We interrupt the standard schedule of posts to bring you a spontaneous bit of philosophising. You lucky reader, you! This rare event has been brought on by two minor happenings. Firstly, I have been reading The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon, a ripping little dystopian thriller where the end of the world as we know it is caused by….get this….tampering with language. (Really, it’s a five star read. You’ll love it. But more about that on Friday). Secondly, earlier today I was cheekily responding to a punny post on my good friend Ste J’s blog, Book To The Future, when. on using the affectionate insult “dag”, I was suddenly struck by the demise of dag in the general insult vocabulary of many Australians. Cue tangential thought processes!
How is it, I pondered, that the gradual disuse and replacement of some words bothers me only slightly or not at all, whereas the replacement of some words with their American English equivalents drives me up the wall? Take for example, the word “tea”. When I was a mini gargoyle, everyone, it seemed, used the word tea to refer to the day’s evening meal. “Mum, what’s for tea?” would have been a common and repeatedly asked question in many households of the day. It even features in the Vegemite song – “We’re happy little Vegemites/as bright as bright can be/we all enjoy our Vegemite/for breakfast, lunch and tea” – so obviously it was in accepted usage. In the film Grease, Sandy invites Danny around for tea. Sometime between early primary school and high school however, the word tea in this context was gradually and completely replaced in my vocabulary by the word “dinner”. At present, I can’t think of anyone of my acquaintance who still uses the word tea, rather than dinner. Does this bother me? Not particularly. It’s simply an interesting occurence that I think about sometimes.
A more contemporary example would be the rise of the word “onesie” to refer to an all-in-one suit, usually for a baby. In my day this would have been called a “romper” or a “bodysuit”. But onesie’s cool. I’m happy to use it and accept its use by others. Doesn’t bother me.
Other slow-moving replacements grate a little bit, but I don’t feel the need to heartily defend their use. Words like “geek” rather than “nerd”. I continue to use nerd, because I feel like it puts me in the right age bracket and when youngsters use geek, I simply smile indulgently at the generational turn of the tides. When I hear the word “frosting” rather than “icing” I experience a minor facial tic, but brush it off by telling myself that frosting is perfectly acceptable – provided it is used to describe the sort of cake adornment that comes pre-made in a tub or tube, rather than the make it yourself stuff that’s done with icing sugar and water or butter or whatever. (Icing sugar…hence the name “icing”…not frosting).
This kind of language creep only sets off minor discomfort for me. But it’s that minor discomfort that begs the question: Why then, do other words, usually creeping in from American English, set my teeth on edge? Here are the few that top my list of annoying, fingernails on a blackboard words that, when I hear them coming from a non-American source, make me want to rise up in defence of Australianisms.
It’s MATHS, dammit! We say MATHS! Math is something they do in American sitcoms. Stop it. It’s driving me nuts.
The long accepted Australian term for this is lollies. Or for the older set, sweets. I fear, however, that the battle is very nearly lost on this one. When vacuous morning talk show hosts start using the word candy to mass audiences, there’s very little that cranky anachronistic gargoyles can do. But for me, candy is the single most annoying word in the history of appropriated words in my opinion. It’s fine if you’re an American. Use it all you like. Australians say lollies.
As in the last letter of the alphabet. Sesame Street has a lot to answer for with this one. Wonderful show that it is, it’s nevertheless been slowly resetting the linguistic tendencies of mini-gargoyles for decades. Australians say Zed. I was unashamedly pleased to learn that perennial children’s entertainer Peter Combe (he who advocates washing one’s face in orange juice) has included not one but THREE versions of a song on his new album, titled “Not Zee”. The lyrics run thusly:
“There’s A B C D E F G then
H I J K L M N O P there’s
Q R S and T U V and
W and X and Y and Z – not Zee!”
He was immediately added to my list of everyday superheroes. You can visit him on the web here.
So all this word witchery got me wondering, why do we only seem to appropriate en masse words from American English? Take for example, our word “esky”, referring to an insulated container used primarily for keeping your beer (or other beverage) icy cold. Why is it that we haven’t appropriated New Zealand’s cheeky and inventive term for this item – the “chilly bin”? It’s descriptive, it’s fun to say and if you say it in a Kiwi accent, it doubles its hilarity factor. I for one, would be quite happy years from now to hear youngsters assisting their parents on a scorching public holiday by carefully putting the bags of ice in the chilly bin. I’m starting a movement. Join in if you want to chilly bin-ise your little corner of the globe.
So what do you think? Are there new-fangled or borrowed words creeping into your dialect that drive you mad – or that you quite enjoy using? What do my American readers think of their words spreading across the world? Will you be part of the Chilly Bin Adoption Movement? And for my Australian readers, do something nostalgic for our language – call someone a dag today.
Until next time,