More Than Words by Pat Manser

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

This is the interesting story of Australia’s own dictionary by former researcher Patricia Manser. She covers some fascinating territory from the original push to have a publication with a decidedly Australian flavour to the team of dedicated professionals who eventually brought it to light. Along the way are the linguistic byways and definitional backwaters of the lexicographer, whom Samuel Johnson termed, “a writer of Dictionaries, a harmless drudge”.

All stories have a starting point and for the Macquarie it was motivated publisher and early champion of the project, Brian Clouston. Manser says that Clouston set up Jacaranda Press in 1954 in Brisbane and pioneered school texts with an Australian focus. The Jacaranda Atlas, for example, put maps of Australia and South-East Asia first, followed later in order by a pink-hued Britain. Manser adds that Clouston had a gift for promotion and enthusing his workers. The story of the staff T-shirts with ‘Clousto maximus est’ (Clouston is the greatest) neatly sums up this aspect of the man. It was Clouston who approached two Sydney academics in 1969 with the idea of an Australian dictionary.

Professor Arthur Delbridge was the head of English and Linguistics at the newly established Macquarie University. With his colleague, Associate Professor John Bernard, they would accept Clouston’s offer and lead the Editorial Committee, charged with bringing the Dictionary to publication.

One of the enjoyable features of Manser’s writing is that she brings a human touch to what might at first seem a bit of a dry, esoteric undertaking. The funny, interesting and quirky side to people is brought out. Whether it was Delbridge’s hobby of playing the carillon (I had to look it up) to the annoyance of his neighbour, a Professor of Greek, or Bernard’s love of the harpsichord and of singing, which alerted the staff that he was coming up the stairs!

Delbridge thought that the first object of study was to hold up a mirror directly to contemporary Australian speech and writing, that is it should be a reflection of our unique language: the words we say, how we say them and what they mean to us as Australians (4). In a nutshell, the Macquarie was to be descriptive and not prescriptive (as the Oxford English Dictionary then was). This meant a ‘warts and all’ approach to the language we used.

Manser lays out the steps involved in getting the project completed and the many hurdles along the way. First a wordlist was purchased and then researchers began writing each word’s details on little, white cards. One of the key skills required was crafting accurate definitions. Try yourself on: a dirty weekend (37). Sometimes experts were consulted in specialist areas such as law, medicine or academia. This was being done from a home unit in Ryde, Sydney, which Manser likens to being in a garage band. The mostly part-time staffers enjoyed the flexible, egalitarian workplace and everyone contributed to discussions.   Sue Butler, an influential figure in Macquarie’s publishing history, made an early impression by writing a style guide.

For publishing reasons, these completed cards were sent to Brisbane in January, 1974.  While the microfiche records were destroyed in the floods, the cards survived. Another hurdle was the tricky operation of typing the phonetic elements of a word (using the International Phonetic Alphabet) onto a standard keyboard. Another innovative step was using early computers to type up the dictionary. After another change of publisher, the dynamic Kevin Weldon took over and steered the project to a launch in September, 1981.

Professor Manning Clark spoke approvingly of the dictionary’s Australian focus and said, ”you belong in that great river of life, you’ve got out of that billabong of being transplanted Britons” (96). Generally, the early reviews were favourable. Through a clever coupon scheme in newspapers, 50 000 copies were sold in the first print run and then another 50 000, making it a commercial success.

Weldon had the vision to put out “spin-off” dictionaries for different segments of the market and within ten years there were 23 such editions. For a schools’ edition this required some interesting discussion about which swear words should be included and how complex the definitions would be. In 1994, a Macquarie edition of Aboriginal Words came out and then the Atlas of Indigenous Australia in 2005 (second edition 2019).

For a slightly humorous look at how relevant the Macquarie 4th edition (2005) was, Peter Temple’s article ‘Salute the Judge’ gives us a guide. He came up with a list of 20 distinctly Australian words or phrases in common usage (servo, horn bag, blood rule, spit the dummy) and found only six in the Macquarie, which he thought the average person could beat. He criticised the rather narrow range of printed sources the Macquarie then relied on.

I would recommend this book for its thorough and engaging examination of an important cultural institution. It also spotlights Samuel Johnson’s amazing solo achievement!

Patricia Manser graduated from the University of Sydney then taught English and History at High Schools in NSW for three years before taking maternity leave. In early 1973, she applied for a job as a research assistant to work on phonetic transcriptions for a Dictionary of Australian English. After the Macquarie job, she worked for both the Commonwealth and NSW public service and retired in 2008 as a Deputy Director General.

More Than Words: The Making of the Macquarie Dictionary


by Pat Manser

Pan Macmillan Australia

ISBN: 9781760981099

334pp;  $12.99 (ebook) & $29.99 (HB)


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