'Voice' named 2019 word of the year by Australian National Dictionary Centre

Word as used in ‘Indigenous voice to parliament’ was central to public debate in 2019, centre’s director says

“Voice” – as in Indigenous voice to parliament – has been named the 2019 word of the year by the Australian National Dictionary Centre, beating “quiet Australians” and “fish kill.”

The term was first used to define a First Nations representative body by Noel Pearson in 2015 and is defined by the dictionary as “a formal channel for Indigenous input into the making of laws and policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

The centre’s director, Dr Amanda Laugesen, said the word was chosen from a list of prominent terms because it had become central to public debate in 2019.

“From our list we like to choose a term that is distinctively Australian,” Laugesen said. “ ‘Voice’ was the frontrunner.”

The shortlist included “quiet Australians”, a term coined by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, during the 2019 federal election to refer to a Coalition-voting silent majority, implicitly opposite to the “shouty” progressive elite. It was defined as: “Those Australians regarded as holding moderate opinions but who are not likely to express them publicly.”

Also on the list was “fish kill”, as in the Menindee fish kills which saw thousands of native fish turn belly-up in the Murray River, defined as “the sudden death of a large number of fish in a single event”.

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“Climate emergency”, which was the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year, and “influencer”, as in social media influencer, rounded out the list. The Collins Dictionary word of the year was “climate strike”.

The proposal for a voice came out of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, the product of extensive consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities on the concept of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. The Uluru statement proposed a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament and a Makarrata commission, to conduct a national truth and reconciliation process to create a path towards a treaty.

The proposal of a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament was swiftly dismissed by the Coalition and repeatedly incorrectly described as a third chamber of parliament. Last month the indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, announced a group of 19 advisers, established to design an “Indigenous voice to government” as a compromise option.

Thomas Mayor was a delegate at the Uluru summit and has become a prominent campaigner for the voice to parliament, travelling around Australia with the signed canvas Uluru statement and writing a book about his experiences.

He said the word selection was encouraging.

“It indicates that our campaign is making a difference,” Mayor told Guardian Australia. “We have been saying the same thing since Uluru, since the 1930s, since colonisation: First Nations people have been trying to have a say in the places that have been making decisions about them.”

Mayor said he was “dismayed and disgusted” by the government’s response to the campaign, but said it had solidified the need for an independent, representative body that is enshrined in the constitution and “cannot be undone by the whims of the parliament”.

The ANU Dictionary Centre is jointly funded with Oxford University Press, and informs the Australian editions of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Macquarie Dictionary will announce its people’s choice word of the year on Tuesday. The committee’s choice was “cancel culture”, followed by “eco-anxiety”, the Pitjantjatjara word “ngangkari”, meaning healer, and “thicc”.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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