gong hay fat choy and gong xi fa cai

From the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s to about 1989, most Chinese people who came to Australia were from the southern provinces and spoke Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka. I can remember seeing Lunar New Year decorations and advertisements saying gong hay fat choy (or variations thereof). 

About nine years ago I started teaching at a college which overwhelmingly catered to Chinese students. It being February, I started with gong hay fat choy! and no-one understood me, because they all spoke Mandarin (and/or because my Chinese pronunciation is so bad). Finally one student understood what I was trying to say.

Especially post-Tiananmen Square, more people from the northern provinces came here and Mandarin gradually overtook Cantonese as the most-spoken kind of Chinese. The 2016 Australian census reported that 2.5% of Australians speak Mandarin at home, alongside Cantonese at 1.2%, and Arabic, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek (with between 1.4 and 1% each).

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Mountain high

Yesterday was Australia Day (because it fell on a Saturday, the public holiday is tomorrow – Australians love long weekends), and was quite hot, so I didn’t want to over-burden the students. For the last half hour, I found a Youtube video called 101 Facts about Australia, which I won’t link to because it isn’t very good. If I’d prepared sooner, I might have found a better one. Among other things, it stated (ha!) that Australia has eight states, and named one of them “Southern Australia”. Actually, there are six states and two major internal territories, and one of them is “South Australia”. 

It mentioned Australia’s highest mountain, which the presenter mispronounced (everyone does anyway, but he mis-mispronounced it). He also said, and the caption read, “7,310 ft” (2,228 m). I said “You students from Nepal and China may be amused by how small our mountains are”. One Nepalese student said “That’s almost as high as the Himalayas. They are 8,000.” I said “That’s 7,000 feet, not 7,000 metres”. She seemed to know what feet are in this context.  

The major Himalayan mountains are almost 4 times taller than Mt Kosciuszko (Mt Everest is almost exactly 4 time taller) . It gets on lists only because it is the tallest mountain on the continent. Maybe. If the island of New Guinea is considered as part of the continent (which it geologically is), then the highest mountain is Puncak Jaya, in Indonesia’s Papua Province.

And Mt Kosciuszko isn’t the tallest mountain on Australian territory.  That’s Mawson Peak (2,745 m), on the desperately remote external territory of Heard Island. 

PS Just to confuse things, another state is “Western Australia”, sometimes incorrectly referred to as “West Australia”. “Southern Australia” refers to a wider and slightly vague geographical region which includes southern Western Australia, southern South Australia, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania. “Northern Australia” includes northern Western-Australia (also called “north-west Australia” or “North-West Australia”), the Northern Territory and Queensland.

log in, tap on

A few days ago, the class was practising phrasal verbs. On one list was log in (or on) and out (or off). The first logs were lengths of wood from trees, and the first logging (not in or on or out or off) was cutting trees down and into lengths. Some time later, sailors measured the speed of a ship by throwing a log off the stern, to which was connected a rope with knots at specified intervals. By counting the number of knots in a specified time, the captain could calculate the speed, then record it (as well as the direction and other relevant information) in a log book. Even the Starship Enterprise has a captain’s log.

Log books came ashore to be used to record any repeated information, including the times of arriving at or leaving work, or starting or finishing a particular task. From there it was a short step to computers, where logging on ensures that only people authorised to use that computer, or any function of it, do so, and records who does what on it, when. All these logs and logging are from Middle English noun logge or lugge.

A student mentioned log tables in maths. These are not related, being tables of logarithms, from Greek logos, word, speech, logical principle and arithmós number (compare arithmetic). A search for log book shows work-related record books, while a search for log table or log table book shows mathematical resources. (The use of logarithms has largely been replaced by calculators and computers.)

[PS 13 Nov: I knew there was another angle. From the 1990s, online diaries etc became known as web logs, weblogs and blogs. There are also vlogs (video-based diaries), which has to one of the ugliest words ever coined.]

So do we log in and out, or on and off? Google Ngrams shows log on and off to be slightly more common than log in and out, but login as a noun has become one word. (Dictionary.com also records logon, but only to define it as login.) Continue reading

The first post for a while

I haven’t posted much recently for several reasons. In September my new job (as a magazine subeditor) unexpectedly came to an end. On my way home, I contacted the academic manager of my previous English language college, who said she’d arrange some classes for me, but that took some time. That afternoon, I looked at job advertisements, saw one for a subeditor position with another magazine, and applied. That also took some time, but I have now done two days casually, with a view to part-time ongoing then full-time permanent from next year. 

Around the same time, we were in the process of selling our existing house and buying a new one, which we have now done.

Then last week, my father died, so there were many things to be organised, most of which were done by my two sisters who live in that city. My wife and I, and another sister and her family, flew to that city for the funeral on Wednesday. 

I got a lot of my interest in English from my father. He was a regular crossword puzzle doer, preached in church almost every week, and would often go and get the dictionary if we challenged him over Sunday lunch about something he’d said. This did not extend to other languages, though; he failed Biblical Greek multiple times. One of his grand-daughters/my nieces has great interest in and aptitude for languages, but that might be through her father, not our side of the family. Continue reading


My wife and I are in the process of selling one house, buying another and moving. While writing comments on Facebook, I noticed that its spell-checker was red-underlining removalist. (Pages for Mac and WordPress do, too.) Dictionary.com lists removalist as “Australian”, which surprised me. I asked my North American friends on Facebook, and they said they would only use mover but would understand removalist in the context of moving house. (By the way, moving house or just moving are both reasonably strange things to say. One student once told me that she’d spent the weekend “moving my house”.)

Some of my Facebook friends also mentioned packers. I have been doing most of the packing myself, and we won’t be paying specifically for packing (the removalists may do some incidental packing). Many years ago I attended a party for a friend whose company was relocating her to Melbourne. She said that the company was paying for the move, including the packing. Later in the evening, someone else commented on the lack of cardboard boxes around the apartment. I said “Kerry and Jamie are coming tomorrow morning”. She looked puzzled, and so were my North American friends when I told that story on Facebook. Anyone not from Australia is welcome to guess my meaning before I update with the answer. [edit: Kerry Packer was then Australia’s most powerful media owner. Jamie (now known as James) was being groomed as his successor; his interests are more broadly commercial]

One of my Australian friends mentioned a play (later a movie) by the Australian playwright David Williamson titled The Removalists. Given that there is only one actual removalist in the play/movie, it is possible that there is a double meaning in the title.

How much more?

In Australia, a standard bottle of wine contains 750 millilitres. Today I bought a bottle containing 1 litre. The label proclaims “OVER 33% THAN A 750 ML BOTTLE”.

This is true. 250 ml is 33 point 33 recurring percent more than a 750 ml bottle, which is indeed over 33 percent (or more than, if that’s what your style guide says). To be fair, the winery may not legally be able to claim “33 percent more” when there’s actually “33 point 33 recurring more”. But is anyone going to complain that they got 2.5 ml more than promised, which is what the difference between 33 point 33 recurring percent and 33 percent actually comes down to?

I’ve just got to remember not to drink 33 point 33 recurring percent more of it.