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Lingofile Blog

Lingofile is here to appeal to your passion for language. Professor Kate Burridge posts musings about language - please join the discussion below.
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Bastards & buggers- using corpus data

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“Which one of you bastards called this bastard a bastard” [allegedly uttered by Australian cricket captain Bill Woodfull during the Bodyline series of 1932-33 in response to the English captain Douglas Jardine’s complaint that one of the Australian players had called him a bastard]

A little while back my colleague Simon Musgrave had the idea to examine the Australian National Corpus (or AusNC) for evidence of the linguistic behaviour of two key expressions in the Australian English vernacular: bastard and bugger. So while I dug up the dirt on the history of the two terms, he investigated their appearances in various collections contained in AusNC (and if you haven’t already, do have a look at these collections at What Simon uncovered was a wonderful illustration of what corpus data can do, so I thought I’d share the findings with you here.

Both bastard and bugger started life as extremely potent terms of abuse, but semantic bleaching, shifting taboos and general societal changes have left them considerably weaker in sense and in wounding capacity. Bugger is now a mild expression to insult or let off steam, and routinely shows up in the public arena in expressions of frustration, surprise or disbelief (Bugger me! I’ll be buggered!), of mateship and endearment (you lucky bugger), and a range of other light-hearted phrases (playing silly buggers). Bastard alsomakes regular public appearances, sometimes to express anger or frustration at something or someone (sneaky conniving bastard), though under different circumstances it can also signal positive attitudes, such as compassion (poor bastard) or affection (he’s a good bastard).

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Neologasmatron - new words 2014

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Well, it’s that time of the year again — the arrival of a new batch of dictionary updates.

I should emphasize though that this particular batch hasn’t been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (as was the case for the one I reported on in March this year), but rather the Oxford Dictionaries Online ( The ODO is much faster to include the quirks and fads of the vernacular, and these may or may never make it into the OED. (The OED has to be cautious — once an entry, always an entry in this roach motel for words*!)

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Judging others' language

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With guest blogger, Allie Severin.
'It's wrong, but I often can't help but judge someone based on their use of language' (research participant). It shouldn’t be new to anyone reading this that people like to criticise the way that other people use language. You only need to read the comments section below online newspaper articles or YouTube videos to see lots of examples of it. You too are likely to have demonstrated a dislike for someone else’s language at one point or another. Whether it be their pronunciation, spelling, grammar, or punctuation, there’s probably something that has riled you. Perhaps my use of the ‘Oxford comma’ in the previous sentence made your blood boil. Regardless of what it is that irks you, the underlying feeling is a common one. Fredrick Marryat encapsulated the concept well several hundred years ago when he said, “My language is pure; thine, when it differs from mine, is corrupt”.

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Prescriptivism and the internet

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Guest blogger Allie Serverin continues the discussion about prescriptivism.

Two weeks ago I wrote here about the theoretical debate surrounding prescriptivism and my work on language attitudes for my Honours thesis. As part of my PhD, I’m expanding on this work and examining prescriptive behaviour as it occurs on the internet.

If you are looking for examples of a specific language behaviour these days, you will have a high chance of finding it online. People produce texts on the internet in all kinds of languages and dialects, using both standard and non-standard forms. The result is an immense wealth of linguistic diversity. As with all human behaviour, however, displaying difference in the language we produce opens us up to critique.

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Rhymin’ Matheson Lang and Other Segaugnal Terces

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There are hundreds of secret languages out there. All of them, like rhyming slang, distort words in some way. This serves a dual purpose — secrecy and solidarity. The disguise prevents bystanders or eavesdroppers from understanding what’s being said, at the same time as operating a bit like a ‘clique’ or in-group recognition device. Being able to manipulate language in this way means that you’re automatically part of the gang. Sometimes it’s also a matter of identifying activities, events and objects that have becomeroutine for those involved, much like slang and jargon more generally.

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Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).