Apt names for persons, pithy descriptors of actions and the world of things around us have always been demand. They were important long before market-speak gave us branding and brand recognition. According to the Bible, Adam kicked the whole naming game off. But he couldn't finish the job by himself alone.
In Australia we are, like everyone else around the world, constantly searching for more tightly fitting words for the modern world and our idiosyncracies. Broadcasting is one of these: can you imagine our good old Auntie, the Australian Broadcasting Commission being called Australian Media Commission?
Sometimes, creative as we Homo sapiens are, we invent new terms for newish things. X-rays, Radar, laser, GST are just some examples. Very often the way our language copes with changes in technology is by simply expanding the existing semantic reach of words. Think of cybernetics, internet, online. Who knows or cares that the word hammer at first meant stone - the revolutionary handheld tool used way back in the Stone Age. Similarly, broadcasting these days is no longer tightly linked to radio only - it now encompasses many other communication platforms within the digitalising world. By the way, broadcasting itself comes (via Scandinavian settlers in England) from the sphere of agriculture. At first it referred to the scattering of grain seeds.
Ethnic vs CALD
The very name of the our country Au-stra-li-a is a problem. It sounds somewhat synthetic. And that is not the only problem with it. Listening closely to how many people actually pronounce our official name is instructive. Frequently your hear 'Stralia or Ahstrala. On another front, some linguists are inclined to think that, in the long run, we're going to call ourselves Aussies rather than Au-stra-li-ans. And if more and more people choose that version on what or how we call ourselves, that's who we'll be. Full stop. Now, that'll be an illustration of ethnicity in action!
Let me now turn to the issue of what to call Australians who have come here as immigrants. There is the further issue of what to call their children. Specifically, the question is whether CALD is more apt, more logical than ethnic. This discussion has recently been unleashed by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA). FECCA maintains that ethnic is "an illogical term with negative and potentially discriminatory connotations."
CALD stands for 'Culturally and Linguistically Diverse.' To begin with this is an auditory monstrosity. Who am I, who are my children and their children: CALDs? I wince. Or would it be CALDeans? I wince still more.
Throughout our history there have been more or less complimentary or apt epithets for Australians from a variety of backgrounds, staring with new chum. Here I'm focussing on the immigrants flocking to Australia by now from all over the world.
One constant in our search for fitting tags for the new kids on the block is that, whatever name we hit on, it'll acquire in the minds of some people - as FECCA points out - "assumptions and connotations between the term and other racial slurs such as 'wog', 'chink' and other discriminatory labels." As much as I respect FECCA (I was its Secretary for a good decade), to my mind FECCA is now going too far by attempting to jettison ethnic. The pithy word hiding in its very brand name! Will FECCA now become FCALDCCA?
Since settling in Australia I have seen a whole array of inherently good names come and go. New Australian for example. A fitting term. Yet I recall schoolyard fights when 'us migrants' reacted to the taunts and slurs conveyed by New Australie, New Australie. We replied with sobriquets like kangaroo and skippy.
There were more, well-intentioned attempts to impose terms such as NESBs (Non-English Speaking Background). And, heaven forbid, Multiculturals.
What FECCA ignores is that ethnic is a self-chosen word. It was the word that helped power the ethnic movement in the 1970s, the grass-roots push that ultimately helped to usher in multiculturalism as the right policy for Australia's evolving nationhood. FECCA forgot that at the core of the word ethnic there is self-ascription, self-described identity. Ultimately the word is derived
from ethnos "band of people living together, nation, people," properly "people of one's own kind," from Proto-Indoeuropean (PIE) *swedh-no-, suffixed form of the root *s(w)e-, pronoun of the third person and reflexive (referring back to the subject of a sentence), also used in forms denoting
the speaker's social group, "(we our-)selves"). (See idiom).
Admittedly, that's a bit technical but for linguists the path from *s(w)e- to ethnic is actually unremarkable. The field of historical linguistics is full of revealing and fascinating etymologies.
Now, given the choice between being classified by some bureaucrat as a CALD or calling myself an ethnic, I'll have ethnic any day. FECCA may indeed be indulging in an exercise that is well-intentioned but "political correctness writ large", so Mr Philipatos from the Centre for Independent Studies .
A final note: this argie-bargie about semantics should drive home to us all that, even (or especially?) in the digital age, good interpersonal communication is not a matter of technical specs. In fact it remains a sensitive and touchy matter in all arenas of human life: the family, the schoolyard, the workplace... In short everywhere.