field notes from an amateur philologist

Julian Burnside

‘Julian Burnside … is a passionate, erudite and witty man. His dissection of the vagaries and bastard history of the English language is worthy of his illustrious predecessors, Johnson and Fowler … His chapters on ‘naughty words’, ‘haitch’ and ‘terminal prepositions’ reduced this reader to tears of excruciation and delight … This is a book for any lover of language, and of ideas.’ — Kathy Hope, Australian Bookseller & Publisher

We live in a torrent of words — from radio and television, books and newspapers, and now from the internet. But, as Julian Burnside reminds us in this witty and erudite collection, words are a source both of pleasure and power, and can be deployed for good or for ill.

Some of these essays explore curiosities in odd corners of the language simply to remind us of the extraordinary richness of the English language: we learn, for example, that the word pedigree refers to the shape of a crane’s foot, and that halcyon recalls an early Greek love story.

Other pieces use small matters of language to illustrate larger processes of cultural borrowing and change. Burnside’s musings remind us that we should not be alarmed at the instability of the language; rather, we should be see its wanton borrowings as a source of its strength and vitality.

Wordwatching also reminds us of the need to be aware of the misuse of language in the service of sinister purposes — whether political, ideological, social or personal. An ear well tuned to the nuances of vocabulary inoculates the hearer against this epidemic of deception.

Coming from one of Australia’s most renowned QCs and refugee-rights advocates, Wordwatching is a fascinating demonstration of the power and the pleasure of the English language.

Extent: 240 pp
Format: 198 x 129mm cb
ISBN: 1 920769 382
Price: $32.95
Release: December 2004

Julian Burnside is an Australian barrister who specialises in commercial litigation but is also deeply involved in human rights work, in particular in relation to refugees. He is also passionately involved in the arts: he is chair of Melbourne arts venue Fortyfive Downstairs, chair of Victoria’s contemporary dance company Chunky Move, deputy chair of Musica Viva Australia, and a council member of the Victorian College of the Arts. He has published a children’s book, Matilda and the Dragon, and is also the author of From Nothing to Zero, a compilation of letters written by asylum-seekers held in Australia’s detention camps.