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.)


  1. Love your words, Sara, but of course can't think of other ones off the top of my head right now. However, I do have a couple of comments to make. One is the curious "between you and I". What makes it even more curious is the concomitant (is that the right word, perhaps not) use of "me and my sister ETC ETC". That's been around for a while of course, but it seems to be creeping into more, dare I say it, educated speech?

    And then there are the cliches. Whenever there's a disaster or tragic event my husband and I can't wait for "the outpouring of grief" followed by the "close-knit community". Can't the newsreaders and commentators hear what they are saying and realise how meaningless these terms have become. (It would be surprising if there these didn't happen in the circumstances being described.)

    As for transparency, I've been thinking that, for all that Aussies love to criticise the US and feel superior because of our (increasingly illusionary) social justice policies, the US tends to have a better record on transparency than we do. (Or, is that an illusion too?)

    Wah, the Notify Me checkbox isn't there, so I won't know if you or anyone else comments on this post. Weird as it's been there for a few months now!

    Anyhow, thanks for a year of wonderfully thoughtful posts. I've enjoyed reading them.

  2. Thanks again,WG. It's a true MAS (mutual admiration society) as I've so enjoyed your posts too. And yes - you and me ... I've given up trying to break my youngest and very bright son of that - it's a genuine Gen Y signifier. And yes, all those cliches. 'Loved ones' is one that's particularly cloying to me, but when I try to think of an alternative I go blank. Perhaps these all need a hyphen or two, as in vast-majority, or ala Joyce or Faulkner, vastmajority.

    As for comments, I don't seem to get any other than from you and Dorothy. Don't know what gives, because Charlotte does seem to get a respectable number of hits. One day I'll figure it all out!

    Best for 2015, and happy reading.

  3. Ah, Gen Y signifier. That makes sense. Irritating nonetheless! And yes, "loved ones" is another. I don't know, wouldn't "family and friends" or just "family" depending on the circumstances be better. "Loved ones" does make assumptions!

    Re comments - there's as much art to it as science. Often my most popular posts aren't my most commented. Sometimes, too, comments come from people you've developed a relationship with whereas hits come from anyone. It's easy for book bloggers or food bloggers because they naturally comment on each other's blogs. But "commentary" blogs like yours don't have as natural a home I think.

  4. I get you, WG. And a very happy 2015 to you. Many thanks for your interest and your enthusiasm for books. It's so important.

  5. A terrific list, Sara, and a timely one as well. I'd like to add 'passionate' - I seem to recall mentioning this one last year, but it bears repeating. Also, since I judged a literary award in 2014 and read seventy plus book cover blurbs, i couldn't help noticing the tiresome over-use of 'moving', 'betrayal' and 'loss'.

  6. 'Passionate', yes. I do remember. 'Moving, betrayal, loss'. Will try to remember. Perhaps should open a word file soon for words. 'Transformation' is one I've recently come across. It's corporate code for cutting functions and jobs. Thanks for your contributions and thanks for the interest, as always.

  7. Thanks. Sara. The words on your list are examples of double-speak, whereas my additions are ones whose meaning has been leached away through over-use. It occurred to me to wonder whether there are words that can be repeated again and again without losing any of their force. (Love? Hate?)
    And on the question of opposites - I once heard it said that English is the only language in which 'a slim chance' and 'a fat chance' mean exactly the same thing...

    1. Ha ha, I love that Dorothy ... Slim chance, and fat chance.

      I enjoyed your comments on book blurbs too ... I try very hard to avoid those sorts of words in my review for that cry reason. I reckon half the boks I read are moving. It's one of the main reasons we read I think, to be moved. Not the only reason, but one of the big ones.

      Related to "passionate" is "passion" as in "find your passion", "I'm following my food passion", etc.

  8. Harumph ... Sorry for the typos. I really must watch what the iPad is doing more closely!

  9. It is too hot, fortunately, for passion. And impossible to move. That would betray my dedication to laziness. As for typos, WG, you are not held responsible for what your devices do. (Device? Another?) Not with their predictive text gremlins.

  10. You lazy? Methinks not. You are very kind re typos, but I fear 1984 might be upon us if we don't take charge of our devices!?