Sunday, 28 December 2014

Words of 2014

2014 has been a good year for the use of certain words or combination of them, or indeed their misuse, when weaseling is so out of control that when the government says one thing it can often mean its opposite. (For how many times has ‘freedom’ been invoked when cuts are made to services, or new restrictions are adopted, or ever more powers are given to police and security organisations?)  Curiously, it was Edward Tylor, the father of anthropology, who discovered in his landmark comparative study of language that in early languages the same word was often used for both one thing and its opposite, so maybe we’re just reverting to form.

It’s been a serious time for Australians.  The certainty of the longest boom in the nation’s history has evaporated, and we’re coming to realise that we missed the boat on capturing revenue from it.  This has been exacerbated by the actions of a seriously cackhanded government so anxious to attain office that while it spruiked axing the carbon tax it hadn’t the guts to axe the benefits that went with it, and its moves to contain a concocted ‘budget deficit’ threaten to further contract the economy.

So not many words for laughs this year.  ‘Shirtfront’ got a guernsey for word of the year from the Australian National Dictionary Centre after Abbott played tough guy with Putin but I don’t even want to go there.  So instead, this list, obviously not exhaustive, or in any significant order, just as the words came to mind.  If you have any comments, or any words to add to it, don't hesitate to let us know.  (Come to think of it, I did leave out those two disgraceful descriptors: 'lifters' and 'leaners'!)


There have been many calls for transparency this year, maybe because there’s been so little of it.  Proposed changes to the freedom of information act will do much to weaken it, and government cuts have already left the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the last port of call for appeal under the act, seriously underfunded.  The bill, if it passes the senate, will dispense with the office altogether.  When and if it goes it will cost $861 to appeal a refusal for information to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.  The government as well has been ludicrously secretive over its Orwellian Operation Sovereign Borders, and tight restrictions on the flow of information from the PM’s office have been imposed, not to mention cuts to the ABC.  All this, and moves to limit information pertaining to superannuation, company registers, food safety and in many other areas sits oddly with Abbott’s strident call for transparency in relation to a proposed $50 billion Chinese initiative for an infrastructure bank.


Thanks in great part to Thomas Picketty, the French economist whose book on the subject came out in English earlier this year, any doubts we’ve been harbouring over the massive con that’s been played on the public in western democracies over the past three decades were resoundingly confirmed.  It’s now almost impossible to argue that whatever’s good for the market is good for the nation, yet a mere two months after the translated Capital in the 21st Century came out, our government brought down a budget largely based on that old discredited ‘trickle-down’ philosophy.  Studies from the Australia Institute, for one, have shown that inequality has increased in Australia since the 1980s and the gap between the rich and poor will grow unless measures are taken now to narrow it.  Instead we’ve got the most punitive budget remembered, which has targeted the increasingly disadvantaged, including our young people.   

Vast majority

The phrase is used so consistently, in commentary, speeches and just about every news bulletin on air, that it may as well be written as one word, or at least a hyphenated one, for there seems to be no other kind of majority these days other than the monumentally vast kind.


Taking over from ‘surviving’ as possibly the quality most admired in people, the ability to bounce back does seem more hopeful than the capacity for just grinning, gritting your teeth and bearing it.  We heard the word a lot during the year, particularly in relation to our first woman prime minister, who had it in spades.


This is a word that crept into consciousness during the global recession and the tenacious job insecurity that’s come with it.  It’s particularly apt in describing the depressing round of unpaid or poorly paid internships introduced in all kinds of workplaces.  Many young people have had to get by for years on these, seizing the opportunities for augmenting their resumés until they can manage to bag a real job.  But real jobs with decent pay and some degree of permanency have become rare birds indeed.  In 2012, 25 percent of the jobs available in Australia were casual, and casualisation and contract labour are predicted to increase.


Once the favoured word for improving conditions for workers, it’s now code for removing protections for them.  We hear it a lot from employer bodies, conservative think tanks and increasingly and ominously from government.


Denoting the evidence gathered for use in a court of law, ‘forensic’ is used widely now to denote any thorough, painstaking investigation, be it in public affairs or in accounting.  (Might this be a reflection of the perennial popularity of crime fiction?)


Another way of saying ‘analysis’, which itself means breaking down something into its constituent parts to get a grip on its workings.   Purist English-lovers might approve, however - ‘unpack’ has the flavour and solidity of the language’s Anglo-Saxon origins, even if all the dictionary can tell us is that it’s related to Middle Low German. 

I love that

A constant on social media, where did this peculiar construction originate?  We used to be content with ‘I love the way that’ or ‘I love how’  but somehow this new way of saying it has taken over.  My guess is that it came from teen talk in America.  For me, it’s on a par with the curious ‘between you and I’ that’s cropped up, painfully, everywhere.


Once a brief, now it’s a remit.   I don’t know why.  Words swerve in and out of fashion.  ‘Remit’ has many meanings, largely to do with money and the law; the same is true of ‘brief’, but first ‘brief’, and now ‘remit’ have settled into primarily indicating any area of authority or responsibility given an individual or group.

Efficiency dividend

A euphemism dragged from the world of business and applied to public services, it’s one of the latest examples of how business has become the paradigm for just about everything else in society.  What it’s supposed to mean is that less is more, that cutting creates efficiency.  But efficiency for what, one may ask.  A public service like the ABC, for example, may gain in efficiency but lose a lot of what makes it valued by so many discerning Australians – the quality and variety of its programming and the integrity of its reporting.  An efficiency dividend for universities means – well, how do you measure that when restricted to consulting ‘the bottom line’. 


This has been a popular word for decades but its meaning in past years has been subtly transformed.  It used to apply to ecological concerns, to whether a business or activity operated in accord with protecting the environment.  Now when it’s used – and it’s used almost daily – it refers to whether a business or activity is sustainable in financial or fiscal terms. 

Price signal

Ah, what a lovely weasel this is!  It’s the latest in the ‘user pays’ tradition that got its kickstart back in the 1970s.  The populace has to be forever reminded that nothing under the sun is free, and so a fee is charged for services that once were supported through government revenue.  But after years of tax cuts offered in exchange for votes, and massive concessions to the wealthy,  governments of both persuasions find that there’s practically nothing left in the kitty.  Rather than explain why we need more taxes, or do something about closing the loopholes for the wealthy, the current government is trying to impose a co-payment for seeing the doctor.  What they’re really on about it is doing whatever they can to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state.  And this at a time when we’re going to need it more than ever. (See the entry on inequality.)