieces were matched to be proof that the debt had been paid.

These days when we see the word counterfeit we understand it to mean to forge or to maker a fraudulent imitation of.

Shakespeare, of course, had a go at the word counterfeit.

In M uch Ado About Nothing, he said “there was never counterfeit of passion”. He said a lot more, but I think you get the drift.

Several other authors had a go at counterfeit, and it was nothing to do with money. They must have had an interesting life years ago.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoasd.com.au.



Going to a shindig



A friend said recently he was going to a shindig.

He wasn’t going to have an argument with somebody – or at least I don‘t think he was. He was going to a party, one of those occasions that start out with a good time and sometimes end in a quarrel, or worse.

This is one of those words that reminded me of my school days. I hadn‘t heard it for years.

When I was a young boy I always thought of it as a word that was made up, but I have since discovered that most if not all dictionaries include it.

The word goes back, in print, to at least 1871.

Much later it came to represent a violent quarrel.

But the word shindig seems to have had a troubled past. The dictionaries say it is of “uncertain origin”, but influenced to some extent by shindy.

Some old dictionaries say shindy means a blow on the shins, which doesn’t help much.

Opinions differ about the start of shindig.

But shindig in its early days represented a country dance or a lively gathering of any kind.

The word was first used, in print, in 1871. In September of that year B. Harte commented in Atlantic Monthly that a Puritan meeting was “no Pike County shindig”. I gathered that he did not find anything enjoyable in going to a Puritan meeting.

Later shindig was defined as “a dance or party”.

But in 1956 an air defence exercise was called “one of those NATO shindigs”.

Reader’s Digest describes it as a merry party, probably a variation of shindy..

Then we come to shindy.

In 1961 author Eric Partridge defined a shindy as “a violent quarrel, a tremendous fuss”.

Then in 1977 E Crispin in Glimpses of Moon said “they’d kick up a shindig naturally, but it was always their husbands they were furious with”.

It can even mean a Scottish game resembling hockey, starting about 1771.

Incidentally, the word shin has a lot of meanings.

It can mean the front of the human leg, the lower part of a leg of beef, or the striking of a person over the shins, to borrow money, the sharp slope of a hill, a tree, a dog, a religion or some people who live in Kashmir.

It even refers to the plural of shoe, along with several other meanings.

I wonder of shindig can have any resemblance to knees up.

If you’re old enough, you might remember the song called Knees Up Mother Brown.

My memory tells me that the knees were continually raised while the words of the song were in progress.

It was the sort of party you didn’t tell anyone about, in case they misunderstood.

But a wild party, or one not so wild, was called a knees up.

I was never allowed go to such a party, so I’m guessing what went on.

Ask your mother.

But it was even sung at football matches, so it mustn’t have been too bad.

As for party – these days it always seems to represent a joyous gathering, but it simply means a group of people

Now I remember that my friend who said he was going to a shindig-- the comment at the start of this column -- made his comment at the club. He was probably going home to the missus and did not know what fate would await him when he arrived.

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




Do you talk or listen




I attended a conference a few weeks ago.

Although I was one of the allocated speakers and was allocated a time (the master of ceremonies said to reduce it by a few minutes because they were running over time), most of my time over the weekend was spent listening to other people speak.

It was a successful conference with a few surprises to keep us all on our toes.

Similar events are held each year.

But was it a conference?

My idea of a conference was a place where people would confer, in other words would present their opinions. But this conference had been held annually for more than 60 years in the same format, so maybe I was wrong.

My big dictionary had several entries under the word conference, including “taking counsel”, so perhaps I was splitting hairs.

After all, some of the guest speakers did give advice, whether it was welcomed or not.

The Collins dictionary says a conference is a meeting at which formal discussion takes place.

My Webster, printed in Chicago, says a conference is the act of conferring or consulting together, a meeting or discussion.

Well, the annual meeting was held and this took about one hour of the weekend.

The word conference, according to my big dictionary, goes back to 1528, in print at least. Shakespeare had a go at it, when he wrote in Julius Caesar “nor with such free and fair conference”. So did Jane Austen and many other writers.

The first English dictionary, published in 1604, said that conference meant “talking together”. It also included confabulate, meaning the same thing, which my big dictionary says goes back to 1615.

The big dictionary says “conference” has been used as a verb, but it is rare, with only a couple of examples going back to 1846.

Stephen Murray-Smith in Right Words suggests we not use conference as a verb. He gave as an example “the teachers will conference”.

Dictionary.com mentions a conference of sports teams or of church groups and it even mentions a meeting of committees to sort out differences of opinion between branches of the legislature. I don’t think that will ever happen.

Former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Alan Peterson, in his book Words, Words, Words suggests conference might have been the world’s first dialogue. He gives an example, as only Peterson could, but it would take half a page to tell it, but the main characters were Ogh and Ugh. He suggests the word talk would be just as effective.

Actually, talk would be ideal, but I don’t think it will catch on.

Firstly, not many people go to conferences to have a say. They go to listen. And a weekend conference sounds much better than a weekend of talking.

If you go to a parent-teacher interview, the teachers tell you how your children are doing and you have the opportunity to tell the teachers how they are performing. Just remember, what the kids tell you might not be correct. I suppose that goes for the teachers also.

Those interested can find many examples of conferences around Australia and New Zealand. Most conferences involve listening to other people.

It was a successful conference, by the way. Perhaps they might consider calling it something else. But not to worry – just about everybody has a conference these days, and most involve listening.

I have a good couple of words to finish a conference. They are “yes dear”.

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

Humpty depicted as an egg



While I was guest speaker at an organisation recently, and after I had spoken about Humpty Dumpty, somebody asked why Humpty Dumpty was often depicted as an egg.

I thought I knew and I thought I had written about it before, but experience has taught me never to give an opinion without checking first.

Let me give you one of the stories about Humpty Dumpty. Although several stories abound, this one seems to be fairly accurate.

Many years ago I read a story alleging the Oklahoma Bar Association was going to conduct a trial to decide whether Humpty Dumpty’s fall was an accident.

My inquiries led to the English town of Colchester, roughly north-east of London, which had several businesses that included the name Humpty Dumpty.

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

She also mentioned Old King Cole, Moll Flanders and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which was written around the corner in West Stockwell Street.

Humpty Dumpty was a very large cannon.

It was mounted on a wall during the civil war of 1648 and manned by a bloke called Thompson.

The Royalists held out for several weeks, but eventually the piece of wall where the cannon was mounted was blown to pieces. Humpty Dumpty fell to the ground. It was wrecked and the Royalists were unable to put it together again.

A plaque near the scene reads:

“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 the wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

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

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

Somebody even wanted to dig up the road to see if he could find pieces of Humpty, but the council wouldn’t allow him to do so.

This was one of many stories surrounding Humpty Dumpty.

You will notice that there was no mention of an egg, although if you break an egg you would hardly be able to put an egg together again.

The story of the egg seemed to have started with Lewis Carroll in his Alice Through the Looking Glass (Alice was the daughter of a friend). Lewis Carroll decided to introduce the egg.

An egg, when broken, could not be mended, no matter how many people were put onto the job.

The egg, for whatever reason, became part of the Humpty Dumpty story and so whenever we see an illustration of Humpty Dumpty we see an egg.

Blame Lewis Carroll for that.

And you want to know about Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Very briefly, Jane Taylor lived upstairs in her home. Her father was involved in the church and engraving. Her mother and other members of her family wrote poetry. She looked out the window one night and wrote The Star, of five verses, wondering what was in the star. The version we know is of two verses and one of the most popular poems around. She wrote lots of other stuff too, but we have forgotten about that.

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



Printer's mark and...




I heard a person describe another as a dingbat recently and my thoughts went back to my working days and to my days as a child.

Dingbats was such an entrenched word in the printing industry that I almost forgot that it had any other meaning.

In the printing industry it meant some type that was not the usual, I suppose you could call it a symbol. Think of when you want to use a pair of scissors, or an aeroplane or some symbol that could not readily be expressed in words.

Yes, they were popular in their day. Some books had thousands of symbols.

Those in the printing industry would refer to dingbats and know exactly what they meant by using the word.

But many years before I joined newspapers I heard the word used in an entirely different sense.

Dingbats referred to somebody who was – I have to be careful here – a sandwich short of a picnic or somebody who was still in the back paddock.

Surprisingly, many of the dictionaries I consulted did not include the word at all. It was almost obsolete.

Dingbats is one of those words that has many uses.

In the United States, for instance, it meant money or even a drink. Yet, surprisingly, my Webster dictionary did not include it. Neither did a couple of other American books in my possession.

But my big Oxford dictionary in volume 4 says dingbats, so far as the US is concerned, means money, thingummy and a tramp.

I like the word thingummy. It covers everything.

The big dictionary goes on to mean a foolish or stupid person and a general term of disparagement, “chiefly US”.

Then Australia and New Zealand get a mention. The big dictionary says that in Australia and New Zealand dingbats means mad, stupid or eccentric. To give a person the dingbats is to give that person a feeling of nervous discomfort.

Under delirium tremens is the example “the dingbats, I believe, are really the snakes, weasels, etc, which the sufferer sees”.

Some people still see them after a big night out.

The ding refers to a thing and bat refers to a strange connection, so I suppose there is a relationship there somewhere. The word does not seem to have a connection with anything. It just appeared.

Dingbats also referred to an army batman, such as in 1919 when WH

Downing said in Digger Dialect there was a vast difference between a dingbat in the British army and one in the AIF. I think he was saying the batman in the AIF was insane and the Briton dingbats but slightly less so, but I could be wrong.

Ding goes way back, meaning to bluster or the pealing of bells.

Dingaling also means one who is crazy or insane.

Philip Hale, of the Boston Journal, in attempting to define the word dingbats, came up with his definitions: “Balls of dung on buttocks of sheep or cattle; blow or slap on the buttocks; flying missile; squabble of words or pushing; money; various kinds of muffins or biscuits; affectionate embrace of mothers  hugging and kissing their children; terms of admiration”.

The biscuit was described as “about as digestible as a brickbat”.

But Hale missed the Australian definitions – a printers mark and a person who is eccentric.

But then Mr Hale came from the USA.

A person who is eccentric in Australia or New Zealand might be considered normal in the USA.

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



Don't be zany



In the 16th century the Italian theatre developed the commedia dell’arte, where comedies developed from ordinary life.

One of these characters in the commedia dell’arte was a clown who mimicked the actions of his principal.

The stock name for such a character was Zanni, which developed from the Italian name Giovanni, which in English was a name for John.

I wasn’t able to find an illustration before the time of Shakespeare.

Writing in Love’s Labour Lost, Shakespeare wrote: “Some carry-tale, some pleaseman, some slight Zanie, that knows the trick to make my lady laugh”.

By the early 17th century an anybody who made a laughing stock of himself to amuse others was called a zany.

From, that developed the meaning of slightly crazy.

Over the years the emphasis has been slightly less crazy, but crazy nevertheless.

Zany began life as a corruption of the Italian word for Giovanni, but he was also known as Merry Andrew.

But his name was spelt as zanni.

Commedia dell'arte (which translates as “theatre of the professional”) began in Italy in the early 16th century and quickly spread throughout Europe, creating a lasting influence on Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, sitcoms, and comedy.

Commedia dell'arte is a form of theatre characterised by masked "types" which began in Italy in the 16th century and was responsible for the advent of the actresses and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.

The name zany was broadened out to buffoon in the 17th century, but the name zany does not seem to have established itself as an adjective until the 19th century.

But the name seems to have adopted a slightly softer image, very softly.

Previously  the clown adopted a slightly awkward, even ludicrously awkward, method.

Nevertheless, a crowd of people conducting themselves like fools at a party could be considered as acting in a zany fashion. And I have seen many of them, so I expect have you.

In the commedia dell’arte a clowning servant was zanni and his role was to make fun of his master or those around him.

By the time the word entered the English language, it meant any foolish person.

My 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue said zany meant “the jester, jack pudding, or merry andrew, to a mountebank”. (A mountebank was a person who deceived others, or behaved as a charlatan”.)

Ambrose Bierce in his 1881 dictionary said a zany was a popular character in Italian plays who imitated with ludicrous incompetence the buffoon, or clown 

“and was therefore the ape of an ape, for the clown himself imitated the serious characters olf the play”. He goes on to say: “Another excellent specimen of the modern zany is the curate, who apes the rector, who apes the bishop, who apes the archbishop, who apes the devil.” Remember, this was written in 1881.

The Collins dictionary says someone who is zany “is strange or eccentric in a comical way”.

Webster says a zany is a “silly person or simpleton”.

The Macquarie says zany represents   “an apish buffoon”.

Words similar to zany might include comical, eccentric, kooky, loony, clownish, hair-brained, nutty.

Other words include combine, harlequin, pantalone which became pantaloon, even slapstick.

Maybe you would be better off if you steered clear of zany, unless you know the person really well. Maybe not even then.

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



Gillett wrote that Gardner piece


Sydney-Melbourne rivalries continue.

 I was having a cleanout recently prior to moving into a new house when I came across a news piece from The Age regarding Neil Gillett.

I heard an item about Ava  Gardner on the radio a few weeks ago.

But back to Neil Gillett , about whom I have written – many years ago.                  .

Gillett said: “I have only once written anything worth repeating – and it has been attributed to someone else”.

The comment was attributed to Gardner, who was a very popular actress in her day.

Let me go back to the beginning.

Ava Gardner was a featured actress in the film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (my copy of the book is dated 1959). The book is about the end of the earth following a nuclear disaster.

It contains a lot more than that, but you get the drift.

Nevil Shute set the film in Melbourne and American director Stanley Kramer decided Melbourne would be the place to look most like Melbourne.

After all, Melbourne was at the end of the earth, unless you included Hobart.

At the time Gillett was working in the Melbourne office of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.

He probably liked to have an occasional dig at Melbourne.

He was assigned to do an article about the filming of On The Beach.

“It was a time when, in the wake of the success of the Melbourne Olympics and because of Henry Bolte’s frequent appearance in national headlines, old Melbourne-Sydney rivalries had been  renewed with some bitterness,” he said later.

“I was to interview Miss Gardner and obtain, along with some details about her latest romance, some comments about Melbourne.

“Well, there was not much to write.

“The film people did not want to be interviewed.

“The only information about Miss Gardner  was the number of bottles of Scotch and cartons of cigarettes delivered to her flat in South Yarra.

“But I managed to concoct some waffle about locations for the film, the stars appearing in it and so forth.

“This article appeared in the Sun-Herald.

“Ava Gardner never said ‘On the beach is a story about the end of the world and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it’.

“I wrote a last paragraph andassumed thesubs would have a laugh and delete it.

 “The last paragraph that I wrote said: ‘It has not been confirmed that Miss Gardner as has been confirmed from a usually reliable source if given the chance would seriously consider whether, if she managed to think of it, would like to have put on the record that she said On The Beach is a story about the end of the world and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it’.

“But they just thought I was being my usual wordy self.

“They reduced the preamble to Miss Gardner said and retained the quotation.

Miss Gardner said later that she did not remember saying it, but would take credit

for it anyway7

“I was the envy of my colleagues for having obtained one of the century’s, that week’s, definitive quotations.

“My most sincere regret is that in working for 30 years for newspapers I have only once written anything worth repeating, and it has been attributed to someone else.


My Tamworth friend Bill Forrest was talking to a young person recently and he remarked: “You young people seem to know only two words. They are

cool and awesome. The young person replied: “What are they?”



That wicked word enormity



Many years ago, far too many for me to remember the exact date, as a sub–editor on a newspaper I deleted a contributor’s word “enormity” which he had inserted to mean big.

He came into the office to complain and received an apology from another person.

He went away happy.

Enormity did not mean big, or even huge, although some people, even dictionaries, are now accepting enormity to mean huge.

The Bloomsbury Good Word Guide, for instance, said “enormity is frequently used as though it meant enormousness but, although this usage is now acceptable in American English, most careful users if British English still dislike it”.

Enormity is a funny word. Most of us would accept it to mean huge. After all, it sounds like enormous and most of would use enormity to mean big and it would be accepted as such.

But the Macquarie says it means “a very wicked act”, Webster says it means “a very grave offence against order”, Collins says it means “a terrible crime or sin”, and so the list goes on.

Dictionary.com said “the bombing of the defenc

eless population was an enormity beyond belief”.

My problem with dictionaries is that rather than educating us on what words mean, they are telling us how we are using words. But maybe that is what dictionaries are for. Otherwise, dictionaries would have gone out of fashion centuries ago.

Eric Partridge said enormity meant extreme wickedness, and enormous meant of great size.

Enormity came into our language at least seven hundred years ago, but even then people were having difficulty with this word. My big dictionary says that in those days it meant “extraordinarily wicked, outrageous, monstrous”. But people were also using it to mean “deviating from the ordinary”.

The problem seems to have arisen when the word enormous changed over the years from meaning abnormal to huge, but enormity did not follow. So maybe enormous is at fault.

Enormous originally meant deviating from ordinary rule, monstrous shocking, but over the years drifted to huge, or extending beyond the limits set for it.

You don’t want to know similarities between the word abnormal and enormous. It would put you to sleep.

The earliest use in print that I could find came in 1545 when a person talked about “enormious sins”. It was commonly spelt as enormious.

Incidentally, a person who behaves extravagantly is said to behave in an enormitan manner, but this word is described as “obsolete and rare”.

Enorm means to make monstrous, but enorm also means of sins and crimes (rarely of persons), abnormally wicked, monstrous, outrageous.

Enormance means enormity.

Enormitan is used for a person who exceeds normal bounds, but my big dictionary describes this as “obsolete and rare”.

Enormly means monstrously.

Enormously means “abnormally, eccentrally, irregularly, lawlessly, criminally, immorally”. Couldn’t you have fun with that one.

What about enormousness? “Divergence from a right moral standard, in a stronger sense gross wickedness, heinousness”.

I am starting to think we need a word that simply means big, without any confusion.

Big, or even huge, sounds about right.

Big started out as meaning strong and it was not until the 16th century that it started to mean big.

Huge means huge.

A comment about the Third Reich used words such as “the enormity of the crimes”. Incidentally, Hitler according to some reports didn’t like being called a Nazi. It was apparently a derogatory term about backward peasants. I’ll talk about that some time.

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

The day when Julius was killed




We were in our monthly computer group, where sometimes we discuss anything that is not related to computers, when somebody exclaimed “today is the ides of March”. His next question asked what was the ides of March.

Somebody said the ides could refer to any month. Then somebody else said “that can’t be right”. Then he gave his version on the ides of March.

The discussion lasted for a big slice of the computer class, but that was normal anyway.

The ides can refer to any month.

Ides refers to the eighth day after the nones (this column is about ides, not nones).

But March is in our heads because it had a more significant reason for being there. This was the date when Julius Caesar was killed.

Before 45 BC, many considered the Roman calendar was in a mess. The year started on  March 1 and consisted of only 304 days or 10 months  -- Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December.

Then some months were added.

Quintilis was renamed July, in honour of Julius Caesar and Sextilis was renamed August Then they added January and February to keep the calendar in line with the seasons.

(The Ides of April was a mystery novel by Lindsey Davis).

Some have asked the meaning of “beware”. Caesar, the Roman dictator, appears before the “press” (crowd). A soothsayer  in the crowd issues his famous warning “beware the ides of March”. In a book I bought somewhere called Brush Up Your Shakespeare, the ides is the 15th, but not always. The ides of January, for instance, is the 13th, and so on for the other months.

Caesar ignored the soothsayer’s warning (a soothsayer is somebody supposedly able to foretell the future) and he went on to meet his doom.

Shakespeare borrowed the scene from Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar, but Michael Macrone says the scene wasn’t dramatic enough. The scene had the soothsayer saying “take heed of the day of the ides of march”, which apparently was not dramatic enough. I think Shakespeare had a few goes at ides.

Let’s just say the ides is the middle. Ides simply refers to the first full moon of a given month, which usually falls between the 13th and the 15th or so they tell me.

Webster says “to divide”. Who am I to question dictionaries? I suppose if you divide equally you will always have the middle.

Ides is rarely seen without the s on the end. But in 1483 Richard Arnolde talked

about the “ide of August”. Then in 1834 Sir Edward Lytton said it “stands fixed for the ninth ide of August”.

The first use of ides that I could find came in 1330.

Ides found several uses. It was in the title of a film directed by George Clooney. It appeared in the titles of several books.

It was even in the name of government department in the USA.

But ides can be the name of a restaurant, the name of people (Saint Ides was an Irish saint), music, even a brand of liquor.

It can even be an acronym (Intrusion Detection Expert System).

A well-respected and dignified woman in German mythology was called Ides.

But that was before my time.



Confetti messes up the ministry



Very few ministers of religion these days encourage throwing of confetti in the church, or even in the near grounds.

Their argument is that confetti is difficult to eradicate from all sorts of places.

Imagine their argument if confetti consisted of eggs, lollies or pieces of fruit. Then they would have something to complain about.

Confetti wasn’t always the little pieces of paper we see these days.

Years ago confetti consisted of almonds, eggs, coins, fruit, candles or even flowers.

Some people might even say they were the good old days, when we could aim a projectile at the enemy down the road and get away with it.

The word had goes back to Italy in the middle ages.

Think of confectionary and you will get an idea of confetti’s origins.

In the middle ages participants at carnivals used to throw objects, sometimes rotten eggs and sometimes eggshells filled with perfume, at the watching crowd. That reminds me of the school bus from Cardiff, with the boys downstairs and the girls upstairs, and the smell of rotten egg gas throughout the bus, but don’t let me be distracted.

In 1597 a bloke called Juan Fernandez de Velasco banned the throwing of eggs and other activities that we needn’t mention here and the custom went into recess for about 100 years. Anyway, eggs were expensive.

When the custom was reintroduced they were still throwing things that were likely to hurt, so mud balls became popular. Milan was a popular centre. “Go to Milan and become covered in mud.”

Milan was also a silk manufacturing centre, so mud gave way to silk.

Throwing things became popular at weddings and those Italians who couldn’t afford mud or silk began throwing lollies (and this is where we get the word confectionery, but this column isn’t about confectionery).

Then some bright spark hit on throwing paper.

By this time the custom had extended to places such as the USA and UK, where people used to throw things to bring good luck and fertility. They decided to abandon the idea of throwing almonds, various nuts, rice and dates and instead of this threw coloured paper.

It is not true that mothers-in-law threw paper still in the boxes. Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say “not true”, because I believe it has happened.

But the custom of throwing confetti spread to many parts of the world.

Now we don’t throw rice, or even money, but we throw bits of paper instead. It’s a silly custom, I agree, but they have to do something on their wedding day.

Charles Dickens said in 1846 “the spectators would strike down great bags of confetti”. In 1883 a fellow called Charles Brinsley-Richards said in Seven Years at Eton “the confetti which are flung from the balconies of Roman houses at carnival time”. The Daily News in 1895 talked about confetti “stuffed down their necks”.

The Oxford Junior Encyclopedia in 1948 said the custom of throwing confetti at weddings “was a recent change from the practice of casting rice”.

Sometimes, they threw flowers.

But if you have been jilted at the altar, you could throw consider throwing confetti at the newlyweds next time around. You might even consider not taking it out of the box before you throw it.

You could always call out “oops”.

lauriebarber.com; lbword.com.au.


You nincompoop





In 1676 William Wycherley in The Plain Dealer commented “thou senseless, impertinent nincompoop”.

I don’t think he intended that his comment be flattering.

I haven’t heard nincompoop used since I was a child. It was used often then, occasionally against me.

In the 17th century several people used the word against themselves.

Nincompoop is usually used against oneself or by a person well able to take care of himself if the receiver takes offence.

But here is a word that seems to have no real origins. My big Oxford dictionary says it has a “fanciful formation”. Other dictionaries display similar doubts. The Webster dictionary in my possession says the word is a corruption of the Latin non compos (as in the legal term non compos mentis) but I have my doubts. Am I allowed to question a dictionary?

Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary started the non-compos story when he said nincompoop was a corruption of non compos, or not of sound mind.

Other people dispute this story.

The word, or spellings similar to the word, were around much earlier than non compos was in general usage, but I’m no legal expert, so don’t take my word for it.

But I have come across the spellings nincompoop and nickumpoop that were in general use much earlier. My big dictionary says of nickum-poop “obsolete, variation of nincompoop”.

Most dictionaries say of nincompoop words such as origins unknown.

AuthorAdrianRoom says the “precise” origins of the word are unknown, but he added it was almost certainly not a corruption of non compos mentis, as had been suggested by some other writers.

The name in French of Nicholas or Nicodemis is used for a fool. The last syllabus is poop, which means something the same thing. It also means what you think it means, but that’s a column for another day.

AdrianRoom says poop used to mean cheat.

I should say at this stage that I know several people called Nick who seem perfectly normal. I even know of a person who changed his name from Henry to Nick. I know not why. He was a real estate agent, but his sister said Henry was his second name.

Craig Carver says poep (with an e) relates in Dutch to a clown and the Dutch noddy means to befool. Poopnoddy meant in the early Dutch blockhead, or a fool. A variant was noddypoop.

Michael Quinion talked about nicht, referring to a female. He added “nicht om poep might be construed with quite a different meaning”.

Quinion also mentioned the French nicodeme as meaning a simpleton and he lists a long line telling why he came to that conclusion.

Nincompoop was the inspiration for a few other words, such as nincompoopery, nincompoophood or nincompoopish.

Another word is nincompoopiana, going back to 1895. The Sunday Times on October 18, 1970, commented “nincompoopiana began in the 1880s And was triggered off by the aesthetic movement which rebelled  against the pretty and the respectable and the new woman”.

One dictionary says nincompoops are dumb and foolish and can’t do anything right. It adds that to be called a nincompoop is “definitely not a compliment”.

So, although nincompoop’s origins are in dispute, if anybody should call you a nincompoop you can take it to mean you are a bit of a fool.

What happens next is up to you.

lauriebarber.com; lbword @midcoast.com.au




















Don't have a blue or bluey



Blue and bluey are two different words. Blue and its associated expressions take up four pages of my big dictionary. Bluey takes up only a small portion of one page.

Some people near me were heading for a blue when someone saw me and asked me to adjudicate. I’m not sure what the problem was, but I said I would look it up if they stopped arguing.

They thought that was satisfactory and they went off to have a beer together. By the time they reached the bar they probably forgot what started the argument anyway.

Bluey is a swag and was so called because, at least in the early days, the outer covering was traditionally a blue blanket.

Blue, on the other hand, can cover many things, including bluey.

Bill Hornadge in his book The Australian Slanguage (he once edited the Dubbo Liberal) said a legal summons was a blue, or bluey, because it was printed on blue paper.

I never understood why an orange-headed person was called a redhead and was given the name blue. In fact, CH Baker in I Was Listening said that in the USA a red-headed man was called Red and in England he was called Carrots or Ginger. “Only an Aussie could make him blue”, he said.

GA Wilkes gave up trying to describe why a red-headed person was called blue.

“You’ve got two chances of explaining it, yours and Buckleys”, he said.

Among the meanings for blue are a fight, to run into trouble, to squander money, various animals and birds such as a duck, a parrot, a lorikeet, a dog, a lizard, an octopus and many other creatures, a flower, a bonnet, a road maker, an attack, a member of the RAAF and on it goes, including a back formation of blue.

They even made a long-running radio serial called Blue Hills.

The expression “smack a blue” means to run into trouble. The Kings Cross Whisper said in 1967 that to smack a blue was to “strike trouble along life’s way”.

I have in my collection a couple of what were called Blue Books. These were published many years ago and contain details of Australia and the prominent people in it.

I also have the other end of what some people would call blue chip stocks. I wonder what they are called when they are, let’s say, not worth much.

John O’Grady in Aussie English said blue stories should not be told to women, wowsers or members of the clergy. His book was published in 1967.

The Morris Dictionary of Australian Words has several terms for blue but it says that bluey represented a blue blanket commonly used by swagmen in Australia.

The Oxford What’s Their Story said a bluey was so named because of the colour of the blanket.

My book of Insults and Vulgarities said running around like a blue arsed fly was to achieve absolutely nothing.

Susan Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, said the swagmen’s bundle was invariably wrapped in the common blue blanket “made in Tasmania”. She added that the blanket was still being made “in Victoria”.

She added that blue was essentially Australian as the colloquialism for an argument. She added that there was no clear evidence of the origin of blue, but the best guess was that it was linked with bad language or swearing. In old England  to blue was to blush.

She said that in the Philippines it was green.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au




LE and GJ Barber

9 Marsden Crescent

Port Macquarie, 2444.

Phone 0265838286

Mobile 0412 616106

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




Don't let them bamboozle you


A few years ago a film was made called Bamboozled.

I didn’t see it and I don’t think it was much of a film (please don’t write in and tell me you enjoyed it) but it had a huge cast of leading characters. In some countries it was called It’s Showtime. It was also called The Very Black Show in France.

The word bamboozle was from my younger days and I always thought it was a cant word (in other words, a word you don’t want to know.)You would be surprised at the words that I always believed were made up until I later discovered they were in the dictionaries. By the time I discovered that it was too late to use them.

(Somebody mentioned dictionaries and asked me if all dictionaries used the same definitions,l They don’t, but many people believe they should.)

Bamboozle goes back at least 300 years.

The first use in print that I could discover was in 1703, when dramatist Colly Cibber said sham proofs were intended to bamboozle him.

You probably have used bamboozle yourself.

My Macquarie says it means to deceive by trickery or impose upon. Then it says to mystify or deceive. It says the word is of cant origin. Heinemann says basically the same thing. It gives an example: “I was completely bamboozled by the time he finished explaining it to me”.

Collins says it is an informal word that is intended to gain some advantage. It gives an example: “The sermons were intended to bamboozle the workers into obedience”.

Webster says the origins are uncertain but the meaning is intended to hoax.

Then we come to Samuel Johnson, whose first real dictionary was thrust upon the public in 1755.

He says bamboozle was a cant word not used in grave writings. But it still meant to deceive or confound. A bamboozler was a cheat.

(I came across a word from Kate Burridge. A bootylicious woman was a woman with an attractive rear. It has nothing to do with bamboozle, but I just had to mention it. I have never used it.) Kate Burridge in her book does say bamboozle is highly respectable today.

John Ayto says bamboozle is a mystery word that first appeared in print in 1703.

My big dictionary says it was mentioned in the Tatler in the context of  ”the continued corruption of the English tongue”.

He suggests it might be of Scottish origin.

My big dictionary says bamboozle first appeared in print in 1703.

It mentioned that government by bamboozle always presented considerable advantages at first sight. I know the feeling.

The word bamboozle has given us some other words, Such as bamboozled, bamboozler, bamboozlement and bamboozling, It gives an example of bamboozling with the comment “all the good language was lost upon him”.

But you can also get bamboozler jelly beans or bamboozler friends.

Of course, if you do not know the answer to a question, you can always try to bamboolzle the questioner. I have tried that a few times. Sometimes it works; mostly it doesn’t.


A few weeks ago I mentioned twin beds (referring to a long time ago) and I received a few comments. Let’s just say that next time I get married I will not order twin beds for my wedding night.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au






Gismo refers to anything




We were sitting in the computer class talking about all sorts of things, sometimes anything except computers. I go because of the Tim Tams, named after a racehorse.

Then the subject turned to gismos – “my gismo doesn’t work”, “have you tried turning it on”, that sort of thing.

I wrote down the word gismo.

Here is a word I grew up with, never knowing what it meant, but it covered all sorts of eventualities.

Gismo is a “highly technical” word that refers to anything you want it to cover, especially when you can’t think of the word you seek.

But it does have a history and it is in some dictionaries -- but very few.

I checked about six dictionaries and only one touched on it, although I am sure there must be some that include the word.

My big 20-volume dictionary says a gismo, also spelt gizmo, is a “thingamajig”.

I told you the word was highly technical.

My big dictionary quotes Time magazine as trying to define the word.

On July 19, 1943, Time said gismo was “a term of universal significance, capable of meaning gadget, stuff, thing, whozis ( now there’s a new word) or almost anything the speaker wants it to”.

The dictionary went on to refer to many newspapers and magazines that used the word. It even brought clothes hangers into the discussion.

Incidentally, whozis, also spelt  whosis, seems to have a Spanish background and means something for which a person has forgotten the name (or does not wish to remember).

Other words include whatchamacallit and thingamajig.

The word gizmo seeks to have many uses, apart from covering things that are better forgotten.

For instance, the word covers computer repairs, printers, motor garages, books (one author chose Gizmo as the title of his story), restaurants, horses and just about anything you can think of, or unthink as the case may be.

One site said a story by an author was “pretty weird”. I won’t mention the name of the author in case he’s your favourite.

My big dictionary says the word is US slang whose origin is unknown.

But if your wife asks you about that blonde you were with last night don’t refer to that blonde as a whozis,  even though my big dictionary does say “Mr Whosis” and a woman “as slick as Whoosis vaseline”. Just confess. “She’s the new mechanic. She was teaching me how to start my battery…”

Incidentally, while I was researching gizmo, I came across an item for gypsy. This, according to an item from around 1811, is a person who will tell your fortune “for a small portion of it”.

Of course, it doesn’t happen these days.



Some time ago (maybe several years) I wrote about breaking news. This was a news item on radio or television that was so important that the normal program was interrupted to report it.

Think about the disappearance of Harold Holt, or the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

But “breaking news” has become increasingly popular in recent times to report on things like a Sydney road accident

I recently turned on the news and an early item was “breaking news”.  It was in the headlines.
Now, the news is the news. It can’t break, surely. The program is there for the news.

Or am I missing something here?
lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au



What do you do in a toilet?




I went to a public toilet the other day. Inside, on one of the cubicle doors, was a sign that said “ambulant toilet”.

When I arrived home I looked up ambulant.

The Webster dictionary, among other definitions, said “moving from place to place”.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go to the toilet I do my business and then leave. I do not “move from place to place”.

The Webster dictionary added “ambulatory”, which was very helpful for those people who looked in the dictionary to see what ambulant meant.

Reader’s Digest went one better. It said “ambulatory patients may make their own morning tea”.

Imagine going to a toilet to make morning tea.

Anyway, I have seen in a few toilets the word “ambulant” and I have often wondered why this word was used – probably to distinguish it from handicapped.

The Reader’s Digest said one meaning of ambulant was peripatetic. But remember you have to move about and if you can make your own morning tea that’s better still.

I had to go to my big dictionary for its definition of ambulant.

It also said ambulant meant “walking, moving about”, but it added that the patient was not confined to bed but was allowed to walk about.

It added that ambulation meant the spreading of gangrene, which presumably means you shouldn’t sit on the toilet seat for too long.

The word goes back many years. The first use this dictionary had was from 1619, when Francis Bacon in a letter said Sir Edward Coke was in his night cap but “ambulatory”. No mention of toilets.

In 1654 a knight was “dormant, ambulant, combatant”. My understanding of dormant was, at the best, sleepy. Maybe the knight had already said good knight. But at least he was able to move about.

The big dictionary said to ambulate was to walk, or move about. It gave a 1623 definition and that was “to move hither and thither”.

The key word in my big dictionary was “patient”, so I would assume the word ambulatory means a patient who is able to walk about, toilet or no toilet.

While I was at it, I looked up the word ambulance.

His word came into general use during the Crimean War. It was a moving hospital that followed the army and treated the wounded so they could go back and be killed.

The word developed so that it now refers to any covered vehicle for sick or wounded persons.

An ambulancier is described as “a man in charge of an ambulance”. My computer put a little red line under ambulancier, so obviously it was a new word for the computer also. The word is described as “rare”.

If you want to know the meaning of amble, it means to walk. Its original use was for horses, and it came to be used for people about the turn of the 16th century.

Many toilets these days have toilets that are described as “unisex”.


This has nothing to do with ambulant. But when I was a little boy a long time ago we used to joke about the word stable and sick horses. A little while ago I heard an ABC report about a sick horse being in a stable condition.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au





Check twin beds



“The first month after marriage, when there is nothing but  tenderness and pleasure.”

That is my big dictionary’s definition of honeymoon.

In my case, it was so long ago that I have forgotten the details, but I have difficulty  remembering “tenderness and pleasure”. I’m sure it was there.

I can remember making a mistake in the booking of a motel for our wedding night.

I’ll tell you about that later, when the pain wears off.

But back to honeymoon., a word that became popular among the vulgar people in the 16th century.

In days of old, according to Jeffrey Kacirk, it was called flitterwochen, which meant fleeting weeks, the accepted term for the initial passion of love. It was later taken over as sweet month. Apparently, some lovemaking lasted a month.

I’m not making this up. Lovemaking lasted a month.

These days the lovemaking lasts around a year or so. That’s what they tell me, anyway.

In medieval times they drank lots of honey wine, that at the time was considered an aphrodisiac. It was also considered a door to a woman’s secrets.

Some took metheglin (spelt in some cases as milheglin), which was a style of mead, but it just made them pleasantly drunk. It was described as “very pleasant and wholesome liquor”.

Some say that Attila the Hun drank too much honey mead on his wedding night and died, but others say he had a nose bleed. Whatever, it was a terrible way to die, especially on your wedding night.

Some say the custom in the old days was to drink mead every night for the first month after the wedding, no doubt as an aphrodisiac. I couldn’t see if it worked.

The “phases of the moon” indicated that the honeymoon lasted a month.

Max Cryer says the honeymoon is over when “the sweetness has dried up”.

But Michael Quinion says the Royal Society of Chemistry in London advertised for newly married couples to drink honey mead for a month after their wedding. I’m not sure what was the outcome they expected and he does not explain the results. I assumed the results were inconclusive.

The Mikado indicates that the honeymoon lasted a month.

And love doesn’t wane after a few weeks. Who ever heard of such a thing? Sometimes love lasts a few years. But I must admit some dictionaries seem to talk about love waning after a few weeks – “it waned like the moon”.

I like the definition of American Chrysti Smith on a book I picked up several years ago in Florida: “When love is new, it is full of honey and sweet. But as married life progresses, love dims like lunar waning.” She doesn’t say if she is married.

I like the Webster definition of honeymoon – “generally harmonious”. Generally?

Let me tell you about the start of my honeymoon and my interest in words.

But don’t tell my wife. She still gets upset.

We were married at Inverell and spent the wedding night at Glen Innes.

I ordered twin beds because I thought twin beds were beds for two people.

When I arrived I discovered twin beds were two single beds.

Well, how was I to know?

After pushing two wardrobes together and relocating two heavy chairs and generally rearranging the room, also putting the two beds together, I discovered my bride was asleep; and I had forgotten what I was there for anyway.

But I got a good night’s sleep.

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

A garden for children




When Friedrich Froebel came up with the idea of a kindergarten for children, he could not have envisaged that the word would become such a household word that people around the world would readily understand.

It was a word that was adopted under the German name that Froebel gave it.

Friedrich wanted to create a garden for children, a place where they could develop their intelligence by playing games, singing and engaging in other activities appropriate for little children.

It was a big idea when Froebel thought about the first kindergarten in 1837, grounded in “play and activity” and the nurturing of creativity through the systematic deployment of a sequence of “gifts”, such as coloured balls, geometrical building blocks and mosaic tiles. Froebel was using nature as the model of perfection to educate children. He wanted to teach children how to learn, observe, reason, express and create through play, employing philosophies of unity and interconnectedness. 

The kindergarten that many grown-ups remember is one of songs, games, playing with blocks, finger painting and nature walks.

But today, some kindergartens have become simply smaller first grades. In his book Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman makes a strong argument that the inspiration for much of modern art and architecture can be linked to the invention of the kindergarten.

With a history of caring for young children Froebel Froebel moved to Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837 where he set up his school, that later he named a  kindergarten.  Froebel called for German women to come together and support the kindergarten. Because he described children as plants and teachers as gardeners, the term kindergarten emerged, kinder meaning child and garten meaning garden. The teachers, called kindergarteners, were called to educate the children from the earliest years through their own experiences to become integrated and whole people. In his school, Froebel emphasised play.

His books were burned by the German community.  They did not believe children needed to play in order to learn.  They thought
 his theories were outrageous.
Different countries have their own ideas about kindergartens and develop those ideas each year.

Some attempts have been made to describe the kindergarten system as kindergartenism. A kindergarten pupil has sometimes been referred to as a kindergartenism pupil. Some attempts have been made to change the name of kindergarten to pre-school but my thoughts come up with something different when pre-schools are mentioned. I don’t know about you.

The book Sydney and the Bush, which the Department of Education published in May 1980, quotes Froebel as saying that his system was based on the principle that education practices should be suited to the nature of children.

The Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopedia, which I received as a little boy, said Froebels was inspired by John Henry Pestalizzi. Froebels was dull and lonely but soon developed an education system that encouraged others to adopt his new kindergarten system.

Very few words have attached to kindergarden.

Did you know, however, that a group of young men were recruited by Lord Milner to aid with South African reconstruction after the war of  1890-1902 and they were called Milner’s kindergarten?

No? But we can all understand the German word kindergarten, no matter what part of the world we are in.

A garden for children.

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

How do you like your soup?



I don’t mind eating out occasionally.

My wife and I have eaten out at just about every restaurant in our home town.

My only complaint is that they occasionally, no, make that often, use words that are obviously from another country, just to confuse us or to make them sound more important.

I often have to ask my wife “what does this mean?” and she gives me a kick under the table.

We went to a Chinese restaurant recently and they had short soup and long soup on the menu.

Now I ask you – short soup and long soup. What are you to make of that?

Soon after, by a total coincidence, I happened to read an article by Julia Robinson, researcher at the Australian National Dictionary Centre.

Julia Robinson has an impressive reputation, so I will take her word as gospel. I don’t mind admitting that I am a terrible cook.

I learnt from her that short soup and long soup are not words that come from China at all.

They are Australian.

Short soup sometimes gets the name Chinese wanton soup and long soup sometimes has the name Chinese noodle soup.

Short soup contains wantons, which Julia describes in Oz Words as “a type of small dumpling by wrapping mall, flattened pieces of noodle dough around a savoury filling”.

Julia says the first evidence for both terms occurred in the 1880s.

But I was interested in her comment that both terms are Australian.

She commented that most of the restaurants’ customers were Chinese and “Australian drunks”. The Sydney Morning Herald explained the difference between the two soups on January 25, 2007, apparently in case you wanted to order some on Australia Day.

Apparently, short soup refers to the short wanton and long soup refers to the long noodles. That it the only interpretation I can put on it.

Chinese restaurants flourished throughout Australia a century ago, apparently even before Greek restaurants. The Greek restaurant in the place where I lived a long time ago was run by a bloke, of Greek ancestry, called Jock. He now lives in Toowoomba. But I digress.

My big dictionary takes up 14 pages to cover short. It had everything else in small type, from short sauce to shortcoming and a few rude words that you don’t want to know about. I’m not saying short soup wasn’t there; just that I got sick of looking through the pages of small type.

Incidentally, while I’m covering short, did you know that short can also mean “cut off”? How about “to grow short”. That’s what the dictionary said. How about shorten “to limit the power of” or to cut short “to interrupt and not allow to proceed”?

GA Wilkes in his book A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms talks about “short of a sheet of bark” and “a chop short of barbecue”. He even mentions “a few sandwiches short of a picnic” bit I couldn’t find short soup or long soup.

I found, in another book, a reference to “short and curleys” -- an entirely innocent origin -- but you don’t want to know about that either.

But I couldn’t find short soup. Maybe it was under “long”.

The Collins dictionary says “someone who is short is not tall”. That’s a big help.

During my research I discovered that in 1909 two “revenue officers” called to a Chinese restaurant in Hobart and asked for short soup. They were supplied with several bottles of ale. Short soup was apparently a code for sly grog, or the Chinese proprietor hadn’t learnt English.

The proprietor was charged with running a sly grog operation.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au





Do you want to get married?


Some of us have walked into a room over the years and thought “I don’t believe a person could live under these conditions”.

I have vivid memories of a newspaperman – I won’t say who he is. Years ago our federal member of parliament walked into his office just to see for himself the mess in the office. The federal member said something like “I didn’t believe it could be so bad, but now I believe it”.

This newspaperman was a hoarder. He couldn’t throw anything away, because he might need it some day.

I thought about willy-nilly when I thought about that newspaperman. He would throw things on the floor. We would walk over piles of newspapers just to reach his desk.

In time we all accepted that this was normal. If he had cleaned his office we would probably say “is he sick?”

The federal politician and the newspaperman are still alive. That is why I had better not name them.

Willy-nilly is an expression I hear occasionally, usually meaning something like in a disorganised fashion or “it will do for the time being and I will fix it later”.

The original meaning was something like against the will of the person involved.

It goes back a long way.

In 1608 Thomas Middleton wrote in Trick to Catch Old One “furnish me some money wille nille”, He was seeking money “in spite of my teeth”.

If you can imagine a bushranger of old holding up a stagecoach and demanding “hand me your money” you might be inclined to do as he says “willy-nilly”.

It comes from a contraction of “will I nill I”, or perhaps will I or won’t I. In almost every case you decide you had better do as demanded of you, whether you want to or not.

My big dictionary included a person’s idea of “carrying her off and marrying her willy nilly at Gretna Green”. I presume he didn’t go on with the idea. Gretna Green is a place somewhere between England and Scotland where marriages could be arranged in a hurry. I went there with my wife once, but we were already married, so it was a wasted trip.

The other side of willy-nilly is the expression we hear often. This refers to something that happens, whether we want it to or not.

It has nothing to do with some ribald letters I have received.  I won’t tell you about them.

Shakespeare had a go at it also in a few places. In The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio says to Katharina: “Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented That you shall be my wife; your dowry 'greed on; And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

He is saying that he will marry her, whether she likes it or not.
Other authors have referred to willy-nilly in one form or another but generally the meaning has been “whether you like it or not”.

Incidentally, as author Craig Carver details, nill has been allied to ne, which has gone out of fashion but can still be seen in words such as never and neither.

Willy-nilly can almost be the same as shilly-shally. In Sir Walter Besant’s novel The Orange Girl, written in 1898, he covers both expressions with: “Let us have no more shilly shally, willy nilly talk”.

As for those ribald letters, you will have to read about them somewhere else.

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



Can Canary cause disaster



Calamity has been described in several dictionaries as a disaster.

But Calamity was used as the “name” of a person.

Remember Calamity Jane, the film that starred Doris Day?

Well, there was a real Calamity Jane. Her name was Martha Jane Canary (sometimes spelt Cannary), a frontierswoman and a professional scout. She was also illiterate and an alcoholic.

She was a friend of Wild Bill Hickock and appeared in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. She was also a fighter of American Indians.

Much of what she said about herself cannot be proven, or she would be on a par with Superman.

She died aged 51 in 1903.

Several versions are given on the origins of calamity.

Many dictionaries say of this word “a disaster”.

If we go back far enough, we find that the word comes from the Latin calamitas.

My Macquarie says it refers to great trouble, adversity, misery or a great misfortune or a disaster.

But I like the word from Andrew Bierce, who says of calamity in his 1911 dictionary: “The affairs of life are not of our own ordering; calamities are of two kinds – misfortune to ourselves and good fortune to others”. I don’t know what he meant, but it sounded good.

But the word has been used to refer to crops as well as humans.

Eliezer Edwards in his 1881 dictionary says the word refers to the corn not being able to get out of the stalk. He quotes Lord Byron as saying this.

My big dictionary says: “fraught with or causing calamity, disastrous, distressful, full of distress, affliction or misery”. It also says “damage, disaster, adversity”.

Fancy looking up the word calamity and the dictionary tells you it “causes calamity”.

That’s sometimes the problem with dictionaries.

Calamitous means “in a calamitous manner”, almost as bad.

My big dictionary says of the damage to crops “trouble or misery”.

Shakespeare had a go at it. In Romeo and Juliet he says “thou art wedded to calamitie”.

But in 1586 Thomas Cogan in Haven Health said calamity was a grief of the head, which was a common calamity of students. So, I suppose you could say “I can’t do the HSC because I have a calamity”.

In 1754 Samuel Richardson writing The History of Sir Charles Grangdison said: “I am in calamity, my dear: I would love you if you were in calamity“. I think he means if she were as crazy as him.

Very few words come from calamity. They might include calamize, calamitousness or calamitously. How about calamite or calamitist?

Calamity has been everywhere, in books and businesses. I wouldn’t like to head a business that says calamity. I don’t know about you.

Over the past few years I have been getting a letter each week or so from Doris Day, or one of her advisers. She probably thinks I’m somebody else.

Doris Day, the animal welfare activist and former film star, will celebrate her 93rd birthday in the Californian city of Carmel (where Clint Eastwood was once mayor) at the start of April. Her 93rd party (some say 94 and some say 92) will be celebrated at her Cypress Inn.

I have been to Carmel, a pleasant coastal town near San Francisco.

The $750 package includes accommodation, several items including a gift bag and entertainers Jim Martinez, Laura Didier and Scott Dreie.

You are allowed to say you haven’t heard of them. I suppose some people have heard of them.

I can’t afford to go.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au


I found someone from Transylvania



After a long wait, even years, I found someone who came from Transylvania.

She seemed normal, but I must admit I met her for only a few minutes.

She even knew about Dracula.

It all happened because my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant and I commented on the quality of the food. You should try it sometime, only maker sure some of the staff members are listening. You might get a discount. Then again you might not.

All of a sudden the chef was at the table. I think he was the proprietor.

During a short conversation he happened to mention that his wife came from Transylvania. It had more impact than if he had said his wife came from Sydney, or Melbourne, or even Wellington.

A few days later we were in the same restaurant and his wife served us. We noticed the accent. It had to be from Transylvania.

I had a toothache, but I thought I had better not mention teeth. I didn’t know her that well.

The Transylvania we’re talking about is in Romania. It gained a reputation because of Dracula.

It is a historical region located in what is today the central part of Romania. Bound on the east and south by its natural borders, the Carpathian mountain range, historical Transylvania extended westward to the Apuseni Mountains. The term sometimes encompasses not only Transylvania proper, but also the historical regions of CrișanaMaramureș, and the Romanian part of Banat.

In the English speaking world, it has been commonly associated with vampires, mostly due to Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

The novel tells the story of Dracula's attempt to move from Transylvania to England so he may find new blood and spread the curse. 

Dracula is an 1897 Gothic horror novel by the Irish author, who I suppose could have set it in Dublin, but the impact would not have been the same as setting it in Transylvania.

And think of the publicity Transylvania has received, not all good, I admit.

I asked the tourist office about it, but did not get a reply. Lost in the translation, no doubt

Transylvania became associated in the English-speaking world with vampires.

And don’t get draconian confused with Dracula. The word draconian comes from Draco, an Athenian lawmaker from the seventh century whose aim was to reform the legal system. What he lacked in compassion, he made up in consistency. In other words, you still lost your head.

Transylvania is very picturesque, despite its reputation.

Its culture has been historically linked to both central Europe and south eastern Europe

The Munsters were also said to be from Transylvania, referring to it several times in the show both by name and as "The Old Country".

In the film The Rocky Horror Picture ShowTim Curry played a character that comes from "Transexual Transylvania".

The Sony Pictures Animation's animated Hotel Transylvania series takes place largely in Transylvania and nearby places. It recasts Dracula in a comic scenario.

In some versions of the story the Pied Piper of Hamelin leads the children of the village of Hamelin to Transylvania. The story may be an attempt to explain the migration of the Transylvanian Saxons from German lands.

A few other places include the word Transylvania. Transylvania County in the east of the USA has a mundane history, nothing to do with Dracula.  Trans means across and sylvia means forest.

I forgot to ask how the restaurant proprietor met a girl from Transylvania.

Maybe he had a toothache

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au



When you want to say him or her


 I came across an item in the Herald Sun and I had to read it twice.

It was dated December 16, 2016.

The item said: “Victorian workers are being discouraged from using heteronormative words such as husband and wife in a new guide to communicating with the LGBTI community. Instead the workers are being schooled in adopting gender-neutral pronouns zie and hir. The Inclusive Language Guide, which has been designed for use across the public sector, says it is important to challenge thinking beyond the binary constructs of male and female.”

That’s right. According to the Victorian Government, you should say zie when you are referring to your wife – I think

I had to read it twice, thinking it might have been a hoax.

But the item attracted a flood of letters. One said “who on earth is in charge there?”

Another said “pretty much everyone is sick of this nonsense, on both sides of politics”.

And two days later Miranda Devine said in the Sunday Telegraph: “A new Inclusive Language Guide urges Victoria’s public servants  to avoid heteronormative words such as  husband and wife  and instead use gender-neutral terms such as zie and hir.”

What was more distressing to me was the fact that my big dictionary did not seem to include an entry for zie, or an entry that I could find. But it did include an entry for hir. It said: “Obs, ME form of her, pron”.

The trouble was that I couldn‘t find zie in any of my dictionaries, and I have more than 30 (a couple of extra ones after Christmas).

Zie, according to Wikipedia, is a gender-neutral pronoun.

Another site said some others were hir, it, nir, ne, ze, zer, zir, they, them and person. The most common were they, them and it, but it boiled down to which pronoun the individual preferred.

A computer site said: “a pronoun to use when someone’s gender is unknown or when the individual is neither male or female. Such instances occur when addressing transgender and genderqueer people who don’t feel comfortable being addressed with masculine or feminine pronouns, computers or robots with artificial intelligence, sexless fictional creatures, angels, and the God of many monotheistic religions. “

The site went on to say: “Over the centuries, hundreds of new words, or neologisms, have been proposed, with the vast majority being abandoned by all but their creators.”

And then we come to hir.

The computer says it is another gender-neutral word.

It could be considered a blend of him, his and her.

It is considered an obsolete form of her. It used to be used in hirself.

Thomas Okey in The Story of Paris said: “I love hirso tenderly that hirspottes, her blemishes and hir warts are deare unto me.” In other words, he loved her (or should that be hir) warts and all.

But I come back to that newspaper story. I could not believe that a government department – even in Victoria – could indicate it preferred that public servants write in such a way.

After I wrote this curiosity got the better of me and I searched to find what LGBTI stood for. I found a reference: The reference I found stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex.

Don’t blame me. It’s in the book.

But I don’t think the words will catch on, except maybe in Victoria.


Oh to be choppered





Most of us, journalists included, like to be part of the in-crowd. We like to appear knowledgeable when people are discussing that disallowed try last weekend or the latest soap on television. And sometimes we feel like nerds if we don’t use the right vocabulary for the occasion.

Take chopper, for instance.

Most of us have grown up with knowledge of helicopters and some of us have even ridden in them My one and only trip in a helicopter came a week before it crashed into a petrol station in a country town with fortunately little damage apart from the pilot’s pride. But for years everybody was content to call a helicopter a helicopter.

Then one evening while I was watching the television news the young newsreader chose to say a “chopper” had been used in a medical evacuation. My first thought was “what was wrong with helicopter?”

The use of the word chopper in a serious television news report seemed a jarring intrusion, but probably caused by my inexperience in the ways of the world.

From then, the word chopper seemed to jump out from every newspaper, radio and television report. Poor old helicopter had been confined to the rubbish bin.

And to think helicopters had been around for so long. Leonardo da Vinci had conceived in the 15th century the idea of a human-carrying helicopter, even though I’m sure he didn’t call it a helicopter, let alone a chopper. The history books say the flight of the first fully controllable helicopter took place in 1936, in Germany.

But I was more interested in chopper.

The word was being used as far back as the 16th century, but not regarding any type of aircraft. A chopper was simply a person who chopped things into pieces. Shakespeare in Henry IV referred to a bread-chopper.

Over the years the word had various uses, describing a person in the lumber trade, a butcher’s cleaver, even a device for interrupting an electric current. A wartime machine gun or gunner was also called a chopper.

But it seems the use of the word chopper to describe a helicopter can be traced to the Korean War. The earliest reference I could find came in the New York Herald Tribune of December 16, 1951: “The Korean War has added some new words to the American soldier’s vocabulary … chopper: helicopter.” A few months later the New York Times reported that oil and gas producers were using a “chopper” to patrol long pipelines. The big Oxford defines the word as slang, originating in the USA.

Why did Australian journalists decide to use it? Who knows? Probably the pioneers in this use of American slang simply wanted to display their superior knowledge.

The noun chopper, however, has gone the way of so many other nouns and has been adopted as a verb. I have to point the finger at a television news report again, but the other night the newsreader announced that an accident victim had been “choppered” to hospital.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au


Do you say Christmas or Xmas?


Did you celebrate Christmas or Xmas this year?

The advertising world's penchant for fancy abbreviations has seen an increasing use of Xmas over recent years, to the extent that it is becoming more common in general use, despite a deal of vigorous opposition to it. The chief argument is that it tends to take Christ out of a celebration that came into being because of Christ.

The word Christmas gained common usage a long time after the death of Christ. Few people use Xmas for any reason other than to save space or to gain some type of commercial impact. Those who do defend its use generally say the X is a symbol for Christ.

The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary says of X: "Symbol for Christ, representing the chi in Greek, used in abbreviations such as Xmas". It carries several pages of Christmas and associated words.

The word Christian was a recognised title in the New Testament period, although according to the Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Vol 1) published by Inter-Varsity Press of Leicester, England, "it is evident there were other names which Christians used".

The book said Christanoi might "have been originally thought of as soldiers of Christus, of the household of Christus or the partisans of Christus".

"Luke, [the author of the first history of the church] who clearly knew the church there well, places the first use of the name at Syrian Antioch. Luke has shown Antioch as the first church with a significant pure-Gentile, ex-pagan element, that is the first place where pagans would see Christianity as something other than a Jewish sect. Appropriate names for the converts would not be long coming.

Information supplied by my good friend Kerry Medway at Port Macquarie, questioned December 25 as being the date of Jesus’s birth, because this was mid-winter in the northern hemisphere and the shepherds would not have been out in the fields tending their flocks by night. The flocks would have been under shelter.

In Roman times, December 25 was a day of celebration in honour of the Roman god Saturn and the feast was called Saturnalia. In ancient pagan civilisations, December 25 was the gods' birthday. In the old Roman calendar, December 25 was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis -- "the day of the birth of the unconquered sun".

When the Roman church wished to convert the pagans to its Christianity, it converted many pagan festivals into Christian festivals. In AD 354, Pope Liberius ordered the

people to celebrate Christ's birthday on the old Roman Saturnalia, December 25.

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

Kerry Medway has often spoken out in opposition to the exalted place Santa Claus has been given in Christmas celebrations. Southern Cross, the magazine of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, tells us the name comes from a fourth century bishop of Myra called Nicholas, later Saint Nicholas. Enraged by some young women prostituting themselves to pay for dowries during the custom of gift giving, he delivered the dowries himself. That Southern Cross magazine telling in two pages the story of Christmas is headed, possibly for its own effect, "Images of Xmas".

Probably the final word about Xmas should come from Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage: "Xmas is a contraction of Christmas. Barely allowable in its common use in writing and printing, is intolerable in the pronunciation Exmas.".

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Silent night at Obendorf

I was travelling through Oberndorf when the coach driver mentioned a happening in a local church one Christmas Eve in 1818.

He asked if anybody knew what it was. He gave many clues. I thought I knew the answer but I kept my mouth shut.

This was the place where Silent Night was written.

The driver said he would have stopped, but the neighbours had allegedly complained about tourist buses and so he kept on driving 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 first words, in German, went:

Stille nacht, heilige nacht

Alles schlaft, einsam wacht,

Nur das traute hochheilige paar.

Holder knabe im lockigen haar.

Schlaf in himmlischer, ruh.

Schlaf in himmlischer ruh.

The story is that in Oberndorf 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.

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.