Bernadette Hince


The Antarctic dictionary:
a complete guide to Antarctic English

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What is a "growler"? Or a "nunatak"? Does anyone ever eat Macquarie cabbage?
Are some of your best friends overwinterers? Why do they call those penguins "Adelie" penguins? For that matter, why is it called the "Antarctic"?

The Antarctic Dictionary is a dictionary written, like the big OED, "on historical principles", a rather old-fashioned label which signifies that each word defined has quotations from published sources which show the history and use of that word. This principle has been used by a significant number of researchers in recent years - there are now historical dictionaries, for example, of Australian English, NZ, Canadian, South African, and Alaskan English.

The vocabulary of the antarctic regions has developed mostly within the last one hundred years, in parallel with our knowledge of, and use of, the region itself. The Antarctic dictionary gives each word's etymology, its meaning, and the quotations. The main English-speaking nations represented in Antarctica are Australia, New Zealand, Britain, South Africa, and the United States. The dictionary covers the southern vocabulary of all these nations.

The project was my own idea, and I worked on it for eleven years. As part of my research, I went to Antarctica in 1996 for four months, working as a biologist with Weddell seals. The area yielded a lot more words than I thought likely when I began collecting - there are about 2000 defined in the dictionary, which includes not just continental Antarctica, but the whole subantarctic regions, all those little islands scattered around the Southern Ocean, and two inhabited parts: the Falkland Islands, and Tristan da Cunha.

The sorts of words in the dictionary fall into a number of categories. First there are the words for snow and ice - about 200 such terms, which is hardly surprising for a continent covered in ice and surrounded by ice. Tabular bergs, bergy bits, pancake ice, grease ice, frazil, getting slotted. There are words for whaling and sealing: not exclusively antarctic activities, but so distinctively antarctic, and so significant in the exploration and exploitation of the region that they are included. The bone plan, the floating factories, the lemmers (who dismember whales and cut them into pieces for boiling down), the killers and blue whales and fur seals, and a nasty condition called seal finger which afflicts sealers.

The common names for other antarctic creatures occupy a large chunk of the dictionary: the sea elephants, the leopards, the wedds; albatrosses and other seabirds: nellies, stinkers, GPs, wanderers. Penguins are not restricted to Antarctica: they occur as far north as the equator. But they are the main icon of the continent, and there are plenty in this dictionary: chinstraps, gentoos, jackasses, kings, macaronis, rockhoppers. The winds and the weather provide words: katabatic winds, for example. And there are food and drink terms - hoosh, pemmican, sledgies, homers.

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