Do Australian Courts Speak Australian?

The year is 1981, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is released, the 4 millionth Holden rolls off the production line and a funnel-web spider vaccine is used for the first time. Oh and also Shaddup Your Face spends 8 weeks at number 1 on the Aussie charts. Australia is coming into its own and the cultural cringe we held for so long is starting to fade.

Since its founding, Australians were grappling with a sense of identity. The historian John Hirst, who passed away earlier this year, in his book Sense & Nonsense in Australian History described the interbellum Australians as “More British than the British”. This issue with identity continued through the 50’s and 60’s summed up by the fact that even Menzies considered himself “British to his bootstraps”. 

The publication of the Macquarie Dictionary in 1981 saw the first time that Australian English was recognised as a seperate dialect worthy of being recorded as distinct from American and British English.

Cutting the Umbilical Cord

Until the Australia Act 1986 (Cth) effectively severed the remaining points of appeal to the UK Privy Council, we were bound to British precedent and ultimately to their norms and to their language. British courts naturally favoured the Oxford English Dictionary, the same way our American cousins favoured Websters and each considered these indigenous dictionaries as the authorities on their dialects.

Susan Butcher, the editor of Macquarie, was kind enough to provide some background on the role of the Macquarie Dictionary in our society and specifically in our courts. “Australian courts, like the rest of the Australian community, were slow to understand that Australian English was an independent variety of English which had developed from transplanted British English but which was now different in many ways.  For a long time we maintained the fiction that we spoke and wrote British English.  It was not until Macquarie Dictionary was published in 1981 that people could grasp the nature of the new variety that had developed here.” 

We were forced to, as a society, make a deliberate transition not only recognise Australian English, but actually embrace it. In Hai v The Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (2000) 201 CLR 293Justice Kirby chose to interpret the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) by examining the definitions contained in the Macquarie Dictionary treating it as the starting point of interpretation in Australian Courts. Kirby J noted that the meaning of the terms at the time of the convention must be interpreted along with the general evolution of language, including the Australian evolution (62).

Does Bathe mean Swim?

Kuzmanovski v New South Wales Lotteries Corporation [2010] FCA 876 saw the Federal Court examining the question of whether Mr Kuzmanovski had won $100,000 when his lottery ticket matched the word “Bathe” with a picture of a man swimming. The question to be answered boiled down to was whether doing a few freestyle laps counted as bathing, as understood in Australia.


The Court examined the definition in several dictionaries including the Macquarie Dictionary which provided as a second option for “Bathe” as “Chiefly British: To swim for pleasure”. Some dictionaries agreed others disagreed. Justice Rares ultimately determined that he was not bound to any definition and could rely on his understanding of an ordinary and natural meaning. Rares J did cite in obiter the precedence that the Macquarie should be authoritative noting “in House of Peace Pty Ltd v Bankstown City Council [2000] NSWCA 44; (2000) 48 NSWLR 498 at 506 [33 par 3] Mason P had described it as the “most authoritative Australian dictionary” following what Kirby P had said in Provincial Insurance Australia Pty Ltd v Consolidated Wood Products Pty Ltd (1991) 25 NSWLR 541 at 553.”

Mr Kuzmanovski was successful in showing that “bathe” in an ordinary and natural meaning of Australian English could mean swim and more so he was awarded indemnity costs based on an early offer to settle.

What’s the Difference?

As a collection of Australian English, the Macquarie Dictionary’s mission is to simply record our dialect. This is in stark contrast to the origins and missions of Websters and Oxford. Noah Webster deliberately set out to differentiate American English by making style and spelling choices and imposing them (including trying to change “soup” to “soop” and “believe” to “beleev”). Meanwhile the Oxford’s mission was to publish the most correct definition regardless of common usage.

Apart from uniquely local terms, one quirk to note from the Macquarie Dictionary is its preference for the suffix “ise” instead of “ize”. This reflects a uniquely periodic understanding of the English language originating from how the language existed at the time of settlement and continued common usage. Most people conflate “ize” as being uniquely American, but the Oxford dictionary prefers “ize”, noting the Greek origins make this more correct, despite “ise” being the preferred form amongst the British public.

The Macquarie Dictionary does not actively seek to advocate its role as the guardian of Australian English but does do some helpful prodding along the way. In the 1990’s the Macquarie Dictionary approached the Directors of Education and successfully lobbied for their spellings to be considered the standard for education, or more recently sending more contemporary dictionaries to Federal Parliament when they learnt they were operating on out-of-date Concise Macquarie editions.

Susan Butler: “But it is not for us to push these things, just as it is not for us to decide what words the Australian language community will choose to use and what they will mean by them. If the law courts and the education system adopt the Macquarie Dictionary as a standard, then it is a sign that the concept of Australian English as an independent variety of English has been generally accepted. We are observers, not actors in this sphere.”


One thought on “Do Australian Courts Speak Australian?

  1. Pingback: Party Like It’s (Almost) Your Birthday! | Commercial Lore

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s