truth

REPROACH

SPECU-CRANK: WHY US WORDS LESS AFTER BIG BAD TIME

You know how it goes. A huge meteor hits earth (thus becoming a meteorite), or perhaps a zombie plague brings us to the brink of extinction. Maybe an environmental catastrophe sees us the forlorn custodians of a desert planet, or a mysterious electromagnetic pulse wipes out nearly all our technology and forces us to loot supermarkets and sift through all our garbage dumps for useful implements.

What happens next? The surviving survivors fight each other for survival, racing around after each other in souped-up cars instead of saving all that petrol to light the BBQ on which to cook the non-survivors for dinner. Sometime we band together against adversity—in these situations, we often return to some kind of semi-agrarian-semi-hunter-gatherer-type lifestyle, often with a bit of new religion thrown in for good measure. Men grow beards (even in some movie versions); women apparently still don’t grow leg hair despite a general lack of razors and waxing establishments. People are dirtier, tougher, better with guns.

And also, often, our language devolves. We use fewer words, and string them together in less and less sophisticated ways. We sound more like children learning to talk (though frequently much less inventive). We say things like ‘tomorrow-morrow land’ (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) and ‘true truth’ (Cloud Atlas).

Now, why should this be? There is no particular evidence to suggest that the Vikings or the Romans or the Picts or any ancient nomads or hunters or farmers had childish language, despite their lack of choice in upholstery fabrics, fusion engines and mobile phones.

Sure, we may need fewer words to describe caffeinated beverages in the future (though I bet we hold onto that last bastion of civilization for as long as we can), but we will probably need more words to describe various types of pox, different kinds of blasted earth (glows in the dark, burns, sentient, stinks of death etc), and of course not forgetting the words we’ll need to describe those indescribable alien invaders who look like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

Language changes, but there is no reason to suppose a “simpler” life results in a simpler language. Even the idea of what constitutes a “simple” life is suspect. Is a simple life one where your daily goal is not to die of starvation, cold, tetanus or mutant bear bite, or one where you aim to reach your daily Fitbit goal of 10,000 steps?

Our relationships will also remain complex and precarious—a failure to observe protocol and cultural norms may be less likely to cause us to be passed over for a promotion and more likely to result in death. What advantage would there be to reducing our ability to express our connections and relationships? Absolutely none. So unless we are being forced to reduce our vocabulary and grammatical complexity by fascist overlords (1984), I see no reason for it to occur. Using simple language to indicate “simpler” times is lazy. And also annoying. [1] Don’t do it.

ALICE CANNON, MELBOURNE

  1. I mean seriously, those kids in Beyond Thunderdome were more annoying than Ewoks.
Try describing THIS post-apocalyptic scenario with only a handful of nouns and even fewer adjectives.  A monster Easter egg , halftone print, published by David Syme & Co, Melbourne, 1 May 1896. State Library of Victoria, IAN01/05/96/12.

Try describing THIS post-apocalyptic scenario with only a handful of nouns and even fewer adjectives. A monster Easter egg, halftone print, published by David Syme & Co, Melbourne, 1 May 1896. State Library of Victoria, IAN01/05/96/12.

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CRAZY TALK

FREE DINKUM

There’s not been much dinkum about lately. Poor dinkum, only wheeled out during election campaigns, when one candidate wants to seem more sincere, more fair, and moreover more Australian than their competitors. 

In fact you never hear the word ‘dinkum’ without ‘fair’. Dinkum is apparently always fair.

But what does ‘fair dinkum’ actually mean? ‘Fair’ means ‘fair’, obviously, in that those who are deserving get what they deserve, and ‘dinkum’ apparently means ‘fair’ or ‘true’, making ‘fair dinkum’ either somewhat of a tautology or something along the lines of ‘really fair’ or ‘truly fair’ or perhaps even ‘the true truth’. [1] In other words, it is just a rhetorical flourish to indicate the speaker really really means what they are saying and is hoping you’ll be fooled into believing them by using a phrase that was probably never actually spoken aloud by diggers, battlers or even nineteenth-century shearers, even though it sounds like the sort of thing that could have. Those that use it should really be mocked as soundly as those who use ridiculous expressions like “a fair shake of the sauce bottle”.

Well, it is time to free dinkum from its shackles. Dinkum—the fairest and truest word for all that is fair and truthful in the land—is being tarnished by people who later are found to have been making ‘non-core promises’, and it makes me sad.

Further, I hope to expand dinkum into a true Australianism, one whose precise meaning in any one situation can never truly be defined except by reference to very specific contexts, complex relationship structures and subtle body language, like our use of the word ‘bastard’.

Think of the possibilities! As an exclamation, an expression of bliss, or as a reference to a particularly fine ale—“sweet dinkum!” As an indication of troubled times, witchcraft, or attempts to betray, deceive or sabotage—“what dark dinkum is this?” As an indicator of all that is pure and unaltered, or a harsh truth—“this is the raw dinkum”. (The latter meaning could also be conveyed by the expression “cold, hard dinkum”). A wonderful cacophony or a clever and complex mischief might be referred to as “glorious dinkum”.

The possibilities are endless. Once you have started, you will not be able to stop. Save dinkum from shabby nationalism and embrace it as part of the true language of the people.

ALICE CANNON, MELBOURNE

[1] There are other theories as the etymology of dinkum. Apparently fair dinkum was what ‘fair drinking’ sounded like when said by a somewhat inebriated person, but what does that even mean, really? Various internet commenters who may or may not be fair dinkum have suggested it comes from the Latin ‘Veras de cum’, shortened to ‘ver de cum’, meaning ‘with the truth’. Another theory is that the word came from Chinese gold miners, who said ‘din-gum’ or something similar when they found gold nuggets. But that internet commenter wrote in all-caps, so I doubt their veracity. Slightly more reputable sources (Melvyn Bragg) suggest it came from the English Midlands and meant work, ‘fair dinkum’ meaning a fair day’s work, and subsequently fair play.

Dinkum goes with everything, except perhaps turkey. Tomato sauce wins that round.  [Photograph of advertisement for F. Humphris & Sons tomato sauce, Adelaide and Jamestown], ca. 1910-1930. Glass plate negative. State Library of Victoria, H2009.61/59.

Dinkum goes with everything, except perhaps turkey. Tomato sauce wins that round. [Photograph of advertisement for F. Humphris & Sons tomato sauce, Adelaide and Jamestown], ca. 1910-1930. Glass plate negative. State Library of Victoria, H2009.61/59.