Wordwatching: Field Notes from an Amateur Philologist by Julian Burnside, book review: 'The wonderful world of language, in so many words'


The Australian author of this lively collection of essays about language is an amiable guide to his subject. "Amiable" is, however, a stiff adjective to use when describing Julian Burnside, QC, who praises HW Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), and Samuel Johnson for allowing their personalities to colour their writings about words. He mocks philologists for their dryness, dismisses "cherished superstitions" that remain popular with conservative querulists and describes an attempt to ban the use of "mate" from the Australian parliament in appropriately matey style.

In the war between conservatives, who want to fix words' definitions, and libertarians, who believe lexicographers should be flexible and reflect barbarisms in their dictionaries, Burnside has more sympathy for the latter camp. His attitude to usage, however, isn't "laconic" because, as he explains, the word doesn't mean "laidback" or "relaxed". He'd tell you that using "laidback" and "relaxed", when either would suffice on their own, is a pleonasm. He takes issue with the use of "issue" as a synonym for "problem", although he wouldn't issue a reprimand over a linguistic slip because that "puts the victim in perpetual fear of the language and its mysteries". He manages to clearly explain why split infinitives are acceptable and quotes examples where Shakespeare uses prepositions to end sentences in.

These 56 essays, which originally appeared in the Victorian Bar News, remind us that the law is made of language and Burnside's human rights work informs his book's political agenda. George Orwell's essay The Principles of Newspeak is invoked as George W. Bush's presidency is condemned as an "incumbency of linguistic torment" and Burnside is at his best when arguing that the Australian government manipulates attitudes to refugees by labelling them "illegals". Change invigorates language but we must prevent the powerful from wilfully misusing it.

Wordwatching is longer than it needs to be and repetitions test the reader's patience. Twice we're told that English contains around 250,000 words and that "checkmate" and "alcohol" come from the Arabic terms "shah mat" and "al koh'l" respectively. Occasionally, Burnside states the obvious ("Pathos is not to be confused with bathos") and writes clumsily. He values clear communication but, as the philosopher Judith Butler told critics of her abstruse prose, sometimes it's necessary to sacrifice clarity if we want our thinking to transcend the limits of common sense. My verdict on this book is captured by "that most durable of slang terms": OK.