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Pre-bunking and truth-telling

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Our beloved back-page columnist Lucinda Stump on embracing new lingo.

“What’s up, old cowboy?” chirps the newly installed millennial in the kitchen. I look at my twentysomething son questioningly and I’m assured that what sounds like double Dutch to me is actually an affectionate early-morning greeting that translates roughly as, “How are you this morning, Mother?” 

As a teacher I invested an inordinate amount of time in developing his vocabulary, but this is what it has come to. I smile, assure him primly that I am “very well, thank you” and reciprocate. “How are you this morning, son?” I ask. 

“A bit Pete Murray,” comes the reply, followed swiftly by the explanation, “seen better days”. He’s been on the “pec deck” (the bench press) during his early-morning exercises and informs me that his “Warwick Farms” (arms) are a bit sore. 

Admittedly this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself bemused by the English language. When I arrived in remote north-west New South Wales back in 1987, I found myself in equal parts entranced and confounded by much of the local lingo. I remember being given directions to a friend’s property: “You can’t miss it. Take the first left after the black dog ramp and hang a right just after the big clump of myalls and the headless mill. If you reach the cocky’s gate you’ve gone too far.” 

At school I try to broaden my students’ vocabulary, albeit in much more traditional ways. “What other ways can you express astonishment?” I might ask. And we list all the synonyms we can think of, from “surprised” to “incredulous”. If I later overhear a child exclaiming in the playground that they are “dumbfounded” or “flabbergasted”, I silently fist-pump the air in triumph. Recently, during a lesson on poetry, a year 6 student rhymed the word “Australia” with “paraphernalia” and I had to get the whole class to stand on their desks and sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah with me. 

You could say I’m a fan of the carefully chosen word and well-rounded phrase. One of the reasons I became a marriage celebrant was because I attended a wedding where the celebrant “gave me the ick”, which is millennial for irritated me, by explaining that after a long courtship, the groom “went drop knee”. “We can’t be having that,” I thought, as I enrolled in the celebrant’s course the following week. But this might be a “hot take” (controversial opinion) and there were no doubt younger guests at the ceremony who thought the celebrant “slayed” it. That means he “crushed” it or, in my lingo, he did a very good job.

But the return of our adult son to the farm has given me a whole new appreciation for the way our language changes, grows and morphs. This year, words from popular culture such as “Barbiecore”, a pretty-in-pink doll-like fashion trend, have made it into the dictionary. I’m not sure I will ever need to use it myself but then I never thought I’d have a use for “social distancing” or “spicy cough” either, and look how that turned out. In fact, the ninth edition of the Macquarie Dictionary, published this year, has no fewer than 3000 new entries.  

Let’s be honest, I’m firmly in the late middle-age era, where I’m supposed to take up birdwatching and collecting jugs. I’m trying to keep pace, but it’s a challenge. I’m obsessed with the incorrect usage of the possessive apostrophe, and I yearn to curl up on a rainy day with a Henry James or a Jane Austen. But if I’m not going to be stuck in an era clearly labelled “bygone” I’ve got to give this lingo bizzo a bit of respect and not let my son’s use of English “grind my gears”. 

When he asks me where his “Usman Khawaja” is, I nod knowingly, apologise, and admit that I left it in the office charging my iPad. He winks approvingly and says, “On ya Mum”, even though he has already expressed the view that the very fact that I own an iPad these days is pretty “lamestream”.