Wednesday, 4 June 2014


I was reminded of the magic pudding quality of the English language this week when Jason Clare, the member for Blaxland, asked the Prime Minister in Question Time to choose between Andrew Bolt and Malcolm Turnbull. He said, ‘Prime Minister, who is right: your friend Andrew Bolt or your ‘frenemy’ Malcolm Turnbull?’

‘Frenemy’ is one of those words we call a ‘portmanteau’—thanks to Lewis Carroll, that master chef of the English language.*

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty describes one of the strangely familiar but original words in ‘Jabberwocky’ as ‘like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word’. He was referring to ‘slithy’, an evocative combination of ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’, and also cited ‘mimsy’ (flimsy and miserable) as an example. Some other Lewis Carroll coinages that we still use today are ‘chortle’ (chuckle and snort) and ‘galumph’ (triumph and gallop).

English has lots of portmanteaus, many of which we no longer recognise as word combinations; for example, ‘transistor’ (transfer and resistor) and endorphin (endogenous and morphine). Some portmanteaus conspicuously juxtapose two ideas to draw attention to their relationship: advertorial (advertisement and editorial), and guesstimate (guess and estimate). Others, like ‘metrosexual’, fill a language gap (metropolitan and heterosexual). Portmanteaus include smog (a combination of smoke and fog), fantabulous (fantastic and fabulous), and chocoholic (self-explanatory). Anyway, there is a very long list of portmanteau words at Wikipedia, which itself is a portmanteau of ‘wiki’ (‘quick’ in Hawaiian) and ‘encyclopaedia’.

Frenemy, uttered with such glee by Mr Clare, is a compound of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’—an enemy disguised as a friend. The tension built into ‘frenemy’ has kept it sounding fresh, although it has been in use since the mid-twentieth century.

The word of particular relevance to this form of communication is ‘blog’. 'Blog' dates from the 1990s and has been accepted into the lexicon. In fact, ‘web’ and ‘log’ have been such a successful pairing that they have spawned numerous offspring, including blogosphere, blogger, blogged, microblogging, bloggerati, blogworthy, blogsploitation, blogumentary and blogwagon.

Many portmanteau words are verbal flashes in the pan. However, it seems certain that the ‘blog’ couple and all their blogeny are here to stay.

*Coincidentally, Malcolm Turnbull had just answered a Dorothy Dixer from Steve Irons, the member for Swan, about NBN Co’s performance. Mr Turnbull invoked Through the Looking Glass and the White Queen’s comment to Alice that ‘Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast’ to illustrate the Labor Party’s ‘denial of reality’.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Program or Programme

Program or programme?

No-one in the Australian Government has come out and said that we have officially changed from ‘program’ to ‘programme’, but as Markus Mannheim reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last October (was it that long ago?), public servants had initiated the change because PM Tony Abbott’s preference for the longer version was ‘well known’.

Programme, out in the paddock for a number of years, was back in the traces. And its little brother, working hard since 2007, when the Rudd Government came to power, was now being spelled. In the political world, in the case of program and programme, what goes around comes around.

Does anyone care? Should we be concerned that in Australia one of our political differences is based on how a word is spelt? Does the chopping and changing have any practical implications?

For an editor, yes. This is the fourth time in the past 20 years that we have had to change our style sheets to take account of the rises and falls of the Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee of the word world. The word ‘program’ in the lexicon of politics and bureaucracy is as common as ‘dry’ in the vocabulary of the Australian weather presenter. There are thousands of Australian Government programs. The word ‘program’ is used generically for a multitude of schemes, funds, grants, systems and packages. It’s tagged on to the back of titles such as ‘Home Care program’, ‘Home Support program’.

Just to illustrate, in the May 2014 Shepherd National Commission of Audit Report Towards Responsible Government there are 367 instances of the word in volume 1 and 543 instances in volume 2. Most are spelt ‘programme’. But in the December 2011 Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling report there are 181 instances of the word, most of them spelt ‘program’.

As diligent editors, we have to verify the names of things. Now we’re on the cusp of the changeover from program to programme. Is Program A spelt with or without ‘me’; If it’s spelt without ‘me’, do we refer to it in its abbreviated form as ‘program’ or ‘programme’? What do we do with programs established before the Abbott Government came to power, most of which are spelt ‘program’?

Editors are checkers. Now, along with every other checking task, add program to the list. I’m getting google eyed just thinking about it.

All we need is a decision from our pollies, set in stone: is it program or is it programme? Let’s be non-partisan and consistent, for heaven’s sake.