Words of 2013
Words have their currency, like any other fashion. I remember quite clearly when the word ‘resile’ was au courant. It was in the 1980s, I had left the public service, but hadn’t rid myself yet of the habit of listening to question time, and suddenly I heard it. The oddly negative but nonetheless passionately delivered construction. Minister after minister declaring, ‘I do not resile from …’ I don’t know its provenance, but there it was, the word of the moment. And then it faded. You hardly ever hear it now, though funnily enough I did just the other day, from the CEO of Vinnies as it happens.
2013 has had its fair share of repeated words, and I’m taking a stab at listing them here, with my own idiosyncratic takes on them.
Brought to its peak of exposure with Julia Gillard’s electrifying speech in parliament, the word rushing from her lips like a fire eater’s flame, it caused a conflagration on internet sites throughout the world and as part of the process even melted its meaning somewhat, transformed by the Macquarie Dictionary into a milder form of woman-hatred - something more like ‘sexism’, which was searing enough back in the 1970s. Perhaps the Dictionary could have saved itself the trouble, however, as deep-seated revulsion against women appears to still have its grip on the hairy underbelly of our society.
Most commonly used as a qualifier for ‘policy’, and in contrast to ‘misogyny’s’ fireworks, this is a word that has crept onto the horizon but is finding a firm place in our public discourse. So much so that I’ve been forced to delete it from a manuscript I’ve resurrected but drafted some years ago. The phrase I’d used was ‘my mother’s signature passions’, which was unusual when I wrote it and good for the rhythm of the sentence, but I’ve had to abandon it for fear of using of what is fast becoming a cliché.
Admittedly, in this usage the concept takes precedence over the word. The word that’s mostly used is the negative adjective formed from it – that is, ‘incompetent’. ‘Incompetent’ is bandied about almost unthinkingly to describe the shortcomings of any person or group of persons, most particularly our governments, with the noun ‘incompetents’ also employed to the same purpose, with monotonous frequency. But underlying these criticisms is the ideal of competence. Which seems to suggest that this is what we prize above all. Just that something is done right, with minimum fuss and expense – an ever-receding chimera as we sigh our collective sighs.
There’s no greater sign of incompetence than the size of the budget deficit (though its percentage of gross domestic product is a much more significant marker). We didn’t used to worry about government deficits, and we still don’t cavil when it comes to spending on things like defence. But ever since the GFC our tidy little surplus has evaporated, and now we have a hole instead of a pile of cash. Our current prime minister has been given to comparing government budgets to household ones, but any economist worth her salt will tell you they are very different beasts. The last time we had a holy grail of a surplus we let a lot of essential services run down, there was a shortage of skills and our infrastructure was sorely neglected, so that an argument could be made that if government investment in these areas had been allowed to proceed our economy would have greatly benefited. This applies just as much today as it did then and possibly more so when interest rates are just about as low as they can get.
5. Debt ceiling
This particular piece of idiocy is yet another fercockte idea lifted holus bolus from one of the most dysfunctional government systems you could think of, and had no business here in Australia at all. We finally saw what damage it could do when the US government was shut down because of the Tea Party’s ideology-fuelled shenanigans in the US congress. The Coalition government should be congratulated for dispensing with it.
6. Carbon tax
The bogey of the decade, a tax designed to discourage polluters from polluting and to encourage consumers to change our wasteful habits but for which exemptions were made and compensations were delivered, and still we found it intolerable.
7. Climate change
The whole point of the above. No matter how many scientists in how many reports warn about its dangers and the consequences for our children and grandchildren, never mind the people today living in low-lying regions, the public has been made to believe that it isn’t a problem - even as ever more frequent, more severe weather events have affected thousands so far. For the rest of us, these catastrophic bushfires, cyclones, blizzards, receding glaciers and rising sea waters tumble about ominously on our television screens. I know otherwise intelligent people who have been convinced by the garbage they read on the net that climate change, or global warming as it should be called, is some colossal con perpetrated by conspiracies of one kind or another, or is due to sun spots. (They assert as well that the climate has cooled over the last decade or so, when the records show the opposite is true, that the global temperature has been on an irrefutably upward trend.)
8. Marriage equality
The High Court has decided that ACT’s legislation allowing same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, but only because the feds have had jurisdiction over matters nuptial since the establishment of the commonwealth. The ruling disappointed, but also offered hope, because the judges took pains to observe that marriage, a bond between ‘natural persons’, has evolved over time and thus their unanimous opinion was that it was gender blind, and in fact always had been until the 2004 amendment of the act which stipulated that it had to be between members of the opposite sex. What parliament did parliament can undo, the court ruled, and so it’s only a matter of time. It’s true that back in the 70s marriage was seen by many of us as an oppressive institution, and so it was initially puzzling that gays wanted anything to do with it. But they’ve made their case, and in spite of the Christian lobby’s efforts, the issue is not going to go away.
9. Anytime soon
Okay, it’s not a word but a phrase, an adverbial one, but how many times in the past twelve months have we heard it? I rather like it – it lends a nice kind of emphasis while avoiding stridence to whatever it happens to qualify. But when does an apt phrase become a cliché?
10. Identity theft
Is this today’s ‘signature’ social panic, comparable to the Cold War bomb scares and terrorist fears of yore? Count your passwords. Measure the stress.
We all approve of it, until it’s actually attempted. Most of us loathe change but disguise the fact by asserting we welcome it. What has actually changed over the past year is now in real danger of changing back. Think of the educational reforms, designed to base funding on individual students’ needs, and so at last sideline the vexatious class issue of public schools versus private. Or the NBN, that was meant to drag Australia into the 21st century by replacing outmoded copper wires with fibre – something undertaken overseas decades ago.
12. Child abuse
The shocking revelations of various inquiries and commissions leave us in no doubt that institutions given licence to care for children are far too often the sites of their unbelievable abuse. Most frequently, these are religious organisations, the Catholic Church being the most iniquitous. The insistence on celibacy is the culprit here, but the fact that it occurs in other institutions where it doesn’t apply means that a pernicious culture of sadism and exploitation needs to be addressed. Most importantly, at last the victims are being heard.
13. Asylum seeker
been encouraged to dehumanise. We have a history of dehumanising people – think of
the treatment of indigenes and the notions of white supremacy that informed it, virtually
unchallenged into the 1960s and beyond. Just as the perpetrators of child abuse are
being made to account for their actions today, those responsible for the unconscionable
treatment of people who jump an imaginary ‘queue’ by risking their lives at sea will be
called to judgment one day.
The list is not exhaustive. There are other words that have graced our conversations this year and if you have your favourites please let us know. It's been a bumpy ride, 2013, and the coming one will have us holding on tighter, but here's to love, friendship, kindness and the wondrous currency of words.