It is the dictionary of Australian English, expressive of all classes and of our multicultural society. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with it because of my frequent reference to it in my word-nerdy posts.
Today, though, the editors excelled themselves.
On the day when Facebook cut off access to all Australian news channels— sadly including sources of information relied upon by particular social groups such as Indigenous communities, domestic violence support groups for women and families, and local information networks— as a result of a disagreement with the Australian government over market share and finances, the Macquarie tweeted that Australians have been zucked.
An obvious play on the F-bomb and Zuckerberg, it’s a clever new portmanteau word.
A portmanteau word is one created by blending two existing words or parts of words to create a new word. The name comes from a portmanteau, which is a type of suitcase that opens into two halves. This dates back to Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’:
We use portmanteau words every day, without many of us realising how they were created:
Botox — botulism toxin
Brexit — British exit from the European Union
Bollywood — Bombay and Hollywood
Email — electronic mail
Fortnight — fourteen nights, so two weeks
Sitcom — situation comedy
Webinar — web seminar
English is actually full of these words, as it’s a form of wordplay that has been around for hundreds of years.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but there seems to be some misunderstanding about the function or purpose of a dictionary, particularly on social media.
A good dictonary serves a number of functions:
Dictionaries record language as it is used. Words are added to a dictionary when they become frequently used by the people who speak the language. One can’t just make up a word and apply to have it included. It needs to become part of the commonly spoken language of the people first.
Dictionaries give meanings of words.
Dictionaries provide accepted spellings of words, and often include alternative spellings. This varies according to the country of publication, particularly when it comes to the differences between English and American spellings of words.
Dictionaries often give advice as to how a word should be pronounced. This too will vary according to common usage in the country in which the dictionary is published. Some dictionaries use the regular alphabet to achieve a phonetic respelling, while others use the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Online dictionaries do all that, and also offer voice recordings to demonstrate pronunciation. They also provide direct links to thesaurus entries and related words.
Dictionaries can also settle arguments. They are helpful in adjudicating spelling games such as Scrabble, and settling arguments about how a word is spelt or what it means.
There are, however, things that dictionaries neither seek nor claim to do.
A dictionary is not a rule book for the language. Just because a word isn’t in the dictionary does not actually mean that it’s not a word. If people say it, and other people understand it when they do, it’s a word.
An Australian dictionary is not useful for recording American English, and vice versa.
A dictionary generally doesn’t give the etymology of a word, although it might suggest that it’s an old, obsolete or archaic word. There are etymological dictionaries that do this, but they are far less popular than the regular kind of dictionary with which most people are familiar. Some etymological dictionaries are specific to a particular area of study, while the Online Etymological Dictionary is a vast resource of the history of a plethora of English words and phrases.
A dictionary generally won’t include words that have fallen out of use. In the large dictionary on my desk at home, words like ‘forswunk’ and ’trustful’ are no longer included, while they would have been many years ago. It doesn’t mean they are no longer words: it simply means the likelihood of someone wanting to look them up is considered far less than someone wanting to look up ‘exhausted’ or ‘melancholy’ instead.
What’s the best dictionary to use?
Most people will find the greatest value in a dictionary which is compiled, written and published in the country in which they live and work. Most people will want one that is up to date.
For Australian English, I love the Macquarie Dictionary. For UK English, there is nothing that surpasses the Oxford English Dictionary, but the Cambridge English Dictionary is very good, too.
I have no preferred dictionary for American English, because I don’t use one. (If you can make a recommendation, please leave a comment!)
Old dictionaries hold particular appeal for scholars, teachers and lovers of language. They can be invaluable resources for authors and readers, too.
As I often explain to my students, language adapts and evolves all the time. People invent new words, or blend old ones, to create new meanings or to explain something in a new way.
I’m always fascinated by the process, and take interest in which words are being “added to the dictionary”. Even that phrase makes me laugh, because we all know there’s more than one dictionary, and they don’t all add new words at the same time.
The article titled Five New Words To Watch comes from the Macquarie Dictionary Blog.
The Macquarie Dictionary is my favourite for a number of reasons. Macquarie University is my alma mater, and back when the first Macquarie Dictionary was being written and compiled, I had the privilege of having two of the contributors as my lecturers and tutors in English and Linguistics. More importantly, the definitions are clear and easily understandable, Australian colloquialisms are included, and the pronunciation guide is provided in the international phonetic alphabet, which I love.
Yeah. Nerdy, I know. But if you’ve been following my blog for three minutes, you’ll know I’m unapologetic about that.
I hope you enjoy this article. If you’d like to tell me your favourite newish words, or words you’ve invented, I’d be super happy for you to leave a comment!