Australian Arts

Different words

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

If you’d been in our house during the Coon cheese debacle you would have heard me shouting at the TV: ‘It’s two different words, dummies!’ Word one: ‘coon’—common noun (lower case ‘c’), originally (from 1742) an abbreviation of ‘racoon’ a carnivorous animal, and then (from 1862) an offensive slang name for a black person. Word two: Coon—proper noun (upper case ‘C’), name of Edward William Coon (1871-1934) of Philadelphia inventor of the ‘Cooning process’ for the fast maturation of cheese. Two different words that just happen to be homophones (sound the same) and homographs (are spelled the same). In trying to explain this on ABC radio I used ‘pen’ as an example: ‘pen1’ is an enclosure for animals (from a Germanic source recorded from 1227) while ‘pen2’ is a writing implement (from an Old French word for the long wing feather of a bird, from 1384). You see the parallel? Of course you do. But somehow, ABC listeners couldn’t understand that you don’t ban Word Two just because it happens (quite accidentally) to look and sound like Word One.

Speaking at a lockdown news conference, NSW Chief Medical Officer Dr Kerry Chant said, ‘There may be learnings here for us about how we communicate.’ Well, for a start don’t try to communicate using the word ‘learnings.’ As a singular noun ‘learning’ has a respectable history. The Renaissance was called the ‘New Learning’ (meaning the rediscovery of ancient Greek literature). There may be a number of things you’ve learned but the gerund remains singular—it’s all part of your learning experience. And what makes ‘learnings’ semi-literate (at best) is that there’s a perfectly workable English word available that means exactly what the speaker is trying to say: ‘lessons’. If the learned Dr Chant had said, ‘There may be lessons for us…’ then my finger nails would not have curled up.


The University of Queensland, we are told, has instructed a student not to use the expression ‘founding father’ for 18th century American statesman James Madison as this violated its inclusive language policy. The Oxford defines a ‘founding father’ as someone ‘associated with or marking the establishment of (something).’ And, the tome adds, this is specifically applied to ‘an American statesman of the Revolutionary period, esp. a member of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787.’ The English language likes alliteration (done and dusted, dirty deeds, home and hosed etc.) and this is probably the reason the word ‘founder’ was expanded to ‘founding father.’ The problem is that dropping the expression doesn’t change the history.

When Melbourne woman, Jodi Grollo (fed up with Chairman Dan’s Covid restrictions) rode her bicycle into the city she was heard on a clip on the evening news to say she did so because she was sick of being restricted to the streets of her home suburb, Brighton. She was immediately labelled a ‘Karen.’ This is a pejorative putdown of a white woman overloaded with self-entitlement. The origin is unclear. It might have begun life a) as a black expression for an unlikeable snooty white woman; or b) from a website on which a man vilified his ex-wife (named Karen) for taking his house and children; or c) as a nickname for a woman in a TV commercial who was seen as anti-social and nicknamed anti-social Karen. Or, of course, a combination of all three. But now American journalist and radical feminist Julie Bindel has said the Karen-slur is ‘woman-hating… sexist, ageist, and classist’. The PC always eat their own.

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