The electrifying moment: Peter Temple on writing

October 31, 2022

Ask me to name my favourite writer in a given genre – science fiction, thriller, horror – and I would usually struggle to whittle it down beyond a shifting shortlist. But ask me my favourite crime writer, and I settle readily on the name Peter Temple (1946–2018).

Why Temple? There’s his style and language, stripped down and surprising; his pitch-perfect dialogue that puts you right into his world; his dark wit and playful metaphors, so satisfying to my Irish tastes; his gloomy, uncompromising stories, with their shards of love and beauty.

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Dialect, dinkum, and dude

July 19, 2020

Those are the latest three topics I’ve covered in my language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Being bidialectal explores how our accents and dialects can change with circumstances, with some keen observations on dialect loss by Zadie Smith. Multidialectalism often starts at school:

Through formal education, many of us learn a standard or prestige variety of a language for use in public or formal contexts. Shifting from one variety to another – going from a work meeting to an informal chat, for example – is known as code-switching.

The fact that different dialects are appropriate in different spheres of life means that people generally become bidialectal or multidialectal. Though these adjectives may be unfamiliar, it’s the same idea as bilingual and multilingual, but with different dialects of the same language.

Dude, where’s my etymology? is the inevitable title for an outline of the curious history of dude. The word’s ultimate origin was a mystery for decades:

Dude started off as a word similar to dandy, referring mockingly to ‘a man who cares a lot about his appearance and always wears fashionable clothes’. An early citation in the OED refers to ‘highly perfumed town dudes wearing creased pants’. This led to the phrasal verb dude up, meaning to dress up or accessorize fashionably: a 1958 New Statesman article referred to ‘country cousins duding up to impress less snappy dressers back home’. From this emerged sense 1a, ‘a man from a city in the eastern U.S. or Canada who goes on vacation to a western ranch’, which is connected to the phrase dude ranch.

The dinkum oil on ‘fair dinkum’ looks at the range of uses and senses of a famously Antipodean word whose etymology has invited some creative speculation:

The dinkum oil [true facts] about dinkum is that it probably originates in English dialect. Joseph Wright, in his pioneering English Dialect Dictionary, reports the word’s use in Derbyshire and Lincolnshire in the late 19th century to mean ‘work’ or ‘a due share of work’. He also cites an early Australian example, in the novel Robbery Under Arms: ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak.’ According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word may come from Middle English ding, ‘to work’.

Fixer-upper(er) and funnerer reduplication

June 22, 2015

My recent post on ludic language has prompted me to dig up and rework some old notes on playful reduplication in English. I’ll begin with a short comic verse by author and editor William Rossa Cole:

I thought I’d win the spelling bee

And get right to the top,

But I started to spell ‘banana,’

And I didn’t know when to stop.

The poem’s title, ‘Banananananananana’, as well as underlining the joke draws our attention to how unusual a spelling banana is. Once you start the string of alternating a’s and n’s that constitute the bulk of the word, it’s easy to imagine absent-mindedly overshooting the mark, stuck in a groove like Langton’s Ant on its endless highway.

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Australian clippings in Peter Temple’s ‘Truth’

February 5, 2015

Australian English has a famous tendency to abbreviate words, doing so frequently and in a variety of ways. Clipping comes first, then the stump may be suffixed with an –er, –o, –s, –ie or –y, etc. This can and does occur in any form of English, but Australians seem to have taken diminutives furthest: it’s an unmistakable feature of the dialect.

Peter Temple - Truth - Quercus book coverPeter Temple’s Truth is an outstanding Australian crime novel with an abundance of such terms, and as I read it I decided to note some of them. To begin with –o forms. Truth offers several, usually in dialogue:

‘…get someone to take down every rego in the parking garage’ (registration, i.e., car number plate)

‘…years ago, you rings the cops, the ambos, they come.’ (ambulances ambulance paramedics)

‘If my old man had been a garbo, I’d be labouring on a building site.’ (garbage collector)

‘And have the Salvos take a walk around there,’ said Villani. (Salvation Army)

‘Told you at the servo then, you don’t fucken listen.’ (service station, i.e., gas station or petrol station)

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Ozwords, Lexico Loco, and A World of Englishes

March 21, 2012

Today I’d like to introduce you, in no particular order, to three new language blogs.


Ozwords is a blog from the Australian National Dictionary Centre; the focus, accordingly, is on Australian words and lexicography. Entries are short and entertaining and cover usage and history, often concluding with a draft dictionary entry and inviting readers to contribute. As they put it: “a definition is only as good as the available evidence”.

The first post, published two weeks ago, was about women dictionary-makers, and since then there have been entries on: ranga (from orang-utan), an offensive word for a red-haired person; stormstick, meaning umbrella (I might adopt this one); budgie smugglers, a colloquial term for men’s swimming briefs; and Johnniedom, a rare word used to refer to fashionable young men or their social world.


Lexico Loco is a new blog written by Diane Nicholls, a freelance lexicographer, editor, and natural language processing enthusiast. She has written many articles for MED Magazine (MED = Macmillan English Dictionaries), which is where I initially encountered her writing.

Diane’s first post, “You lost me at knickers!”, takes its title from the line “a corner shop that sold everything from paraffin to knickers”, which may well make you wonder what exactly the shop sold. This is known as a false range — another example is “everything from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Sue Townsend” — and Lexico Loco offers a funny and thoughtful assessment of this popular but incongruous formula.


A World of Englishes comes from Jane Setter, a senior lecturer in phonetics at the University of Reading, UK, and co-editor of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary.

A World of Englishes, as its names suggests, is about the varieties of English around the world, for example Hong Kong English, Singapore English and Jamaican English. Its author investigates such topics as teaching, research, attitudes and intelligibility; she describes it as

a fascinating area, not just because of the richness of different varieties around the world — including the UK — but also because of the socio-political and economic issues involved.


All three blogs are likely to be of interest to anyone who enjoys reading about words, language, and linguistics.


The redoubtable John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has followed up with his own thoughts on false ranges. He has written about them more than once before, and says this is our last chance to swear off “wrapping some meaningless gimcrackery in alliteration and pop references”.