Introduction to the Australian National Dictionary Second Edition: Part One

Editor Bruce Moore, in his Introduction to the dictionary, describes the history and methodology of this significant work of Australian lexicography. We reproduce the first part of the Introduction here.

9780195550269The Australian National Dictionary (hereafter AND) is a dictionary based on historical principles, and it is therefore concerned with the way the words that make up the lexicon of Australian English have evolved through time.

In concept and methodology, the historical dictionary differs greatly from the kind of dictionary with which most readers are familiar—the ‘general’ dictionary, in which the treatment of any particular word begins with the most common sense in use at the time of editing, and then moves through to the least common. The historical dictionary, however, begins with the oldest sense and moves through to the most recent sense, since its aim is to chart the historical development of a word. As part of this history, it includes all obsolete words and all obsolete senses. And because it is concerned with the complete history of a word, the historical dictionary places more emphasis on the etymology of a word than does the general dictionary.

A major part of a dictionary based on historical principles is its citation evidence. W.S. Ramson, the editor of the first edition of the AND, stressed the importance of the citations in his Introduction: ‘The essence of an entry in an historical dictionary is its set of citations: these establish the chronology of a word’s use, substantiate the definition or definitions, and illustrate the range of registers within which a word has been used.’ The editor provides the reader with the earliest use of a word or meaning, and then provides a series of quotations to illustrate the use of the word or meaning over time. These citations make up the evidence upon which the definitions are based.

This is what is meant by ‘a dictionary based on historical principles’. The Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter OED) is the primary exemplar of such a dictionary, and the style and structure of the AND are modelled on the OED. Such dictionaries are historical in their structure and in their methodology, but they are also historical in other senses. Richard Trench, in his 1857 lecture that was instrumental in getting the OED project started, stressed that the historical dictionary ‘is an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view’.

Indeed, a historical dictionary can be viewed as a biography of a language and of the people who speak it. This is certainly the conceptual framework that has underpinned and guided our editing of the Australian National Dictionary. Words encode the values of a society, and it is the aim of the AND to document and analyse the history of the words and meanings that have shaped Australia.

Australian National Dictionary Centre

This edition of the AND is the product of research undertaken at the Australian National Dictionary Centre. The first edition of the AND was edited at the Australian National University and was published by Oxford University Press Australia in 1988. In the same year, the Australian National Dictionary Centre (hereafter ANDC) was established at the Australian National University, jointly funded by Oxford University Press Australia and the Australian National University.

W.S. Ramson was editor of the first edition of the AND, and he became the first director of the ANDC. The early publications of the Centre indicated the directions in which its research would develop. An annotated edition of W.H. Downing’s Digger Dialects (first published in 1919), a work that documents the language of Australian soldiers in the First World War, was published in 1990, and was the first of a number of publications with a thematic focus on a particular semantic area. Also published in 1990 was Australian Aboriginal Words in English: their origin and meaning (ed. R.M.W. Dixon, W.S. Ramson, and M. Thomas), a work that documents some 400 Australian words that came from more than 60 Aboriginal languages. Ramson established a regional reading project, based largely on Australian regional newspapers, in order to give a wider regional coverage than had been possible with the first edition. The first of the regional glossaries, Words from the West (ed. M. Brooks and J. Ritchie), was published in 1994, and provided evidence of some significant regional variation within Australian English. These works underlined the core academic work of the Centre: the historical study of the vocabulary of Australian English.

The first edition of the AND received much useful input from the Oxford English Dictionary project. Since both dictionaries are based on historical principles, and since the OED includes some material that is covered more extensively in the AND, the links forged between the two projects have been practical and fruitful. The link with the OED project was enforced by OUP Australia’s publishing of the first edition of the AND and by OUP’s joint role in the funding of the ANDC. The establishment of the ANDC as the major centre for academic research into Australian English meant that it was also the ideal place for the editing of the range of OUP’s Australian dictionaries: a new edition of the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary appeared in 1992 and a new edition of the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary appeared in 1993.

When I took over as director of the Centre in mid-1994, these two major focal points of the Centre’s research—the history of Australian words; the editing of OUP’s general Australian dictionaries—continued. The general dictionaries included further editions of the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary and the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, and to these were added the Australian Little Oxford Dictionary, the Australian Oxford Mini Dictionary, the Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary, and the Australian Oxford Dictionary. The dictionary editing extended into a range of dictionaries aimed at primary and secondary school students.

Parallel with these general dictionary publications there appeared a series of linguistic monographs that focused on various aspects of the Australian lexicon. The studies of regional Australian English, begun with Words from the West, continued with Tassie Terms (ed. M. Brooks and J. Ritchie, 1995), Voices of Queensland (ed. J. Robinson, 2001), and Bardi Grubs and Frog Cakes: South Australian words (ed. D. Jauncey, 2004). Thematic studies of particular semantic areas continued with my Gold! Gold! Gold! a dictionary of the nineteenth-century Australian gold rushes (2000), and Amanda Laugesen’s Convict Words (2002) and Diggerspeak: the language of Australians at war (2005). Our understanding of the Aboriginal contribution to Australian English was enhanced by Jay Arthur’s Aboriginal English (1996), a study of a major dialect of Australian English. The social history of Australian English was explored in my Speaking our Language (2008), and the origins of many Australian words and idioms were examined in my What’s their Story (2010).

The Centre’s newsletter, Ozwords, was first published in 1994, and was edited by Frederick Ludowyk from 1996 to 2010; it has been an important focal point for the discussion of Australian words.

Amanda Laugesen became director of the ANDC in 2012, and she has continued the dual focus on research and editing: a new edition of the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary appeared in 2013, and her Furphies and Whizz Bangs: Anzac slang from the Great War appeared in 2014.

The research into Australian English, in addition to generating the kinds of monographs outlined above, enriched the content of the general dictionaries; the general dictionaries sharpened and developed the lexicographical expertise of the Centre. Thus, whereas the first edition of the AND was a discrete research project, this second edition was produced within a research centre devoted to numerous aspects of the study of Australian English.


The first edition of the AND contained about 10,000 headwords, compounds, idioms, and derivatives. These were illustrated by 57,000 citations. The second edition contains about 16,000 headwords, compounds, idioms, and derivatives. These are illustrated by 123,000 citations.

In the Introduction to the first edition, Ramson explains how the readers for the first edition, in searching for Australianisms, were asked to be alert to:

words and phrases they believed were Australian; words and phrases in occupational vocabularies, especially those used ‘on the job’; words and phrases in other specialized vocabularies; names for animals, birds, fish, plants, and geographical features; words and phrases apparently borrowed from Aboriginal languages; colloquial expressions; proverbial expressions and catch-phrases; familiar words and phrases used in unusual ways; family or local expressions; words and phrases not in common use, especially those which appear obsolete; words and phrases which others have found unfamiliar.

In the reading for the second edition, these remained essentially the principles that were adhered to in seeking out ‘Australianisms’. Ramson, in the opening paragraph of his Introduction to the first edition, defined an ‘Australianism’ in this way:

For the purposes of this dictionary an Australianism is one of those words and meanings which have originated in Australia, which have a greater currency here than elsewhere, or which have a special significance in Australia because of their connection with an aspect of the history of the country.

This is a definition that casts a fairly wide net for ‘Australianisms’, and it has proved to be an accurate and useful working model for the new edition.

Most of the words and meanings in the dictionary are exclusive to Australia. Some others are included because while the evidence shows use elsewhere, this is often limited in currency or in regional distribution. Others are included because while they are now current elsewhere, the evidence, as it existed at the time of editing, indicated that they were first recorded in Australia, and therefore may have originated here. Some of the language used by the settler society in imposing itself on an unfamiliar landscape gave new and intensive life to older British (often dialect) terms, or tapped into the lexicons of other colonial societies, and these are included in the dictionary for their historical importance. Similarly, some occupational vocabularies, while at times deriving from British or American uses, acquired greater prominence in the Australian lexicon. This is especially true of the language of the gold rushes of the nineteenth century, which, because of the effect of the gold rushes on all levels of society and on all parts of Australia, became part of the everyday vocabulary of Australians. Many such words are included because of their historical and cultural significance.

The increase in words and meanings for this new edition derives from a number of factors. A reconsideration of the evidence for the period covered by the first edition, along with much further research, has resulted in the addition of many new words, compounds, idioms, and meanings. Australian English will never produce new vocabulary items at the rate it did in the second half of the nineteenth century, but in the past twenty-five years Australian English has continued to produce new terms, and these are part of the expanded lexicon of this edition. A few of the areas of expansion deserve special mention.

A major influence on the Australian lexicon in the recent past has been a new influx of words from Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal culture. The influx parallels the development of Aboriginal political and cultural activism, and it also goes hand in hand with an increasing interest in Aboriginal languages and culture on the part of non-Indigenous Australians. There has also been an increasing interest in using Indigenous names for flora and fauna.

Aboriginal English has also been a significant area for new words and meanings. In the first edition some reference was made to Aboriginal English, and it was described in the Introduction as: ‘that set of terms which is used mostly by Aborigines and which relates to their attitudes and concerns, made up partly of standard English words like business and clever, which have been given new meanings, partly of Australian pidgin words which have outlived the stigma attaching to a contact language, and partly of words originating in Aboriginal languages, especially words like koori, which manifest a pride in Aboriginality.’ Subsequent research has increased our knowledge of Aboriginal English, which is now recognised as a major dialect (or series of dialects) of Australian English.

A significant expansion of the material in this second edition derives from a decision to give greater emphasis to the highly colloquial element of the Australian vocabulary. There has also been an increased emphasis on idioms that embody and carry aspects of the history of Australian attitudes and values.

Read Part Two

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