Click for menu
Julian Burnside's Wordwatching


field notes from an amateur philologist

From the hand of Julian Burnside QC comes a book, seemingly unconnected to Mr Burnside's main professional engagements as a Barrister and human rights lawyer. Could that really be the case?

At Project SafeCom we don't think so; we suspect that the spirit, intent and probably also the content of this book is strongly related to Mr Burnside's ongoing speaking out about Orwellian language coming from the Australian government. That's also the reason the book is amongst our collection of "essential tools" for refugee advocates and other spin-busters.

If we take Mr Burnside's article about Doublespeak as a guide, this book is likely to be a tool to help you stay awake while listening to the news coming from the Murdoch and Packer network about the ongoing slaughter of Iraq and its people, and it will help you understand what Attorney-General Philip Ruddock tells you about the ASIO laws, and it will help you read press statements from DIMIA and the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone about mandatory detention.

'The book swirls and invites the reader to dip and dive into its richly entertaining contents ... There is a real love of language here and the book is full of wonderful stories about the magic of words.'

Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald

'A book which is rich in the diversity of language forms is Wordwatching: field notes from an amateur philologist, by Julian Burnside. This is a witty book with attention given to the power of words and how they can be used.'

Christopher Bantick, Sunday Tasmanian

'an exquisite pleasure'

Warren Hately, Fremantle Herald

'Barrister, refugee advocate and arts identity Burnside has made a welcome contribution to the genre of handsome little books about words and language ... this is full of amusing and amazing trivia.'

Robin Osborne, The Northern Rivers Echo

'Erudite and eclectic musings, with a whimsical edge, on the linguistically curious and aptly adaptable.'

Murray Waldren, Weekend Australian

'a delightful collection of short essays on quixotically selected lexicographical examples, curiosities and profundities catching the eye of a (not so) 'amateur philologist' ... read it as a book of fine essays, laced with a sometimes self-deprecating wit, which use the language with the grace and respect that has inspired [Burnside] to 'watch words' in the first place.'

Brian Matthews, Eureka Street

Julian Burnside ... is a passionate, erudite and witty man. His dissection of the vagaries and bastard history of the English language is worthy of his illustrious predecessors, Johnson and Fowler ... His chapters on 'naughty words', 'haitch' and 'terminal prepositions' reduced this reader to tears of excruciation and delight ... This is a book for any lover of language, and of ideas.'

Kathy Hope, Australian Bookseller & Publisher

'very witty and amusing, exploring the history of words and their current use and misuse.'

Steve Woodman, Weekender

'WORDWATCHING - field notes from an amateur philologist is an absolute treat from Julian Burnside. The colourful barrister, who is passionately involved with the arts as well as the law, takes us on a quirky tour through the English language. Mid-way through the book he declares philologists range from "intellectual stick-insects to crusty pedants". Wordwatching seems to disprove his theory, at least as far as JB,QC is concerned!'


Author: Julian Burnside
Title: WORDWATCHING, field notes from an amateur philologist
Publisher: Scribe Publications
Extent: 304 pp
Format: Paperback
Edition: Second (expanded, revised)
Format: 210 x 135mm
ISBN: 1 921215 100
Price: $27.95
Release: December 2006

Important Notice about this item:

About the publication Julian Burnside, Wordwatching: field notes from an amateur philologist (2006): This book is now out of stock, and we no longer supply it to our members or to the wider public. We suggest you could search for online new or second-hand bookshops to secure your copy.

From the publishers' website: We live in a torrent of words - from radio and television, books and newspapers, and now from the internet. But, as Julian Burnside reminds us in this witty and erudite collection, words are a source both of pleasure and power, and can be deployed for good or for ill.

Some of these essays explore curiosities in odd corners of the language simply to remind us of the extraordinary richness of the English language: we learn, for example, that the word pedigree refers to the shape of a crane's foot, and that halcyon recalls an early Greek love story.

Other pieces use small matters of language to illustrate larger processes of cultural borrowing and change. Burnside's musings remind us that we should not be alarmed at the instability of the language; rather, we should be see its wanton borrowings as a source of its strength and vitality.

WORDWATCHING also reminds us of the need to be aware of the misuse of language in the service of sinister purposes - whether political, ideological, social or personal. An ear well tuned to the nuances of vocabulary inoculates the hearer against this epidemic of deception.

Coming from one of Australia's most renowned QCs and refugee-rights advocates, WORDWATCHING is a fascinating demonstration of the power and the pleasure of the English language.

Julian Burnside is an Australian barrister who specialises in commercial litigation but is also deeply involved in human rights work, in particular in relation to refugees. He is also passionately involved in the arts: he is chair of Melbourne arts venue FortyFive Downstairs, chair of Victoria's contemporary dance company Chunky Move, deputy chair of Musica Viva Australia, and a council member of the Victorian College of the Arts. He has published a children's book, Matilda and the Dragon, and is also the author of From Nothing to Zero, a compilation of letters written by asylum-seekers held in Australia's detention camps.

A bit about words - Doublespeak

by Julian Burnside
From Language in Extreme Situations (L.I.E.S.)

A version of this essay appears as Chapter 12 (page 67) of WORDWATCHING under the title of Doublespeak.

Outside the realm of high art, language is intended to convey meaning. Ideally, it should do so accurately. Some writers and speakers betray these ideals, and use language as a sham to mask an intellectual void; or worse, as a stalking horse for quite different ideas they dare not acknowledge.

The world is awash with examples of the first sort - empty rhetoric dressed up in the finery of Rococo elegance, or vacuous new-Age gush, or the yawning post-modern fashion of abstraction piled on abstraction - all devoid of real content. These are the empty calories, the fast food of modern discourse. They are the staple of cheap magazines, talkback radio and art criticism.

More interesting is the second sort: speech which serves to disguise the thing described. Depending on circumstances, it may be called tact, or diplomacy or doublespeak or lying. The proper description depends on the speaker's purpose.

Tact sets out to avoid giving offence. It suppresses or disguises an unhappy truth to spare the feelings of another. It is a down-payment on future favour. It is falsehood in the service of kindness. When tact is lifted from the personal to the national scale, it is called diplomacy.

Euphemism does not directly suppress the truth, but disguises it by substituting gentle words for harsher ones. Its success is limited in the long-term because the euphemism is readily identified with the underlying idea and takes on the colour of that idea. This process is readily seen in the progression of euphemisms regarding universal bodily functions, for example: water closet - WC - lavatory - toilet - loo - the Ladies/Gents room - restroom etc.

The intention of euphemism is benign, if somewhat fey. Its excesses of delicacy inspired Dr Bowdler to strip Shakespeare of any questionable content. Bowdler's Shakespeare was published in 1818 - before the Victorian age, let it be noted - and was probably influenced by the attitudes which spawned Mrs Grundy. In Morton's play Speed the Plough (1798), Mrs Grundy was the neighbour whose narrow and rigid views about propriety were a tyranny for her neighbours.

Tact is kind; diplomacy is useful; euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous.

In his closing address at Nuremberg, US prosecutor Robert Jackson said:

"Nor is the lie direct the only means of falsehood. They [the Defendants] all speak with a Nazi double talk with which to deceive the unwary. In the Nazi dictionary of sardonic euphemisms "final solution" of the Jewish problem was a phrase which meant extermination "special treatment" of prisoners of war meant killing; "protective custody" meant concentration camp; "duty labor" meant slave labor; and an order to "take a firm attitude" or "take positive measures" meant to act with unrestrained savagery."

The war in Vietnam produced such doublespeak expressions as:

When Jimmy Carter's attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran ended a catastrophic strategic blunder, he described it as "an incomplete success". When Soviet tanks invaded Prague in 1968, the manoeuvre was described as "fraternal internationalist assistance to the Czechoslovak people".

Doublespeak uses language to smuggle uncomfortable ideas into comfortable minds. The Nazi regime were masters at it. The Howard Government is an enthusiastic apprentice.

The victims of protective reaction air strikes, or incontinent ordnance, or active defence, or fraternal internationalist assistance often flee for safety. A small number of them arrive in Australia asking for help. They commit no offence under Australian or international law by arriving here, without invitation and without papers, in order to seek protection. Nonetheless the Australian Government refers to them as "illegals". This piece of doublespeak is not just for tabloid consumption: it is official. When the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission held an inquiry into children in detention in Australia, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs made a submission. That submission was stored on the Department's web site. The full web address of the submission showed that it was held in a sub-directory called "illegals".

Like all doublespeak, "illegals" is used for a purpose: these people are immediately locked up without trial. No doubt it seems less offensive to lock up "illegals" than to lock up innocent, traumatised human beings.

They are also disparaged as "queue jumpers": a neat device, which falsely suggests 2 things. First that there is a queue, and second that it is in some way appropriate to stand in line when your life is at risk.

When the "illegals/queue jumpers" arrive, they are "detained" in "Immigration Reception and Processing Centres". This description is false in every detail. They are locked up without trial, for an indefinite period - typically months or years - in desert camps, which are as remote from civilisation as it is possible to be. They are held behind razor wire, they are addressed not by name but by number, and they slowly sink into hopelessness and despair.

When the new prison for asylum seekers at Port Augusta is completed it will have, in addition to the usual layers of razor wire, an electrified fence. But in the doublespeak of the Department of Immigration, these are officially called "energised fences". Wait for the energised cattle prods.

When a "detainee" (doublespeak for prisoner) is removed from a detention centre for deportation, the process is generally done in the dead of night and may involve forcibly tranquillising the person; it is generally done by a squad of ACM guards in costumes reminiscent of Darth Vader. This alarming procedure is sanitized as "an extraction".

In the desert camps, dormitories are regularly checked during the night: at 8.00 p.m., midnight and 4.00 a.m., by shining a torch in the face of each detainee and demanding to see their identification. This is a "security check". It also fits within one of the standard definitions of torture.

If detainees are driven to the desperate extreme of suicide or self-harm, Minister Ruddock disparages this as "inappropriate behaviour" designed to "manipulate the Government". By that doublespeak, the victim becomes the offender.

On the last sitting day in June, the Parliament passed the Migration Legislation Amendment (Procedural Fairness) Bill 2002. The title is one of the most audacious pieces of doublespeak ever to blight the pages of Hansard. The measures affect the grounds on which courts may review decisions of the Refugee Review Tribunal. The Tribunal does not afford a right of legal representation, its members are short-term appointees, and its decision-making processes are often unfathomable except by reference to government policy. Its proceedings are frequently not fair, nor are they calculated to be. The requirements of natural justice have been driven out by repeated amendment. The Migration Act now practically guarantees procedural unfairness in decisions, which have life and death consequences. The Procedural Fairness Bill reduces to vanishing point the scope for judicial review of Tribunal decisions.

The truth of our treatment of refugees is deeply shocking. Innocent people are locked up in dreadful conditions and for an indefinite period; they are deprived of sleep and isolated from the outside world; they are forcibly removed as circumstances require. They live behind razor wire and (soon) electric fences. Their powerful will to live is gradually eroded until - all hope lost - they are driven to self-harm. The truth is uncomfortable for the major political parties: they conceal it in doublespeak in the hope that it will be allright.

See how we have emulated pre-war Germany, in both action and language.

In Nazi Germany (before the concentration camps became death camps) "undesirables" were "placed in protective custody" or "resettled". In Australia "illegals" are held in "Immigration Reception and Processing Centres" behind "energised fences", receiving regular "security checks" and occasional "extractions". Their "inappropriate behaviours" are not allowed to "manipulate public policy".

In 1946, George Orwell wrote Politics and Language, in which he exposed the deceits and devices of doublespeak. He might have thought that it would lose its power once its workings were revealed. But he would be disappointed. Language is as powerful now as in 1933: it can hide shocking truth, it can deceive a nation, it can hand electoral victory to the morally bankrupt.

Found at

Word watch: keeping track of changes in language

The World Today
Wednesday 1 December 2004 12:38:00
Reporter: Eleanor Hall

ELEANOR HALL: Two Australian writers have launched books this month, looking at the way we use words.

The English language is constantly changing. About 15,000 words fall out of common use every year. New words come into vogue to take their place. And for centuries word lovers have been complaining about the sorry state of the language.

But one wordsmith who's joining us today says he's not concerned so much about the language changing but about it being colonised by corporate-speak to the point of meaninglessness.

Don Watson is an award-winning writer and historian who was former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating's speechwriter and biographer, and this month released his latest word book, Weasel Words. He's is in our Melbourne studio now.

Also joining us in Melbourne is lawyer, refugee advocate and word lover, Julian Burnside, whose book, WORDWATCHING, explores the origins of words, takes us through some quirky language history and highlights the dangers of what George Orwell called doublethink and Mr Burnside calls "doublespeak".

Thanks to you both for coming in. First to you, Don Watson. What are "weasel words" and why are you concerned about them?

DON WATSON: Well, weasel words are words which are rather like the eggs that weasels suck the middle out of. I mean, they're called that... they're called weasel words because they're really sort of facsimiles of words. They look like a word but they mean something else.

So a weasel word is something like telling people that they're downsized when they've been sacked or rightsized or structurally adjusted or they've suffered an involuntary career event, whatever - they've become a jobseeker. That's pretty weaselly.

ELEANOR HALL: And you've become so concerned about them that you've actually put them in a dictionary. There are that many, are there?

DON WATSON: Well, weasel words and all the contemporary clichés, cant and management jargon. It's a whole mass of things.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, Julian Burnside your book takes a broader look at the changes in language. Do you share Don's concerns about the weasel words trend or do you see it as just sort of another fascinating change in an evolving language?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: No, I agree with him completely. The problem is that language is very powerful and it can be misused and many people are good at misusing it.

I mean, to take a really simple example, steering clear of politics, when you ring up a commercial organisation and you're put on hold for half an hour with a repeated message that your telephone call is important to us, you really have to wonder what they mean by important and why it is that the telephone operators have been downsized or career conflicted into some job elsewhere so that you have to wait on the end of the line listening to shocking music played by some tin pot device provided by Telstra...

DON WATSON: ...Julian's also a music lover, I might point out...

JULIAN BURNSIDE: ...I don't feel cared for in these circumstances.

ELEANOR HALL: You don't feel important?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: I certainly don't feel my call's important.

ELEANOR HALL: Look, now, most of us who try to make our way through the health system or read children's school reports will certainly be aware of a certain kind of clogging of the language and loss of meaning there. Let's just have a listen to part of the mission statement from one of our state health bodies.

"The Australian resource centre for healthcare innovations, ARCHIE, is introducing rigorous process re-engineering.

"The patient journey through the emergency department, wards and onto discharge from hospital in ten hospitals across New South Wales metropolitan areas.

"Local teams of coal face workers are identifying obstructions to the efficient and satisfying flow of patients and formulating innovative solutions to these impediments."

ELEANOR HALL: Don Watson, translation please?

DON WATSON: Well, it doesn't matter. You could throw it up in the air and put it back together any which way and it'd be exactly the same, which is to say meaningless.

But worse than meaningless, anaesthetising.

ELEANOR HALL: Why then, is this sort of stuff creeping into the public discourse now? Is it that communicating is no longer the main aim?

DON WATSON: Well, I think so. I think the mission statement has become one of the great horrors of our age. Kids are now doing them at school. My granddaughter did one in grade six last year, they all did, they had to write about their core goals and core objectives and going forwards, and it's fairly loathsome really.

I mean, for instance, here's a mission statement from a company that you might think sells hamburgers. It says it's dedicated to making the intelligent connection needed to deliver innovative solutions to our customers.

We're a company with a proud tradition of first to play our part in making the world a safer place. Our values: to achieve our aim we've established five guiding values, customers our top priority.

We will delight all our customers both internal and external by understanding and exceeding all their expectations. That's BA Systems, which makes guided missiles.

ELEANOR HALL: Delighting the customers...

DON WATSON: And you'll find exactly the same line - "we will exceed our expectations" - in nursing homes, outside churches, all sorts of places.

ELEANOR HALL: So Julian Burnside, is this sort of gobbledigook a recent phenomenon?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: No, it's not. It's more pervasive now than previously, but George Orwell targeted it in his book, 1984, which of course was written in 1948, and it was well enough established then for him to have a sustained attack on it.

What's curious is that anyone who read 1984 should be alert to the dangers of doublethink and doublespeak, but it continues to be effective right across the market.

ELEANOR HALL: But why is it that the corporations' language has taken over? How is it that one sort of dominant form of language in society can take over the other parts of society?

DON WATSON: Well, I think because I mean a lot of this language came out of early models of the management revolution of the 1980s and that model became the model for the public service as well as the private sector and of all levels of government and all their agencies, so it crept into, as I said nursing homes, education departments are full of it.

And they will tell you, oh, it's just the way we write, it's not what we do. But of course they do do it.

JULIAN BURNSIDE: I think also it's partly the fear of commitment, because if you express yourself in these terms, you can reinterpret what you've written in a number of different ways after the event to accommodate whatever has happened in the meantime.

You can justify your position, you can protect your back but you don't commit yourself to any precise meaning.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, look, we've been looking at language that is muddy but not necessarily deliberately so, but Don Watson what about when weasel words are used by politicians?

DON WATSON: Then it's up to you, Eleanor. You have to say what do you mean, over and over again before they leave the studio or let them leave the studio.

ELEANOR HALL: Well look, let's have a listen to some very cleverly crafted words, or carefully crafted words from one politician under pressure earlier this week.

This is Labor Senator Stephen Conroy in a sort of apology about leadership pressures in the Labor Party. But there is no direct "I'm sorry" to Labor leader Mark Latham.

STEPHEN CONROY: In recent times there has been unacceptable disunity in the federal parliamentary Labor Party. I absolutely regret that that has arisen and I absolutely regret the adverse publicity the party has received... which has arisen as a result.

And I've proposed to devote myself to my shadow portfolio tasks, playing my role in holding the Howard Government to account and helping to win the next election and serving in a Latham Labor Government.

I urge all of my party colleagues to do likewise putting the focus where it belongs on the Howard Government. Thank you very much.

ELEANOR HALL: So Julian Burnside, any signs of doublespeak there?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Oh, not so much doublespeak, he's just sort of circling the point and not really striking home. I can understand why he might do that. It's one of the least offensive examples of uncommitted speech.

DON WATSON: I prefer the old model where someone was once pulled up in the House for calling an Opposition member a bastard and he was asked to apologise by the speaker and he said alright, I apologise to the bastard.

JULIAN BURNSIDE: I think it's become more general and pervasive because, partly because the relationship between the media and politics is now almost... I mean they can hardly be separated, the media is a great toad demanding to be fed every hour and politicians naturally come up with words which don't answer the question because they don't have the answer, they certainly don't have a definitive answer.

Then they find corporate language actually suits them very well and soon they lose the bility to say anything else, and the media soon loses the ability to ask why.

ELEANOR HALL: And Julian Burnside, you raise many examples of doublespeak in your book, but do you see it as a serious concern, or do people actually know how to interpret it when they hear it and they hear that look, the guy's not answering the question and they understand it in their own way?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: No, I think it's a serious concern. We've recently had an election which was said it would be fought on the issue of trust, and yet no one to my knowledge brought any member of the Government to account on the series of demonstrated lies, mistruths and so on that had been told in the previous three years.

Now, I think Mr Howard quite cleverly redefined the notion of trust as simply trust us to run the economy properly. That was an express weasel word and it apparently deceived a lot of people.

DON WATSON: Eric Alterman said about the US election recently that Americans now live in a post-truth environment in which, really, you can turn anything into.... you can turn black into white at will by... if you've got enough money and you've got the words at your disposal, so you now say... here, John Howard talked about moving on.

You know, people don't want to talk about this sort of thing, they want to move on, which is a corporate term - going forwards.

And the States are always a bit ahead of us. They talk about people who misspoke. You know, I'm sorry, I misspoke. Anyone can misspeak and the interviewer says, oh, fair enough then, you just misspoke. You told a porkie, that's what you did!

ELEANOR HALL: You've actually put some examples there for a question I was going to ask you both, which is the most ridiculous word or words that you've come across so far to express the simple concept of not true.

Don Watson, have you already mentioned your favourite ones there?

DON WATSON: Oh probably. I mean, there are some appalling examples, but you have to keep a sense of humour in this or people will think you're a crank. But let me give you an example of mad it's become.

A man from the justice department sent me this example recently. It was a consultant's report to that department in which it said number nine, point number nine, reduce jargon in all knowledge initiative documentation and presentation. Number 10, ensure relevance of centre of excellence construct.


I mean, they're funny.

ELEANOR HALL: Now Julian Burnside, do you have an expression that you've come across that you regard as the most ridiculous way to express "not true"?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Well I guess the most ridiculous way of expressing "not true" might be "incompletely accurate" which I think was just an imitation of... it was Jimmy Carter who said that his attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran was an incomplete success, that's when they'd been driven out with their tail between their legs.

But the word I think we need to introduce as expressing "not truth" is Reith. We could have truth, lie and Reith. You know, the sort of sludgy, the sludgy falsehoods that masquerade as a form of truth.

DON WATSON: You could turn it into a verb - you Reithed it.


ELEANOR HALL: We'll have to wrap this up, but finally, do you have a favourite word? First to you, Don Watson.

DON WATSON: A favourite word ... oh, I have many favourite words. I think accountability is lovely. I like the way footballers now say they play accountable football and I'm waiting for a jockey to get off a horse and say he was accountable today.

ELEANOR HALL: Julian Burnside, seriously, do you have a favourite word?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Well, seriously I think my favourite word is halcyon because of the story which it captures. But outside history I think my favourite two words would be yes and no.

I think it would be wonderful if politicians, people in management and other places could learn to say either yes or no when asked a question. Those are very powerful words.

ELEANOR HALL: We may be waiting a long time. Julian Burnside whose book WORDWATCHING is out this week and author of Weasel Words thank you both very much for joining us.