Thursday, 19 December 2013

Words of 2013

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.

1.     Misogyny
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.

2.     Signature

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. 

3.     Competence

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. 

4.     Deficit

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.

11. Innovation

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

           I use the singular here, as it’s more likely to humanise the people whom Australians have 
            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. 


  1. Great post Sara. Must say I hadn't picked up on all those words - but had most of them. I laughed at your going back to an old ms because something that was original then you now feel will be cliched.

    I was fascinated by the redefinition of "misogyny" in the Macquarie and to discover that the definition had been expanded in the Oxford about 10 years ago. But I agree, that the last few years have revealed a more endemic woman hatred than I thought we had .. Or, I thought we'd grown more than we have!

    I can't really add new words, but I will add some pet hates such as "going forward". It's becoming old now but I still hate it. Another is "utilise" instead of "use". And then there's the "tight-knit community" ... Have you ever heard of a disaster occurring in a country town that wasn't a tight knit community?

  2. Yes, going forward - ugh. I like your contributions. I came across Julia Baird's in a column of hers or a spruik for a column - anyway, her 2013 word is 'selfie'. Hadn't thought of that but it's a great one, I think. And must admit I've been fiddling around with some myself, because the new i07 system has some interesting filters. I have to rest this crook leg of mine at intervals during the day and it's something to play with. Happy Christmas, Sue - am looking forward to your posts during 2014. Hope it's a great year for you.

  3. Ah yes "selfie". I think that was announced as Oxford Dictionary's word of the year this year. (And, with apologies regarding lowering the tone, we were introduced to a past word-of-the-year by Australian folkie-come-diplomat Fred Smith. I don't think it was Oxford's. It's Swaffelen - I'll let you Google that next time you put your poor old leg up).

    Thanks for all your comments this year. I've enjoyed getting to know you (if you know what I mean). Enjoy your Christmas too.

  4. My gripe word is 'passionate'. I know this word didn't raise its head above the horizon as recently as 2013, but I'm sure that, as the year wore on, I read and heard it more and more, in particular during the election campaign. The word has a distinguished provenance and it's a shame that it should be so over-used and misused.
    Everyone has to be passionate these days. A novel can't be accepted just because it's good, or (heaven help us) original. The publisher has to be 'passionate' about it.
    And writers must be passionate as well, emotion welling out of their prose or poetry, if they wish to succeed. Politicians have to be passionate about everything - such is their lot - but even they could be more discerning. My favourite grip is saved for my local Federal Member, the Coaliton's Sarah Henderson, who dared to claim, during campaign meetings, that she was passionate about the environment, the sub-text being that she couldn't give a damn but was keen to suck up to both the left and right. She also dared to label my concerns about live exports as a 'passion' for animal welfare', which made me want to puke.

  5. Oh, dear - not 'passionate'! One of the good words gone sour? I do agree that the new orthodoxy demands that readers (read publishers here too) be 'moved', that characters 'connect' and emotions are all. I guess you could call it the revenge of the middlebrow. But what do you make of a novel like The Luminaries? I haven't read it, but what I've read about it suggests that it's quite original in conception at least, and it has to have something apart from 'passion' that will carry readers on through so many pages. And then there's Infinite Jest - another I haven't tackled but, again, a marathon read, and from one I hear that relies a lot on the play of language for its appeal. So it's possible that literary fiction is making some kind of a comeback. As for the passionate in politics, as for just about anything in politics at the moment, how can any of it be believed?

  6. Oops. A typo in the penultimate sentence - 'one' should be 'what'. The perils of non-edited publication!

  7. I haven't read 'The Luminaries' or 'Infinite Jest' either, so I can't comment on either of those two, but with regard to literary fiction making a come-back, I think that one of the liberating things about digital publishing is that production costs are negligible by comparison with print publishing - so that choices that have been considered 'uneconomic' in recent years, such as maintaining a poetry list, or publishing novellas, or risky and original literary fiction, should now be re-considered. Whether any of the big publishing companies will re-consider along these lines remains to be seen. There is no reason why quality should fall; in fact every reason for the opposite to happen.