Aussie Life

Aussie Life / Language

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

Simon Collins

Contrary to popular belief, the largest and deadliest constrictors do not kill with speed and ferocity. Rather, having restrained their next meal with a shallow, non-venomous bite, they throw a few companionable loops around it, the way you might put your arm around someone for a selfie, then simply tighten those loops a little each time it exhales and, critically, don’t loosen them when it inhales. Thus, death is caused by asphyxiation rather than trauma and, if the animal is large and healthy, can take several hours. Only when the victim’s breathing and heartbeat have stopped completely will the snake relax its grip and move on to the even more time-consuming business of ingestion.

While Australia is mercifully free of such predators, the preceding paragraph may have had an uncomfortable frisson for Victorian readers, and especially so for those who happen also to be small business owners. I’m sure the Victorian government’s Covid containment policy wasn’t conceived with any goal beyond saving lives, but Mr Andrews knew from the start what sort of collateral damage such tough love would inflict in certain, traditionally non-Labor-voting constituencies, and even when that damage became too severe not to acknowledge in his daily media briefings it didn’t diminish his basilisk resolve. Only when the virus had flatlined for weeks were the paralysing strictures relaxed to any discernible degree, and so for much of the precedingsix months many of the hard-working, enterprising individuals who own and run the pubs, restaurants, shops and businesses of Victoria’s high streets and business parks, must have felt the future looked as bleak as it looks to the capybara of the Argentinian Pampas as it succumbs to the incremental embrace of the anaconda.

Unsurprisingly, the word tapped most into the Merriam-Webster website in 2020 is ‘pandemic’, and according to, the most frequently requested stats have related to national death tallies. Covid has certainly made even well-fed, war-free populations like Australia’s unusually conscious of their mortality, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which reaper-cheating strategies will inform our New Normal. As well as keeping up the exercise routines with which we have learnt to fill the lacunae created by not commuting, for example, perhaps we will continue eschewing unneccessary bodily contact. Instead of beginning a business meeting with a handshake, perhaps we will just say, ‘Show me the money.’And instead of worrying whether to kiss the hostess on one or both cheeks, and in what order, perhaps we will simply stand up at the end of the dinner party and say ‘My Uber is here’. In a post-Covid world, perhaps honesty will be the new manners.

Joe Biden is talking about the need for reconciliation, which is halfway to forgiveness. But if I was Donald Trump or Boris Johnson I’m not sure how easy I’d find it to reconcile myself to those who tweeted and posted hopes that my brush with Covid would prove fatal. Given that Boris Bashers never seem quite as visceral in their hatred as those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, I’m inclined to give the former the benefit of the doubt, and assume that most would have expressed some sort of regret if their wish had come true. With the millions of Americans who would happily have put a rabid raccoon in the White House rather than give The Donald a second term, not so much.

One Covid-related death which definitely won’t be mourned by anyone is that of 74-year-old Peter Sutcliffe, the man the British press – not knowing his identity while he was making their headlines – dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper. Sutcliffe murdered thirteen women, and one reason the police took so long to catch him was that he was a truck driver, which allowed him to commit his crimes in many different places. But his eventual arrest and conviction, while bringing relief to many communities, did not bring the job of truck driving into disrepute, and did not prompt politicians to call for other truck drivers to share his punishment. In the course of doing their job, a few Australian soldiers are alleged to have killed 39 unarmed civilians over a similar period. But unlike their British counterparts, many of our journalists have been happy to report and even express support for demands for one of Australia’s most respected regiments to share in the extra-judicial punishment for offences alleged to have been committed by a handful of bad apples.

Kel Richards

If you haven’t come across it before let me introduce you to ‘linguistic engineering’. This useful expression has been around since at least 1997 but I have only just recently discovered it. Legendary Australian journalist, the late Frank Devine, defined ‘linguistic engineering’ as ‘the imposition of an artificial set of new terms on a largely reluctant public’.He cites the promotion of the word ‘multiculturalism’ as an example of linguistic engineering. This word planted the idea that what divides us is more important than what unites us. A string of phrases being heavily promoted at the moment are also clearly attempts at linguistic engineering: phrases such as ‘unconscious bias’, ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘climate crisis’ and ‘white privilege’. What is called ‘linguistic engineering’ by the language scholars is sometimes called ‘language planning for social change’ by the Marxists. Linguistic Engineering: Language and Politics in Mao’s China by Dr Ji Fengyuan shows that Mao’s most precise instrument of ideological transformation (starting from 1949, but used especially in the Cultural Revolution 1966-76) was a massive program of linguistic engineering. The Chinese communists taught the population a new political vocabulary, gave old words new meanings, supressed words that expressed ‘incorrect’ thoughts and imposed ‘correct’ linguistic forms in order to ‘correct’ thought. And the same sort of ‘linguistic engineering’ seems to be happening in much of the Western world today. Constant repetition is the tool used to drum these things into people’s heads. Having a name for this insidious process will help us to recognise it, resist it and warn others about it.

Appearing before federal parliament, the boss of GetUp, Paul Oosting, denied that his mob had been guilty of ‘bird dogging’ Liberal MP Nicole Flint in the last election campaign. Apparently he doesn’t regard his members stalking Flint to keep track of her movements and daily routine as ‘bird dogging’. But why ‘bird dogging’? It started in 1888 as an Americanism for a gun dog trained to retrieve birds. But it eventually took on a metaphorical life of its own. In fact, several. In 1934  ‘big dogging’ was being used for a stock-broker’s agent who hunted down potential clients; in 1948 for a baseball scout hunting new talent; and in 1958 the Everly Brothers had a hit with Bird Dog, a song about a rival hunting down the affections of a teenager’s girlfriend. As the chorus explained: Hey, bird dog get away from my quail / Hey, bird dog you’re on the wrong trail. The gun dog image is not far behind that metaphor. The use of ‘bird dogging’ (i.e. stalking) as a political tactic I’ve traced back to 2003 in America. When it’s done by an obsessed fan it’s bad enough; but by a sworn political enemy it’s downright creepy and spine-chilling.

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