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Review of  Lexical Images

Reviewer: Gerhard Leitner
Book Title: Lexical Images
Book Author: W. S. Ramson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Lexicography
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.1498

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Date: Mon, 09 May 2005 09:11:15 +0200
From: Gerhard Leitner
Subject: Lexical Images: The Story of the Australian National Dictionary

AUTHOR: Ramson, Bill
TITLE: Lexical Images
SUBTITLE: The Story of the Australian National Dictionary
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004

Gerhard Leitner, Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin.

Lexical images (LexIm) was, Bill Ramson says, at first conceived as a
response to claims about the relationship of language and culture as it
manifests itself in Australian English (AusE) by Anna Wierzbicka.
Wierzbicka (1997) is an extensive analysis on how words reflect
culture and draws untenable conclusions about a very direct link. But
Ramson refrains from focusing on her Australian approach and
changed the focus of the book to a much broader history of the
Australian National Dictionary (AND). The book is now "about the
making of a historical dictionary of Australianisms ... and about
the 'lexical images' which can be created from an examination of
certain combinations of those Australianisms. It seeks to demonstrate
that the English language, as it has been used by Australians of
European origin ..., and in particular the Australian additions to the
vocabulary of English, as these are recorded in the Australian
National Dictionary, provide a unique insight into the lives and history
of Australians, and create a kaleidoscope of images ... that may in
their turn offer interpretations of Australian attitudes and the
Australian way of life." (p xi). The book is written in a very personal
style by one of the leading Australian lexicographers and philologists
but the claims just quoted suggest a scientific 'bias' Personal style and
research create a tension to which I will return at the end of the

The history of the dictionary is the main theme of Ch.s One to
Four, 'lexical images' are highlighted (from a quasi-theoretical angle)
in Ch. Four but mainly in Ch.s Five to Nine. Ch. Ten turns to the
cultural lexis of the 20th century and concludes, pessimistically, that
AusE has had its day -- and is now on the decline as a creative form
of English. Chapter One begins with the and the Oxford tradition and
the Oxford English dictionary, which provide the intellectual and
lexicographic background of the AND. It then turns to the ways the
editors of the AND have tried to adapt the authorial decisions taken at
Oxford. Chapter Two traces the path from the first historical
dictionary -- Morris's Austral English dictionary (1898) -- to the AND
(1988). The development towards an Australian historical dictionary
began, Ramson explains, at The University of Sydney and (slightly
later) the National University of Australia in Canberra in the 1960s. But
these early initiatives did not get off the ground and the scene shifted
to Macquarie University and its foundation professor of linguistics,
Arthur Delbridge, who was asked to produce 'an aggressively
Australian dictionary'. The Macquary dictionary was not meant to be
an historical one but one that was to reflect the contemporary
language of Australia, emphasizing, as just implied, the colloquial to
vulgar end of the spectrum. The Macquarie stalled too for a while but
was rescued by Macquary University and a new publisher (cf. Leitner
2004). Three other players came on the scene to help the historical
project, i.e. the Humanities Research Centre, the department of
English and the faculty of arts at ANU. In 1978 concrete steps could
be taken, but ups and downs succeeded each other until the AND was
eventually published.

Like many books on language or national vocabularies, LexIm follows
a tradition of writing essayistically about its subject matter. However
well such recollections are narrated -- and they are narrated well --
the nostalgic tone may be dear to those involved in the making of the
AND but makes LexIm difficult to appreciate as a reader interested in
the national lexis of Australia's English. It is a bit absurd to be forced
to learn of details like these:

"She [Joan Hughes] was a prodigious worker, expecting of others
what she readily gave herself... Not a very big person, and inclined to
become ingrossed in what she was doing that she doesn't notice what
else is going on around her..."

"We had, in our green and salad days, been a bit lax about this, often
going from one cabinet to the next, leaving drawers open and cards
sticking up.... But a nine-drawer cabinet ... is far from stable ... and
when Joan pulled out another drawer in the top half of the cabinet, it
tumpled forward on its face, spilling its contents and pinning her to the
floor... But we rescued her ourselves and she ... refiled the spilt
cards...." (p 58f)

Instead of such trivia, there could have been a little more analysis.
Would it not have been interesting to set the claim that dictionaries
and lexicographers such as on AusE are codifiers of the language
against the haphazardness of funding, change of publishers and
negotiating partners at the upper echelon, or time constraints? The
outcome of a varied history, the AND, has after all become a
cornerstone in Australian lexicography. But there are few signs of an
analysis of broader sociolinguistic themes.

Ch. Four, unintentionally, comes close to what a reader would have
expected. It compares the Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997)
with the AND (1988) and makes one clear point: Lexicographers set
the rules of data collection and classification, they decide on what
words and information goes into the dictionary and, as a result, it is
them that decided on the kind of image a dictionary may projects of a
national culture:

"[T]he mere fact that a lexicographer determines what should be
included and what excluded entails an exercising of authority on an
unprecedented scale, in that it requires a subsequent determination
as to what should be included in, and excluded from, a body of
knowledge that the pragmatic user of a dictionary would come to
regard as 'the foundation of a national language and culture'." (p 84)

The lexicographer's role is of course pre-determined by whatever
arrangements have been made with the publisher, the funding bodies
etc. on what the dictionary was to be like. The AND, for instance,
excludes many of the technical terms of fauna and flora. These
domains come up when AusE has coined fanciful words or compounds
starting with 'native' as in 'native dog' for dingo or when loan words
from indigenous languages are used. There are hundreds of both
types. But the resulting cultural image, i.e. of measuring the 'new
home' by the standards of the 'old home', gets overemphasized if the
technical words are left out. Instead of looking at the theme of
potential bias, we learn of Ramson's personal impact: "I fulfilled
a 'safety-net' role, or tried to, because, as always, there simply wasn't
enough time to do everything I felt necessary." (p 68).

As lexicographers are exerting that influence, the lexical images that a
dictionary projects of a culture is bound to be biased. The comparison
of the AND with the DNZE is informative. Ramson explains that the
AND's policies were much more restrictive than those of the NZE
counterpart -- so that the impression that NZE would have been
more 'productive' is wrong. One cannot compare the two
dictionaries 'on the quick' -- despite OUP's stringent guidelines. And
that is, incidentally, another important factor when one thinks of
dictionaries as codifiers of a language (variety), viz. variations in the
interpretations of guidelines.

Ch. Four had already begun with a closer look at some of the lexical
fields or onomastic domains of AusE. Ch.s Five to Nine add
considerable detail, dealing with the language of the landscape and
topography, occupational terms, the finding a place as a settler, the
words borrowed to refer to indigenous weapons, tools, social practice,
to refer to them, etc. Ramson looks at the nature and texture of the
lexis and the cultural images they may project on the basis of two
methodological principles. The first was chosen in Ch. Four where the
NZE dictionary was compared with the AND. Here, Ramson, just
surfed the dictionary and picked up what he found interestin. In Ch.s
Five and Six, entitled "Waste Land to Wonderland" and "Good man de
Queen", respectively, he uses a thematic grouping of items by
chronological stages of some fifty years. That approach highlights, he
says, the attitudes of speakers towards the language across time.
During the first fifty years (to around 1830) the notion of terra nullius
developed and one talked of 'crown land' (1789) and 'waste land'
(1804; really an Americanism) as well as, confusingly, of 'waste lands
of the Crown' (1826). (The concept of waste land was important,
incidentally, when reserves were set up there and when colonial
governments created the office of the 'protector' of Aborigines.) These
fifty years produced terms for settlement and location, the
movement 'up the country', the perception of the landscape,
classification of land as 'wood' or as 'bush', etc. The second fifty years
(to nearly 1890) creates more words for the exploration of 'the
opening up of the country' and occupational terms. The third fifty
years (to nearly 1940) cover Federation in 1901 and the years of
World War I and those leading to the second war. They (should) cover
the early years of Aboriginal activism, but this he sees only in the final
fifty years.

An interesting chapter is Ch. Six on the contributions from Aboriginal
languages. Their stock of words is collected in Ramson/Dixon/Thomas
(1990) but Ramson expands the concept somewhat when he says
that he includes words of English origin "but with meanings specific to
an Aboriginal context" (p 129). We learn of names for the 'first'
Australians such as Australian, applied first to Aborigines (1814), then
to whites (1822). Generally speaking, Aborigines were referred to as
natives (1770-), blacks, blackfellows and blackies, and by other
derogatory terms. Americanisms too occur such as 'squaw'
(1837), 'negro' (1845) or from the Pacific, 'cannibal' (1838). We learn
that names of weapons, of dwellings and domestic tools abound
during the first fifty years. The so-called 'caring' or protection period is
dealt with in detail. The term 'Protector' is discussed but its racist
connotations ignored. I pass over the rich assembly of data here and
remaining chapters to come to general points.

One may have theoretical reservations in many cases. Why is 'native'
an Australianism, in the first place? Why is 'black' or 'negro'? They
certainly are not Aboriginal contributions. Are they then the words of
English origin with a specific Australian cognitive, denotative or
referential 'meaning'? All of them have been used for the dark-skinned
local populations in America, Africa, the Pacific or Australia throughout
colonial times. The only justification for treating them as Australiansims
one can see is that they 'refer' to Australian Aborigines. But if Ramson
means by 'Australian meaning', acts of reference (a pragmatic
dimension), would one not have to include as an Australianism the
word 'local' in expressions like 'local discussion', used to refer to
debates taking place in Australia? The situation is, of course, different
with Aboriginal loans, which have an Australian etymology, or words
like 'shicer', which is a German loan word with an Australian sense
development (it is a name for an 'unproductive gold mine'), etc.
Ramson fails to be clear about the concept of Australianism and other

The final chapter, Ch. Ten, concludes on the future of AusE:

"There is ... every indication that the creativity that attended
Australia's discovery and exploration is finished, that the raw material
[of the language] will be the same here as elsewhere, that
globalisation will prevail, and the the other factors mentioned above
will play a role in reducing the annual Australian output of
neologisms." (p 243)

The AND is a monument to a nation at a particular phase of its history.
What separates us from that phase is a great gulf which grows ever
deeper, and from the other side of which we will never see more
clearly than we do now. (p 247)

The tension between localization and globalization is a major problem
in and for all varieties of English. Ramson sees that tension but
overlooks the fact that it was there for most of Australia's history. The
language of the law, of medicine, of mechanical engineering, etc., has
never undergone any level of localization -- in Australia, in India, etc.
The problem here is that past research has limited itself to the
localization of English and ignored the language of these international
domains. The common law, the plain English movement have not and
do not have local vocabularies -- except standard terms
like 'condominium' for 'owner-occupied flat', etc. Often research
overemphasizes the role of AmE (today) but that language had been
international all the time. Leitner (2004) covers some ground
regarding the global pressures and the use of 'non-national' forms of
English during the 19th century.

A final point regarding the claim that the lexis of the AND and the one
discussed in LexIm brings out cultural images of the nation. The
choice of headlines is illuminating since Ramson sometimes uses them
to suggest dominant images. Thus, "A people who need care" and "a
deeper understanding?" (both Ch. Six) are, we are to understand,
such images. Do they? The caring period was, as it turned out, a time
of extreme racism, killings, exploitation and a policy of segregation.
That is not discussed and Ramson fails to highlight the opposing
trends in whatever he believes to be images. Headlines like "Weapons
and implements" (p 139), "Black gentry" (p 138) or "Occupational
terms" (several times) certainly do not project images. They may, if at
all, draw attention to a dominant interest of the colonizers in some
area. Are we at the end of this book clearer about the relationship
between the lexis of a language (variety) and culture than Wierzbicka
(1997) has told us?

As I said at the beginning, LexIm is a very personal story of a
dictionary. It compares with Arthur Delbridge's article "The making of
The Macquarie" (1985), which is, fortunately, one might say, a lot
briefer. LexIm is rich in data, but, given its length of 255 pages and its
goal of relating language and culture, one cannot avoid the conclusion
that it lacks analysis and is uncertain about what images the AND
throws up of Australia's culture over the past two hundred years. It is
perhaps best read as a personal story and be entertained by the
excellence of style, the pace the author is able to create as the AND
was moving forward.


Delbridge, Arthur, 1985. The making of The Macquarie, in: J.E. Clark,
ed., The Cultivated Australian. Festschrift in honour of Arthur
Delbridge. Hamburg: Buske. 273-288.

Dixon, R. W. M., W. S. Ramson, Mandy Thomas, 1990. Australian
Aboriginal words in English: Their origin and meaning. Melbourne:
Oxford University Press.

Leitner, Gerhard, 2004. Australia's many voices. Australian English --
the national language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wierzbicka, Anna, 1997. Understanding cultures through their key
words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Studied Australia's Englishes and other languages used in Australia
for a long time and has recently published two books on the matter.
Other interests include English in Asia, language policy and planning
and the sociolinguistics of media languages.

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