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Department of Linguistics



Volume 18 No 2   December 2011


Language researcher Irene Poinkin summarises recent discussions at SCOSE, the ABC Standing Committee on Spoken English.

I had an opportunity, or rather, a need, to ponder the meaning of the term black hole when a listener sent us a letter in which he asserted that statements about ‘getting out of a black hole’ or ‘trying to fill a black hole’ reflected ‘the growing ignorance of good English’ among the ABC’s broadcasters. His rationale for objecting to such usages was simply that ‘the nature of black holes is that the more you try to fill them the bigger they get’. In other words, he takes black hole to have exclusively literal meaning.

This ignores a normal and inevitable process in the development of language. New phrases or expressions may begin having a precise meaning in some specialised technical field, but if their imagery is vivid enough they then come to be used in metaphorical ways in the wider common language.

Black hole is a classic example of this. It originally represented an abstruse concept in theoretical cosmology which few non-mathematicians could fully understand. At that time financiers and politicians would use the term bottomless pit. Physically there is no such thing as a bottomless pit, but there are countless real black holes in the universe. When people like Hawking and Penrose, among others, popularised the imagery of black holes the expression quickly replaced ‘bottomless pit’ in most contexts in popular language – including the language of ABC journalists. This use of the term is now well established, as is recognised by its entry into the Macquarie Dictionary, among others.


Another listener made a very similar objection to the use of shell-shocked in reference to persons or communities after some major setback or disaster. He said: ‘This is a mis-use [sic] of a First World War term created to describe what later would be called battle fatigue. In the recent news items, no shells were fired and no battle took place and the term "shell-shocked" ought not have been used. It is not now used psychiatrically or psychologically. ABC usage simply reveals ignorance.’

But again, although the expression shell-shocked does have the literal meaning that he refers to, by extension it is also now used metaphorically. This is a standard and unremarkable way for words to acquire new senses.

Perverse stress patterns

Listeners have noted a habit among newsreaders and reporters of stressing function words (like of or for) and leaving the content words – the nouns, verbs and adjectives – unstressed. For clear communication it should be the other way around. In a typical example a broadcaster said ‘... widens the gap between the two countries’. How odd. We normally stress the new information in a sentence, and depending on the context the issue here would surely be the gap, or whether that gap is widening or not. The word that the speaker should emphasize is gap (or perhaps widens), not between.

Not only can a badly chosen stress placement be distracting, it can alter the meaning. Consider this actual example: ‘... stop people smuggling’. This means prevent all forms of smuggling (by people). Here smuggling is the present participle of the verb (to) smuggle.

But in the current news relating to our region we’re more likely to have reports about the smuggling of people (as a commodity), so the right stress pattern is ‘... stop people smuggling’, where people smuggling is now a noun phrase describing an activity.

Advice from Confucius

... who said ‘the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name’.

A listener objected to the use of (to) cull to refer to Japanese whaling activity, saying the correct word to use is (to) harvest. He’s right. The distinction between the two is that a cull is for the benefit of the species or population being culled (for example to relieve starvation due to overcrowding) while harvest is for the benefit of humans – in this case, the Japanese suppliers and consumers of whale meat. We should not uncritically transmit other people’s biased wording.

Dangling participle of the year

With ancestry dating back to the Jurassic period, Brad Norman hopes to study the movements of whale sharks…

Let’s celebrate our common Jurassic heritage!


Click here to read the SCOSE Notes in the previous edition of Australian Style (18.1).


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