From aaaa to zucchini, and beyond – Writing The Antarctic and Arctic Dictionaries

Photo: Mark Sykes

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note: Lexicographer Bernadette Hince is the recipient of an Australia-Canada Research Grant from the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and will be in Canada this October researching Canadian words for her dictionary of polar English.

Antarctic DictionaryHow do you get to be a dictionary maker? Like many interesting lifelong jobs, it’s often an accidental process. When I was in my 30s, I got a job in Canberra in a small team of dedicated researchers working on a dictionary called the Australian National Dictionary. My responsibility as science editor was to research Australian plant and animal names, and write definitions for them. You’re right, it was heaven, and it used every bit of my skinny little supply of skills at the time. Three years later, heaven ended abruptly for me, thanks to an extinct giant marsupial. That was it – we had got from Abbott’s booby (a bird which breeds only on Christmas Island) to zygomaturus, at the end of the Zs, and I had written myself out of a job. But I’d also discovered what power a dictionary maker has, and how much I liked it. I stood on the towering pile of Australian words we’d heaped up and surveyed the lexical horizon, looking for a patch of vacant turf which might yield enough words for a dictionary to write by myself.

What I came up with sounds improbable to me, even now — a historical dictionary of Antarctic English. The best known historical dictionary is the magnificent Oxford English DictionaryThe Antarctic dictionary: a complete guide to Antarctic English follows the Oxford model. It defines about 2000 words (only about a tenth of these are terms for snow and ice), and its quotations are the life of the dictionary. Through them, you can learn of the continent’s history, ice, rocks, atmosphere, seas, food, settlements, animals and (few) plants.

Hince150x280How can an uninhabited, or transiently inhabited, continent have any language at all? Well, many of its words are natural history words — snow petrels, icefish, sooty albatrosses. Some words are slang — getting slotted doesn’t sounds as bad as its meaning (falling into a crevasse). Others tell us of the history of human contact — yikla was a word invented by Australians in the days when the monthly telegraphs home were rationed, prompting people to devise a code for things expeditioners commonly wanted to write in their telegraphed letters (‘yikla’ meant ‘This is the life!’). Some words do tell us about the snow and ice. And some betray the northern hemisphere origins of the explorers and adventurers who travelled to Antarctica — wearing their mukluks, eating hoosh, climbing nunataks,dragging their sledges over the sastrugi. Eventually, the dictionary went from aaaa (a dog command) to zucchini (an elongated fibreglass field hut which can be transported by helicopter). Once more I was dictionary-less.

But after circling as far south as they could, these northern words are now taking me north with them, all the way back to the Arctic. It had always made sense to me to combine the words of Earth’s two polar regions into one polar dictionary. I didn’t have enough steam to do the two together when I wrote the Antarctic dictionary, but I am doing it now, chronicling the English words of the Arctic. It’s a far bigger job, and writing dictionaries is slow work — fantastically enjoyable, but slow.

The Arctic is more challenging, lexically, in every way. It is a great impertinence for a non-northerner to attempt such a thing (that’s part of the appeal, of course). The words that make their way into English from the north come from languages that are completely foreign to me. The region is a peopled oceanic rim of land, the complete opposite of the icebound unpeopled continent within reach of me to my south, here in the southern hemisphere. There are many more Arctic words. It took eleven years to write the Antarctic dictionary — I’ve been working on Arctic English for 13 years. I’d better rattle my dags.

Bernadette Hince has a doctorate on the history of subantarctic islands. She is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra.



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Bernadette Hince

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