Anyhow, Julian Burnside — what a funny bastard. For those of you not in the know about the Antipodes’ Atticus Finch, he is a QC and AO, the latter having been bestowed ‘for service as a human rights advocate, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers, to the arts as a patron and fundraiser, and to the law’. You might have noticed him around town in his natty tortoiseshell glasses. Also, he likes words quite a lot, enough to have written a very engaging book about them.
If you’re going to ask me why on earth you should read anything written by someone whom even Lisa Simpson might find an irritating polymath, then you should probably go away and think very hard about your attitude. Then come back and read the rest of what I’ve written about Wordwatching, because you’ll be missing out otherwise. Wordwatching is a blissfully accessible collection of ‘essays’ (I think of them more as ‘riffs’) about words, their meanings, and their histories. What makes it such an agreeable companion is its combination of nerdy humour (one chapter is called ‘All’s Well That Ends -al‘), industrious research, and a love of language which shines through the simple prose.
I’ve already excerpted a couple of choice bits from the innards of the beast, but suffice it to say that Burnside has a wide-ranging pen, and many of his observations in Wordwatching give rise to ‘ohhhhhhhh’ moments. There’s plenty of trivia about words, from the familiar origin of the word furphy (the last name of the Shepparton man who made water carts used in Gallipoli), to the more obscure origins of the word poppycock (from the Dutch pappekak, which means soft shit). One chapter, ‘Deadly Sins’, simply takes a look at the origins of words such as lust, vainglory and gluttony.
Observations on the coming and going of words show that Burnside sits in a mindful spot between the philologist poles of conservatism-at-all-costs and let’s-go-with-the-flow. It’s a stance that I share, and he makes it a very sympathetic one, displaying a clear distaste for the misuse of existing words, and enthusiasm for neologisms that fill the many voids of the English language. Some of the usual suspects are investigated, such as that pet peeve of many English language enthusiasts, ending a sentence with a preposition. That long-lived nuisance is put to bed without dinner, with the aid of examples from Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte.
It’s no surprise, given his work with refugees, that Burnside has included an essay titled ‘Doublespeak’, in which he discusses the troubling Orwellian propensities of the Howard Government’s neoteric, whitewashing terminologies. He also ends the book on a similar note:
The essays in this book are mostly intended as harmless play in the richness of our language. But all play has a larger purpose, and taking pleasure in the language should at least make us concerned to protect it: not from change, but from wilful misuse. When innocent victims of oppression become ‘illegals’; when immigration policy becomes ‘border protection’; when ‘global warming’ becomes ‘climate change’, it is time to be alert and also alarmed.
What a good man. Wordwatching is like a hug for word nerds. As my friend Kelvin would say, ‘get in there’.