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February 20th 2015 print

Robert Solomon

Language: Evolution or Revolution?

It is one thing to observe that meanings change, and can even reverse over a couple of centuries, but quite another to encourage a current misuse, invariably based on ignorance. People paid to use words really should make the effort to set a good example

wordsAmong the many words and habits of speech I have been recording consistently since the 1980s, the most rapid incidence of change has probably been our pluralising of nouns in just the last few years. Although my first record is of ABC News saying in 1996, “The Commonwealth has no rights to block …”, the practice has now become universal. Whether Americans ever used the generic singular, I don’t know, but for many years they have spoken and written almost every noun in plural form and, like so many of the changes we make, our usage almost certainly comes from there. The obvious reason is that we are exposed to so much American talk—not just in entertainment, but also in news, current affairs and interviews on all forms of media (see “Americanising Australian English”, Quadrant, December 2006).

However, we have to ask how accurate is the perception that change has accelerated. Time speeds up as you get older, very noticeably, and it’s effectively impossible for an individual to measure how many words change form or meaning in a given time. Bear in mind that in 1959 Alistair Cooke commented that English had succumbed to American influence at an unprecedented rate since the Second World War. Yet today’s all-encompassing mass media blanket, including the much-quoted twenty-four-hour news cycle, far exceeds anything Cooke experienced during his Letter from America years. That is to say, gradual evolution has given way to a rate of change so rapid that we can observe it happening.

I have noted more than a few imported words or meanings heard or read very occasionally over several years which, quite suddenly, become mainstream. One on the very brink at present is bathroom. For long it has been an American euphemism for our toilet. Why such sensitivity about a universal function need be displayed among people who happily apply arse (admittedly euphemised to ass) to any situation, and for whom motherfucker is far from taboo in public, is a deep mystery—one which is made deeper when we find that some US commercial aircraft (perhaps old-stock aeroplanes) still display signs to the lavatory, itself a forerunner of toilet.

The point at issue, however, is that twice in recent weeks I’ve been asked the way to a public bathroom by strangers in the street, one looking slightly embarrassed as though he knew he was being rather effete, and have read it several times in local publications. The switch is near.

Likewise beginning to make an impact is passed for passed away (died)—a new euphemism of a euphemism. My longtime neighbour’s son said it the other day—“he passed”—and though he may have been a Lebanese supporter of South Sydney, I knew he wasn’t talking about football.

How change happens

In discussion with a friend who is a very aware and well-qualified English teacher, the question often arises as to how a new form of word or phrase or its pronunciation is taken up. In the vast majority of cases it is, in my view, simply copying what is heard or read. Why else would a professor of English write about an agreement she had signed off on instead of simply signed, as she had for most of a lifetime? As with a child learning words from hearing Mum and Dad, no thought is involved; the process is automatic.

This diagnosis of unconscious transfer was recently confirmed by a conversation concerning no less than bathrooms. A Canadian lecturer was interviewed on Radio National’s By Design program about her book Bathrooms, which was of course about toilets. Host Fenella Kernebone spoke of toilets and dunnies and halfway through the interview the author stopped using bathroom and took up toilet, though I doubt she maintained her conversion back home. A little earlier, in mid-2014, ABC stalwart Geraldine Doogue interviewed an American academic about the fighting near Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The interviewee said ker-kook (as in coo), Doogue said ker-cook, then in her next enunciation the American said ker-cook!

There are some occasions when thought may be involved rather than simple imitation. Among the first of the plural nouns I noticed was behaviours. This is a word much associated with psychologists. Might they at some stage have wanted to indicate the many kinds of behaviour defined by them, by talking and writing the plural? Certainly neither my childhood nor my children’s was marked by speaking of behaviour in the plural. Nor have we turned our holiday experience, or our life experience for that matter, into experiences.

Plural nouns

Other recent examples of pluralised nouns are, from the ABC: “We had our bloods measured” and “very low incidences of” (from Catalyst), “damages to the reef” (AM), and “gained automatic qualifications for the semi-finals”. RN Breakfast’s guest Paul Bongiorno (from commercial media) thought “the public should be taken more into the confidences of the government”, and the wordy Phillip Adams on Late Night Live adopted the universal American plural when speaking about the state of the accommodations after a London fire in the nineteenth century. A News reporter said, “Pay him $50 for his troubles”, while others spoke of a situation causing hardships and of provisions for long-service leave. Confusion is periodically caused by describing the hospital conditions of sick or wounded people.

While distinguished author Shirley Hazzard consistently spoke about her experience, her interviewer used the plural and a lesser female writer talked about correspondences with friends. Prime Minister Abbott said in June that we should avoid taking unilateral actions and provocations. On British television, the personable Griff Rhys Jones took us to scenic Snowdonia, “a place of wonders and mysteries”. No, Griff, you surely were taught “wonder and mystery” at Bangor or Aberystwyth. And it seems that our generic sport, covering the whole wide field of activity, is now gradually succumbing to many years of American sports. The plural nouns appear to be written as often as spoken, the most recent noticed being a review of critical essays about Tim Winton, under the heading “World’s apart: Winton’s visions, sacred and profane”.

The most jarring abandonment of the generic singular is in established phrases. As I type, I hear a Radio National reporter saying “Other sporting bodies need to lift their games”. To lift your game is a stock phrase. There are no plurals to lift. Then an experienced journalist, Jane Cadzow, writing about Susan Peacock/Sangster/Renouf, recalled her watching Sangster’s horses passing the winning posts. Indeed, there were several horses in multiple races, but passing the post is what each was doing. An Aboriginal spokeswoman thought the White Australia policy still exists: “make no mistakes about it”.

Other stock phrases which have been pluralised are “take actions”, “the devil is in the details”, “land of opportunities”, “cash for comments”, “difference of opinions”, “tries his hands”, “conflict of interests”, “ideas whose times have come”, “out of sights”, “for goodness sakes”, “paragon of virtues”, “focus our attentions”, “in the grips of a transition”, “shooting from the hips”, “harms outweighing the benefits”, “flocking from the countrysides”, “beauty in the eyes of the beholder”, “look me in the eyes”, “smokes and mirrors”, “all hands on decks” and (on railway stations) “mind the steps”.

American lifts

Words and phrases which have undoubtedly come straight from the USA or have been greatly boosted in recent years are: aywol, back-to-back, ball park, beltway, boot camp, closet, cookie, crotch, curve ball, first lady, get-go, gobsmacked, go-to man, grade, groundhog day, heist, homicide, impacted, intern (noun), issue, lay (present tense), left field, legitimate (verb), licence plates, lifeguards, lines (queues), locker room, marquee player, meet with, not-for-profit, obligated, on the team, pick/picky, pick up on, raft, raised (brought up), report card, road map, scam, showcasing, sidewalk, sign off on, slew, start line, step up to the plate, stomp, S.U.V., swim team, tear down, transportation, trash, visitation and wildfire.

Perhaps the most regrettable of these imports is first lady, which is at odds with feminism, our political system, and even our national identity. Having been involved in requesting the Governor of Tasmania, as the University’s Visitor, to make a Visitation on a matter of public importance, the practice of investing park visitors with the same elongated version of visit runs the first lady close for inappropriate usage. As to the sense of applying President Bush’s ill-chosen two-dimensional road map for the Middle East’s multi-dimensional problems to everyone else’s, no more need be said.

At present, the most commonly used of all the words listed above is impacted. The verbalisation of the noun is one of many recently arrived, recalling the observation that any noun can be verbed. I always hear impacted with regret because it has a physical dimension lacking in affected, which it has completely replaced. On the positive side, the substitution obviates the frequent confusion of affect and effect. Although we’ve had closet intellectuals, homosexuals and others hidden for a long time, the cupboard in which Old Mother Hubbard stored a bone for her dog has become a closet for nearly every purpose. Perhaps Ikea still sells kitchen cupboards. In the media, the report card beloved of American schools has completely taken over reports of all kinds, implying that any departmental issue may or may not have passed the test. And what have always been classes or years are giving way to grades.

The most useful of the several sporting terms above is surely ball park, whose most common usage is adjectival, as a ball park figure in far too much economic news. On the other hand, the application to cricket of baseball’s step up to the plate must have Messrs Grace, Trumper and Bradman turning in their graves. I’m not really sure what a marquee player is, but he seems to be a celebrity performer whose name has been up in lights, as on the marquee hoarding of an American theatre. Few of those who greet an unexpected arrival as having come out of left field would have any knowledge of baseball, but ignorance of origin applies to many of the sayings we use. Only recently one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s dwindling stable of bright correspondents revealed that the small quantity of pins before mass production made it worth looking for a needle in a haystack and gave rise to the pin money doled out by husbands to dependent wives of earlier centuries.

On the food front, where take-outs are displacing take-aways, the venerable David Jones department store has had a cookie bar for some years, though Coles and Woolworths still sell traditional biscuits. Now I’m advised by an organisation based at Oxford that it will be placing small amounts of information on my computer and that “these small text files are known as cookies”, thereby providing yet another digital path to see how the cookie crumbles.

Pick was in use long before (American) Bob Dyer’s Pick-a-Box show of the mid-twentieth century, but we have mostly chosen things, until recently when first pick for sporting teams has replaced first choice. As with pick, intern has long been in use, but specifically for new medical graduates doing a practical year in a hospital. Since Monika Lewinsky’s infamous White House experience, intern has been applied to all kinds of in-training jobs. A raft of policies is a useful concept, suggesting a certain binding together, whereas the slew of urban high-rises mentioned in the Australian seems less cohesive. That paper’s well-known American connections (plural) appear to make it more disposed to American terminology.

In a mere ten years or so, the American verbal stomp has completely displaced the English inclination to stamp one’s foot, but I suspect that bits of steel are still stamped out in engineering works. Bureaucracy’s beloved rubber stamp has been relegated to museums by computer-ware, though a few well-heeled correspondents can still afford a stamp at the post office. More confusing than stomp and most other American adoptions is the use of the verb to lie. In English, people lie in the present and lay in the past, but lay down their arms or the law. Americans mix the two tenses for Australians to follow, so the ABC reports “bodies laying in the street” in Ukraine and “couples laying low” in surrogate-birthing Thailand. This substitution of laying for lying continues to be associated with lack of education but observation suggests the distinction is disappearing. Likewise, the hard-sounding obligated is replacing obliged, and legitimate has been heard instead of legitimise.

The very longstanding transportation seems to be making a comeback, both here and in Britain, which is a pity because it means exactly the same as transport but has a special Australian connection with the convict era. With similar American elongation, the not-for-profit organisation is driving out the non-profit version. In a column on our draw with the All Blacks in August, Rugby legend John Eales wrote math, rather than our established maths, as an abbreviation for mathematics. He has probably heard do the math too often in American films, but if he’d waited till September he’d have heard two Nobel Prize-winning scientists, one American, the other a Queenslander who spent twenty-five years there, saying “a little experiment in math” and “keep your math up”.

Inside the Beltway has been spoken by a select few, presumably advertising their insider knowledge of the Capital Beltway encircling Washington DC, and thus meaning matters of interest to government.

Replacement and transfer

What about words which have changed their meaning or been transferred from one association to another? My now longstanding regret is the loss of anticipate by equating it with expect. ABC television constantly promotes its “most anticipated” programs, when its managers mean the ones they hope we will view in a week or two. Grinding our teeth we may be, but we aren’t taking action in advance, which was the essence of anticipate: “seeing the gun and anticipating the shot, he threw himself to the floor”.

Possibly more regrettable (being evidence of national ignorance) is the unique accomplishment of substituting the word regional for country or rural areas. Its evolution is worth recounting. The ABC has a regional network covering the nation. Twenty years ago, it began talking about regional areas, which is a geographical impossibility because a region is an area defined for a specific attribute—topographical, economic, demographic, linguistic. Regional variations (the essence of geography) embrace the whole of a political entity, recognised historically in Britain and France and economically by the Soviet Union. Brisbane is not excluded from the system because it has fewer sheep or more people than the Darling Downs. Regional areas developed into “rural and regional Australia”, used often enough for economic journalist Ross Gittins to christen it RARA-land. The final step was sometimes dropping the surplus areas and talking about regions as though they only exist outside the city.

Also with a geographical component and more so a geological one is epicentre. To me, it gives no more weight to a report that X was the epicentre of activity than if it were simply the centre. After noticing its increased use following the Aceh earthquake of 2004, I discovered that it has a much longer provenance in the USA. In my view it is a useful technical term whose subterranean location is understood by a fair sample of the general public and would be better not confused with surface activity.

Issues continue to be a problem, not least because they acquired another meaning than the point in question or the matter at hand when Americans didn’t want to talk about problems and chose to turn issues into opportunities instead. This was discovered by journalist Jennifer Hewitt when she was the SMH’s Washington correspondent in 1998. One discerning reader said her problems turned into issues about the time her life became a journey. It’s a real problem when the word is used in two senses in the one sentence, as on the ABC news: “They’ll issue a White paper on the issue.”

Oversight, meaning failure to notice, an omission, has in a few years lost its twentieth-century meaning by equation with overseeing or supervising something. And just as the verbalised gifted is easing out given if a (free!) gift is involved, critique, strictly an essay in the art of criticism, is being substituted for criticise, as in “she critiqued the episode”. And as I write, the Director of ASIO is described as out­going, not merely friendly but retiring this week.

Sports commentators are well recognised for making their own jargon and mangling language generally, so it is no surprise to find young men playing their first Test match equated to young ladies entering society at a bigger ball as debutants, while champion batsmen scoring 100 runs are called centurions, thereby stealing the title from Roman army commanders. Two stock phrases which are in the process of interchanging are heart-rending and gut-wrenching, with heart-wrenching frequently heard in the last year or so. This fairly clearly stems from people who are simply unfamiliar with established forms of speech. Similarly, honest people used to hand in a wallet found in the street and give themselves up for assaulting the milkman. Now the news bulletins constantly have people handing themselves in like lost property.

Prepositions

The misuse of prepositions (including adverbial use) is a whole field of its own, which I summarised in 2011 as “The lost world of the preposition”. In brief, many people have no idea which preposition goes with which noun or verb, and in just a few years the little word into has become a substitute for several companions, especially the littler word in. The pandemic of into exceeds the earlier rash of towards, afflicting all levels of education.

Having spent my most productive years in doing research and reviewing evidence on particular subjects, I readily notice the constant refrain of research into everything. My earliest record is from 1990, and we have had official reports entitled “Royal Commission into …” since the 1990s. We can speculate that into suggests a deeper level of inquiry than on or in, and if any thinking is involved has been adopted for that reason. In any event, it loses the distinction between in and into. And where would it leave Little Jim’s signature cry in The Goon Show: “He’s fallen in the water!” Nowadays he’d fall into it, among the molecules.

One of the most awkward spoken uses was exemplified when “the diamond tiara snapped into two”, but we hear things put into place, authors immersed into the subject, a poll into the community, techniques introduced into the country, volumes deposited into the library, things pale into comparison, and a study into happiness (not mine). People have been locked into battle and placed into work; there was an examination into Sydney’s Olympic bid and a champion was relegated into second place. The Royal Flying Doctor Service and the NRMA invite me into membership, the First Fleet arrived into Sydney (as flights are now reported to do constantly) and the Law Reform Commission had a reference into the civil justice system.

The Brits may be even less literate, starting with the BBC’s “land bridge between Siberia into Alaska” in 2000. More recently a forensic scientist in Silent Witness said “you don’t need to put her into danger” and the star of Silk (BBC) claimed “Darren was induced into giving evidence”. Back here, an economics writer wants “to put it into perspective” and “place company X into receivership”, while a leading female director says “I don’t really put my mind into it”. We even face into (redundant here) problems, get access into (to) particular zones, are remanded into (in) custody, and are lost into (in) the sea (or at sea). An increasing population is looking/moving/going forward into (to) the future and some are even managing into (for) it, while a sports journo discusses “a good introduction into (to) Test Rugby”. There is simply no end to into.

Around is rapidly being substituted for about, which is a pretty basic confusion when a “discussion around” something is clearly less focused than one about it. One of the Nobel scientists above used it constantly. The worst form of this usage is based around (on), because it’s also impossible: the base is the foundation, so things are on or around it. On has been added to a range of verbs in only a few years, with Americans again the model. With monotonous regularity politicians deliver on or make good on promises (or fail to) and every member of a discussion group picks up on what her sisters say, but the pizza parlour and the post office still simply deliver their tangible goods.

Redundancy is another habit that seems to be increasing, especially with the lack of awareness that re- in front of a word usually means back, so we don’t return back, reverse back or regress back. Among the many defaulters, the most notable has been the fluently literate vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, who said, “revert back to a situation where …” Carping, you say. Yes, it is. But how do the learned slip?

The use of whilst by less than highly educated officials making public statements always catches my attention because I was never taught it and have never used it. But this archaic form of while is still beloved of lawyers, including linguistically aware human rights advocate Julian Burnside. And why, but for ignorant imitation, would a regular columnist describe a car as careening out of control, when they mean careering, not the act of cleaning the hull of a wooden sailing ship? There’s just one letter difference.

Current and budding favourites

Leading the popularity stakes for more than twenty years has been iconic. Like several other expressions derived from computer language (such as conversations not involving talk), the symbols on the ubiquitous screen have far transcended the rarely described, small, mostly religious paintings of sixteenth-century origin. Indeed, icon has been applied so indiscriminately that as early as 1994 the SMH journalist Tony Stephens wrote an article about icons breaking out all over. He determined that Lindy Chamberlain was now an Australian icon, along with the Opera House and the yet-to-be-built Darwin–Alice Springs railway. Richard Walsh had claimed that magazines like Women’s Weekly were cultural icons, and others nominated the Qantas kangaroo, Chesty Bond and a restaurant’s basil-infused tuna. A year later John Huxley chose Ned Kelly as an icon for all occasions, asked how a nation could manufacture so many icons, and observed that other English-speaking countries were much more restrained in applying icon to their national treasures.

While there is much to surprise us in our digitally connected world, we are increasingly likely to be gobsmacked. It is not quite as American as it sounds because, like gotten and a few others, it is old English preserved in America; in this case sixteenth-century northern English slang for speechless or amazed.

A word now being repeated every day when definite is meant is definitive. Defining the field, the last word, usually by outstanding writing, is quite different from being precise or fixed, and I can attest to the pleasure of having a book reviewed in those terms. Not so pleasurable is a British Museum worker finding that “this head was definitively covered in paint”, a journalist reporting a politician refusing definitively to rule out a return (of course), and a legion of talkers finding it too early, awkward or inappropriate to come to a definitive conclusion. Political commentator Michelle Grattan may have summed up the problem: “Perhaps one can never be definitive.”

Why incidence (first occurrence) should be confused with incident (event) at this stage of our literate progress is hard to fathom, since they have always sounded alike—and the tongue-tying plural is worse. No less than the former editor of the News of the World said on Four Corners in June (before going to jail): “Nor do I have recollection of any incidences where phone hacking took place.”

We should not underestimate the influence of hearing others get it wrong, but that doesn’t explain why there’s been a sudden rash of speakers and writers using that word when they mean overestimate, as in “you cannot overestimate the value of honesty in politics”.

A quick summary of words used so often as to be jargon or travelling in that direction concludes this survey. The runaway winner—and most degraded—must be passionate. Its popularity surged with the Sydney 2000 Olympics, but I don’t know whether that was helped from afar. The third edition (1964) of the SOED defines “vehement emotion”, “affected with the passion of love” and the first edition Macquarie of 1981 is not much different. By 1993 the NSOD had not moved much, “affected by strong emotion” giving the general flavour. Roget’s 20th Century Thesaurus currently provides synonyms of a sultry kind. So what has happened is the application of a word meaning very strong emotion to everyday matters like work, shopping and sport. We now have passionate teachers, players and musicians, let alone republicans and monarchists, and possibly even ditch-diggers and slaughtermen. They must all be exhausted.

Another well-established word to be given a recent boost is decade. For long it has been a useful span for comparative statistics, helped by official census counts favouring that frequency. History books have used decades a bit, though centuries are much more useful. But people think in years, starting with their age. So why have media commentators, partially followed by the public, begun to count in decades, and occasionally (stupidly) refer to “half a decade”. Why not a tenth of a decade or a hundredth of a century? I keenly (but not passionately) await the person who, when asked his age, replies “six and a half decades” or “five decades and two years”. And dealing with time (necessarily a period), who now speaks about it without the padding of period or frame? Even people educated to the eyeballs do it. When an old friend turns up and tells me, “Long period of time, no see,” I’ll let you know.

When the Australian cricket captain talks about batters, who in baseball turn into legends like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, we wonder whether he is soundlessly acknowledging the increasing profile of batswomen, or whether he has been influenced by the fishers who have with excessive bureaucratic zeal replaced 5000 fishermen and two fisherwomen wielding rod and line.

Boxcutters came to prominence thirteen years ago when some brave passengers (mostly customers now, but guests of Virgin) used them to attack the hijackers aiming for Washington DC. Until then we used Stanley knives, made by a leading American tool company. Critters, presumably derived from creatures, are becoming more prevalent, not least among the wildlife protectors.

Predictive models are all the rage in the early twenty-first century, seemingly moved from research laboratories to the street by years of climate modelling publicity. The danger is that real evidence may be disregarded while the models guide our actions, for like all computer programs they are as good as the data fed into them. Economic and political commentators are now rarely heard to speak of plans, projects or systems: “modelling shows that …”.

At the other end of the certainty scale is consumer sentiment: feeling based on emotion. What a dumb measure of economic well-being (not to say use of language), when a single piece of legislation, the death of a distant ruler or an earthquake in Haiti, can cause a blip on the stock exchange. Sentiment is as often as not interchanged with confidence, which is really what is measured, and sounds slightly more relevant to investor behaviour.

Matters such as economics, language and history, regarded as areas of interest or study since Adam was a boy, are beginning to be regarded as occupying a space. But talk of working on a matter “in this space” makes it sound vacuous. Better to keep one’s feet on the ground than introduce a third dimension. Where does it come from? Too many advertising prompts to “watch this space”? There may be no silver bullet for solving this question and I risk being dumped on by those who disagree. At least I should avoid a trip to the doctor’s office, which used to be his surgery.

Pronunciation

There may be thought or deliberation in some pronunciation, though we would need a true confession to establish the fact. The word which comes first to mind is the frequently used circumstance, following the English pomp and circumstns and embracing the common Australian short a. So when I hear approximately one in two speakers say circumstahnce it sounds affected. It seems that in one of our small number of regional variations West and South Australians (Julie Bishop, for example) use the long a (as in grahnt for grant), but I cannot hear it in the east without thinking the speaker (a newsreader, for example) is trying to sound upmarket.

While we’re on pronunciation, what about centenary? With one hundred years since the First World War began and preparations afoot for the hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli in 2015, the word is much in use, as it has also been for a leading girls’ high school celebrating its first 100 years. I’ve always held that centenary matches scenery and plenary and that it is the adjective with two ns (centennial) that rhymes with ten: sen-ten-ee-ell v sen-teen-er-ee, but in the last few weeks I’ve heard just two of many Radio National speakers and none of the high school cele­brants say sen-teen-er-ee. Educated Australians are now more likely to say the ten version. Why? For once my preference is supported by the NOED and even by the Macquarie.

Another oft-used word, particularly in all-too-frequent economic discussion, is leverage, pronounced in about seven cases out of ten as levverage after the American. They have levvers, we have leevers, so it’s easy to see who influences whom. As for maroons, naming the dark-red-jumpered Queensland Rugby League team, I simply don’t understand how it can be pronounced like tone or roan, when simple comparisons like moon and soon exist. However, it’s Macquarie’s first choice for the colour (although not for being marooned on a desert island), suggesting that the usage goes beyond Queensland. A few years ago, maroon and maroan were roughly fifty-fifty among Sydney media talkers. This year, discussing the State-of-Origin match, every single ABC reader said maroan, making it sound like policy, not easy to detect in any other network use of language. The NOED of course indicates the double-o sound for both colour and isolation.

Staying with pronunciation, and therefore with American influence, a recent arrival which seems to be growing is rowt for route. We have always said root for this word of French origin (with rout having other meanings), but Americans sometimes write rout for a roadway and not surprisingly say it as spelled. Another Americanism creeping into Australian speech is the short o for process. We have typically pronounced it as in pros and cons, pro bono or pro, the abbreviation for a sport professional. Americans say the o in process as in hot.

Not obviously American is the use of worried with a short o instead of the inherited wurry for one of those tricky English words that don’t sound as they are spelled. This presumably is practised by those who have not been taught the English form. Hurricains are now everywhere, from football teams to meteorology, and ceremoany has overwhelmed our partly swallowed serre-menny. Only recently noticed has been the local copying of the American erra for era (eera), and with trepidation we await a similar conversion of assma to azma for asthma.

Without any American assistance, the citizens of New South Wales have seriously detracted from the sterling exposure of political corruption by the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), by adopting the gratingly awful acronym eyecack. One would think that a politician like Bob Carr, whose voice is (unusually) a major asset, would reflect a sufficient appreciation of language to avoid like the plague such an ugly-sounding expression, but unfortunately not. And in early September every member of a Q&A panel chose to say eyecack rather than the almost as short initials, which hint at the name: eye-see-ay-see.

Americans and Australians are generally hopeless with foreign words imported for general use, with lon-jer-ay for lingerie being the most obvious over many years. The latest example was Radio National’s Richard Aedy interviewing designer Collette Dinnigan about the success of her lon-jer-ay in Paris, and she dutifully repeating the distinctly un-Parisian pronunciation. How an ie ending in any European language can be spoken as ay is a mystery. So it was a relief to hear Inspector Lewis (Morse’s former sergeant) in television’s Lewis approximate the French with “It’s a lahn-jer-ee chain”. Rather more often used is the also French camaraderie, which is pronounced pretty much as spelled, but not by the many Australians of all classes (most recently the well-spoken Speaker of the House), who mix it up with comradeship and say com-rard-erie, com-raid-rie or similar.

Change for better or worse

Nobody would deny that language constantly changes and evolves, but when nearly every professional linguist repeats “language is a changing thing” as a rather dismissive first line of defence, one wonders what is left for them to advise us on. In the view of this interested amateur (who struggled with Chaucer in English I), it’s one thing to observe that meanings change, and can even reverse over a couple of centuries; it’s another to preside over a current misuse, invariably based on ignorance.

So, reiterating an old view, it is the responsibility of people paid to use words to get them right for the time. The man in the street can say what he likes. Somewhere between him and the broadcaster are the salesmen and women who telephone daily about their better rates for your telephone, computer, electricity or gas. Almost without exception, they say, “I’m calling in/with regards to your …”. They have mostly learned American English, because the confusion of an expression of esteem with the verb to look at is widespread in that influential country.

The sales callers are by no means alone. Whether we’d do any better if we were brought up on programs of quick, clever, humorous word play like QI and Would I Lie to You? is a nebulous question because we see and hear them here, but are not clever enough to make them. This may not be seen by our basically anti-intellectual culture as an important question, but if it caused just a few people to take stock and stop saying life is better now than what it was, I’d be grateful.

Dr Solomon has edited Federal Gallery, the journal of the Association of Former Members of the Parliament of Australia, since 1997. He has been writing articles on language usage for Quadrant since 1995.