Have we flogged the word ‘spirit’ to death? Or, rather have politicians, emptied it of all meaning and turned it into a puff word. When Scott Morrison announced a slight change to the national anthem, he used the word four times. He referred to the ‘indomitable Australian spirit’, the ‘energetic spirit of liberty’, the ‘timeless spirit of this ancient land’ and the ‘spirit of unity’ he claims to find in all of us. The word is recorded from the 1300s having come to us from Latin via Anglo-Norman and Old French. The Latin source word spiritus started by meaning simply ‘breath’ or ‘breathing’ from which it came to be thought of as the source of life – that which infuses us and animates us (literally ‘inspires’ us). Unfortunately ‘spirit’ has been so variously used, and misused, in recent years as to become a nothing word – a mere whispy vapour of its former self and empty of meaning, as can be seen by analysing Morrison’s uses. Where was the ‘spirit of unity’ during border closures? Where was the ‘energetic spirit of liberty’ when we masked up and locked down? Most dictionaries will give you so many definitions of ‘spirit’ (from a disembodied ghost to a glass of vodka) that it is best to avoid it like the plague (as we used to say in the days before Covid).
Does changing the language of our national anthem matter? Given how often we fiddle with it the answer is: probably not very much. Scott Morrison began 2021 by changing ‘young and free’ to ‘one and free.’ In 1984, Bob Hawke changed ‘Australia’s sons’ in the first line to ‘Australians all.’ In 1977, Malcolm Fraser changed the whole thing – ditching ‘God Save the Queen’ in favour of ‘Advance Australia Fair.’ Some want to do the same again. Chris Kenny argues in favour of replacing the anthem with Bruce Woodley’s ‘I Am Australian’ and is winning some support. Clearly, we, as a nation, are not glued to one set of words as our anthem. (Future generations may go through two or three anthems in the course of one lifetime!). In the meantime, let us modestly celebrate the fact that our current national anthem is the only one in the world to contain the word ‘girt’. The Aunty Jack team of Grahame Bond and Rory O’Donoghue once composed a ‘national anthem’ for Wollongong which included the immortal line: ‘Girt by sea – on one side.’
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