Susan Butler, The Aitch Factor (with Q&A)

The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler, published by Macmillan Australia, $24.99.

The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler, published by Macmillan Australia, $24.99.

In 1986 I had just finished grade six (aged 12) when my parents gave me The Concise Macquarie Dictionary for Christmas. I was mortified.

Did my parents think I was a complete nerd? Who gets a dictionary for Christmas? Frankly, all I wanted was a white Ken Done watch – it was the height of fashion in Tamworth in the 80s. (For the record, the artwork of Ken Done is so cheery it still makes me smile. I’m not alone, the super-stylish Lucy Feagins at The Design Files agrees.  

I digress. My parent’s rationale for giving me Macquarie was threefold: I was about to begin high school, I loved reading and writing and they thought this deluxe dictionary would be very handy for all those essays that lay ahead. They were 100% correct. It is by far the most useful present I have ever received.

My little green brick has been with me now for 28 years and seen me through high school, university and over16 years in book publishing and journalism. Today, my Macquarie sits comfortably on my ‘reference’ shelf with other faithful companions like the AGPS Style Guide, the Chicago and the Cambridge.

Dictionery on shelf.jpg

"A few years ago Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss was added to the shelf and when I’m in a sloppy grammar mood I often dip in for a fix."

I’m very pleased to say that for those who love language, grammar and how it evolves have a real treat in store. Susan Butler, editor of the Macquarie Dictionary – Australia’s national dictionary – has released The Aitch Factor and it is a very entertaining read. She’s someone who clearly loves a laugh.

Australian language, like Australian culture is evolving and Butler is just the person to guide us through it. Her knowledge of linguistics, history, religion and the literary cannon along with nearly 30 years at the helm of the Macquarie Dictionary makes her the perfect candidate for the job – all delivered in bite-size chapters.

Importantly, there is a chapter on SMSing with some helpful decoding. Great if you have kids who constantly steal your phone for subversive texting to mates. Ise or ize? Aitch or haitch? ‘Get with the program’, people. Both are acceptable and neither is a statement of status.

Everyone is bandying around the word ‘literally’ (so earnest!), and apparently a good ‘soirée’ is back on the Aussie social circuit. I probably know more about ‘man boobs’ now than is necessary and of course I recognise what ‘doing a Bradbury’ means, but people younger than me (I’m 40) probably won’t. Clearly I’m having a ‘moment’!

Why does this book matter? Because Australian voices matter, Australian stories matter and the way we use our language is constantly changing.

Butler’s book is brilliant. A beautiful little hardback and would make a great gift for anyone who loves language, words and it will come in handy winning those dinnertime debates.

Author Susan Butler

Author Susan Butler

Susan, before we get to your new book, is it time for me to relegate my 1985 Macquarie Dictionary to a doorstop? You were the editor at the time, why does this particular edition matter?

The 1985 edition was a revision of the first edition published in 1981, so halfway between that and the second edition in 1991.  I love them all dearly of course, but I would relegate this one. The first edition would be good to keep.

What is in the 1985 edition that would be missing now?

If you are talking about the print edition, then the 1985 edition is missing a great number of new words and definitions. The best way to get the idea of that is to go to the dictionary website and look at the Word of the Year under Resources.

What are quirkiest additions to the current Macquarie Dictionary? Why should I buy the update?

Googleganger, muffin top, selfie.  The last two are coinages in Australian English that we have given to the world.

Why did you feel the need to write The Aitch Factor? 

Over many years now I have been engaged in a conversation with the users of the dictionary, mostly in print or on radio. The book is a mix of the things that people commonly ask or comment on, and the things that appeal to me. And an appeal for an understanding of the fact that our language choices may differ slightly but not be wrong, even within the one language community.

Was there anything that didn’t make the cut for The Aitch Factor that is just emerging now? What should we be on the lookout for?

I have noticed that ‘push back’ is an idiom that is fashionable. Everyone is intent on pushing back, whatever the point at issue.  I also want to add a discussion on why we have pedants, why we feel the need to correct the English of others, why we feel so outraged at times. It is, I hasten to add, a defence of pedantry as an impassioned defence of our personal language choices into which we have put a great deal of effort.

Susan, you’ve opened the book on the vexed question of ‘aitch versus haitch’. Basically, you’ve told us we all need to move with the times, and ‘haitch’ is where it is heading and no-one in the younger generations – teachers and students alike should care about the trend to say the ‘haitch’. Do you?

It doesn’t worry me in the slightest.  Defending an outdated shibboleth seems like a complete waste of time.  There are occasions, however, when I would like to ‘push back’.  I would like to defend the difference between infamous and famous, and I would like the hoi polloi to remain as ‘the masses’ rather than become ‘the rich and powerful’.

Without giving away any of your own secrets, what are you researching at the moment?

I can see that the dictionary online has many more possibilities than the dictionary in print and I would like to explore some of them. In particular, word histories in Australian English interest me.  Not etymologies, but histories of the development of a word with its connotations.

What would you like to see more of published in Australia?

I think that publishing, like language, operates with a self-regulating efficiency. If it rises to the occasion, it is successful. If it doesn’t, it fails. 

What would you like to hear us say more of in Australia?

‘I respect your point of view’.

What do you like reading?

History, books about ideas, the occasional novel, whodunnits. 

Describe your typical writing day.

I like to start early – the quiet time before other people arrive gets me settled. I look at emails – that often involves a reply to someone who has sent a question or comment through the website. That often leads to a revision of a dictionary entry. Then to writing entries either for the annual update or for some special area of language that we are covering. Interruptions from other projects – kept to a minimum I hope!

Describe your workspace (or office)

A large room of which I inhabit one corner. I have a window – 1970s style tall and narrow but it gives me a nice view over Erskineville towards Bondi in one direction and Botany Bay in another.

Favourite bookshop/s. Why?

Gleebooks – the array of books is good, the events are interesting and it is nearby. It is not just a bookshop but a community.  I can rely on it.  Also a little secondhand bookshop, Urchin Books, in Marrrickville, which is run by people who make a really interesting selection.

Screen or book?

I remember my nephew saying, when we were discussing a book, that he didn’t want to read the book because it would spoil the movie for him. The book had come first so I thought that was a little unfair.  But there are many movies that don’t involve that kind of choice.  Charlie’s Country is a movie that feels as if it is crafted out of living elements.

Book/s that changed your life?

A book that was lent to me in high school – Words and their Meanings.  I still remember the entry for ‘enamelled’.  The Mini-Dictionaries of the South-East Asian Language Research Centre in Singapore.

What are you reading now?

The Great Shame – Tom Keneally. I have to say that I always read Australian history with an eye to finding people, places or words that should be in the dictionary.

I read the magazine in the doctor’s surgery with the same purpose in mind. I can read anything and everything with that possibility in mind.

What do you plan to read next?

I don’t know but I must check if there is any advertising in the letterbox.

What do you recommend for a cheeky holiday read?

An ebook whodunnit set in the Sung Dynasty called The Washing Away of Blood, by Richard Tardif.