Books & Literature

Book Review: Rebel Without a Clause, by Sue Butler

A fascinatingly idiosyncratic romp through the world of words by lexicographer and former Macquarie Dictionary Editor, Sue Butler.

The perfect gift for language-loving friends and family members. It’s a guaranteed conversation starter.

Confused about whether you should hunker down or bunker down? Never been sure about what constitutes a moral panic? Malapropisms and mashed idioms raising your blood pressure more than you know they should?

Set yourself straight with Rebel Without a Clause – Losing the Linguistic Plot, a gentle exploration of a diverse selection of contemporary issues related to writing in the English language. Author Sue Butler delves into the history behind some of her favourite examples of ‘the vagaries of English pronunciation complicated by differences in varieties of English and personal idiosyncrasies and social taboos’. In an entertaining, conversational style, Butler shares her views on ‘anything and everything’ she sees or hears that relates to English.

Susan Butler AO (The Dinkum Dictionary, The Aitch Factor and New Words 2018–19 Changes in Australian English) will be known to many readers as the former editor of Australia’s national dictionary, the Macquarie. One of her roles was to notice new words and usages in Australian English, and this interest continues post-retirement as she shares her expertise and expresses her personal likes and dislikes via speaking engagements, radio and television appearances and her website. In a recent blog post addressing the decision of Twitter to change some of the terminology in its house style, she argues for a focus on the targeting of clearly problematic words to avoid overreach and steer clear of unnecessary (and sometimes ridiculous) change.

Butler is bothered by the loss of clarity that is the result of confusion (‘free reign’ vs ‘free rein’, for example), frequently common with words, and phrases we’ve heard but have not seen in writing. In the 96 short chapters (each one or two pages long) of Rebel Without a Clause, she chats about curly language issues and invites us to stop and think about the words we use and the way we use them.

Diversity across the way we speak and write means constant change for the English language. Fresh terms are created and others fall out of use as expressions become obsolete due to changes in society. One pertinent example is the way in which the arrival of COVID-19 has created a new social environment and given rise to a collection of new terms, both official and unofficial.

Connotations, too, can be fluid over time. Words currently deemed ‘nice’ may have formerly unpleasant associations. ‘Plump’ and ‘chubby’, for example, are now reasonably acceptable substitutes for ‘fat’, but both transformed from beginnings far less friendly. Discussing political clichés, Butler laments (with a sentiment no doubt shared by many) the slide of rhetoric from the artful crafting of language to ‘empty blather’.

Whether by decree (pronouncement from an authoritative body) or as the end result of community consensus, language evolution occurs whether we welcome it or not. We can cling to the rules and conventions familiar to us or we can embrace change with passion as well as informed caution with the aim, at all times, of ensuring clarity of meaning is preserved.

Mix yourself a metaphor and settle down with this fascinating (and frequently funny) collection of musings on the many ways we mangle English. Rebel Without a Clause will be the perfect Christmas gift for family or friends who take pleasure in dissecting the ways in which we express ourselves. It’s a great read as well as a nudge towards helping us decide what’s really worth fretting over and what we can let go.

Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Twitter: @JoVabolis

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: September 2000
RRP: $24.99

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