A ruby-dazzler of an anniversary
Forty years ago, on 21 September 1981, the first edition of Australia’s national dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, was launched. A green and gold cocktail was invented for the occasion (see recipe below), the room was festooned with wattle, and eminent historian, Manning Clark, carried out the launching honours. The vice-chancellor of Macquarie University, Professor Edwin Webb (below left), made a short speech before asthmatically fleeing into the night, away from the wattle, to which he was highly allergic.
Copies of the new dictionary were pored over, favourite Australianisms were looked up, cries of 'It’s in!' were heard throughout the evening. After all, this was a fully descriptive dictionary, containing the gamut of Australian English. The publishing director, Dan O’Keefe, had gone through the pages just before the dictionary went to print, looking for running heads (those bold guide words at the top of each page) that could be offensive to more delicate readers. The usual suspects were checked. The page with cunt-struck (also discussed back in 2015 after an appearance on Four Corners) as a running head was adjusted slightly to bring the more innocuous headword cup back, and so become the running head. However, much to Dan’s chagrin, one of the discoveries of launch night was a running head in a usually innocuous part of the dictionary – what could possibly be offensive around mother? Mother-fucker – that’s what.
The Macquarie Cocktail (Green and Gold)
1 tbsp mango juice
Dash of Angostura bitters
Dash of Grand Marnier
Whole strawberry, leaves attached, floating (the ‘green’ aspect)
Mint (optional additional ‘green’ aspect)
In the intervening forty years, the Macquarie Dictionary has continued to describe our language, warts and all. The internet has made research both easier and more difficult – it’s now a very different ballpark to the days of circling words in a newspaper or novel, jotting down (on the back of a chequebook!) words heard in conversation, on the bus, on radio and TV, then waiting for more citations to come in until finally judging a word to be well-used enough to be included in the dictionary.
There have been complaints about the inclusion of words referring to truly horrible racist, sexist, sleazy opinions and acts. As long as these are current in the community they will continue to be part of the dictionary, just as they are part of Australian English. Naturally, these words carry warnings in the form of labels and usage notes indicating their offensive nature.
The Macquarie Dictionary in 1981 contained about 80,000 headwords. The Macquarie Dictionary Eighth Edition, published in 2020, had nearly 110,000. The Macquarie Dictionary online has more than 130,000 headwords. The language is constantly changing and Macquarie continues to keep a finger on its pulse.