[This is the text of the speech by Emeritus Professor and former Dean of the ANU College of Law, Michael Coper,[1] launching Troy Simpson’s book The Funny Dictionary: An A-Z of Kids’ Funny Definitions (NLA Publishing), on 16 October 2018 (National Dictionary Day) at the National Library of Australia].

The Funny Dictionary

Above: Professor Michael Coper, author Troy Simpson, and MC Mark Parton MLA, officially launch The Funny Dictionary

Thank you, Mark Parton, for your kind introduction.

I begin, of course, by acknowledging that we are gathered here on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. And in case you think this is mere ritual, it started me thinking, not just about the evils of dispossession, a serious subject indeed, but also, in the context of this evening’s event, about the universality of humour, especially as it may manifest itself in languages other than English, such as in the multitude of Aboriginal languages across Australia.

I got a taste of this potential universality recently when, in preparation for a talk at the National Museum of Australia about connections between the Museum’s Rome: City + Empire exhibition and law, lawyers and things of legal interest,[2] I read Mary Beards’ book on laughter in ancient Rome,[3] and got some sense of puns and word plays in Latin. Troy, I don’t know if you are a linguist, but, if so, humour in languages other than English could be your next project!

First of all, I want to congratulate everyone on the production of this little book[4] — small in size, but big in impact. Troy, of course, as author, deserves our greatest congratulations, but I want to also acknowledge the role of the National Library as publisher. Susan Hall, I suspect that it is not widely known that the NLA has a vibrant publishing arm, and one that goes beyond the publications that accompany your many exhibitions. You have published some outstanding books over the years, and Troy must be very happy that you have published his second venture into humour – compiled, of course, with significant reliance on the resources of the National Library, both as to text and to pictures.

It was the pictorial collection that first introduced me, thirty years ago, to the magic of the National Library, when I published my illustrated book Encounters with the Australian Constitution[5] and sourced some amazing historical photographs, such as the reading of the proclamation of federation to a large crowd in Centennial Park, Sydney, on 1 January 1901. More recently, I have worked closely with the library’s oral history unit, both as interviewer and interviewee. Through these experiences, and more generally as an avid user, I have come to love the library, and it is an honour to have been asked to launch Troy’s book, both in this iconic location and as an NLA publication.

I should first say a word about Troy. I am immensely proud of Troy, not only as a 1st class honours law graduate of the ANU but also, going back nearly 20 years now, as our chief Research Associate, full time for three years, on The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia,[6] a massive project involving the writing of 435 A-Z entries and the management of 225 authors — each one as touchy and protective as the other of their own styles and idiosyncrasies.

Troy not only handled this challenging situation with aplomb, but also wrote a number of the entries himself, including the entry on humour in the High Court — an entry that you might expect to be relatively barren, but in fact is brought out in its full richness under Troy’s sure hand. So the seeds were sown, and now we have the marvellous Funny Dictionary.

Generally speaking, it is not easy to write about humour. The written word can so easily kill the spontaneity of the moment or the ambience, if not transience, of the context. But, fortunately for Troy, this is less true of the student howler, the subject of his Funny Dictionary, than it is for deliberate jokes. The howler, based on accidental mistake, generally originates in writing and therefore assumes a life and permanence of its own; indeed, the humour leaps off the page at you, sometimes cerebrally and sometimes viscerally, but always to great effect.

This leads me to say that there are two outstanding aspects of Troy’s book. The first is the compilation of the howlers themselves, and I come to that in a moment. The second is Troy’s meticulously scholarly, though engagingly light-handed, introduction to the book, his Preface, in which he explains what makes a howler funny and takes us through the history of previous publications and of our fascination with them. I really commend Troy’s Preface to you; it will be a point of reference on this subject for years to come.

One of the great classic books on humour to which Troy refers in his Preface is Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That, published in 1930 and replete with both historical parodies and student howlers.[7] I was sure that I had a copy of this book so I rushed excitedly to my bookshelf to remind myself of this brand of humour.

But the memory plays funny tricks. What I had on my bookshelf was a copy of the 1958 autobiography of the famous Australian cricketer Arthur Mailey, entitled 10 for 66 and All That, a reference to Mailey’s best bowling figures in a match against Gloucestershire in 1921.[8]

Two things really struck me about Arthur Mailey’s book. First, there is a playful Foreword by the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, in which, because of Mailey’s reputation not only as a cricketer but also as a humourist, Menzies engages in his own analysis of the nature of humour. One can do all the intensive research imaginable on a subject like humour and yet still stumble upon gems like this by pure serendipity.

Secondly, although Mailey’s title was a clear nod to Sellar and Yeatman’s classic, there is no reference to or any explanation of this choice of title. Clearly, even more than a quarter of a century after its first publication, 1066 and All That was such a familiar work that any reference to it needed no explanation. Troy, we can only hold out hope that, one day, The Funny Dictionary will be similarly regarded. I think we have every reason to be optimistic about that.

Now, what about The Funny Dictionary itself? I really should give you some examples of the howlers themselves, shouldn’t I? I don’t want to tread on Troy’s toes, as I’m sure he will mention his favourites in his response, but just to give you some of the flavour of the book, a couple of examples will suffice. Both are taken from the field of marriage, an evidently rich source of misunderstanding or mishearing:

· Acrimony is defined as what a man must give his divorced wife; 
· And perhaps this is a consequence of the word for having only one wife or husband, namely, monotony.

I could go on, with a rich selection from Troy’s 522 definitions. But you can read them for yourselves, and indeed I strongly encourage you to do so. Instead, I am going to take my cue from Troy’s insistence on perhaps the most important point of all about student howlers, that they must be genuine mistakes and not contrived humour or deliberate jokes, and thus share with you a few from my own experience.

Everyone, especially teachers, will have their own unique examples, which only underlines the ubiquity of these hilarious mistakes and their unfailing ability to generate mirth.

I note a number of student howlers in my book Encounters with the Australian Constitution.[9] For some reason, many of my students had difficulty with the notion of the ‘founding fathers’ of the Constitution. I received essays over the years with variations ranging from the ‘foundering fathers’, to the ‘floundering fathers’, to even the ‘foundling fathers’ — though I was so taken by an evidently uncorrected typographical error in one essay, which purported to discuss the original intent of the ‘pounding panthers’, that I used that description as the title of an article I later wrote on the topic.[10] One student tried to avoid this difficulty by referring, in an admirably non-sexist way,[11] to the ‘framers’ of the Constitution — but only managed to come up with a transposition of letters that rendered it as the ‘farmers’ of the Constitution. And another explained in a footnote that he had found his information about the Constitution in Professor Peter Hanks’ ‘tomb’.[12] Clearly he meant ‘tome’ — and no doubt took his cue from the spelling of ‘comb’. Ah, the traps of inconsistency in the English language!

Another student declared that, in one of the leading constitutional cases, he was very much attracted to the view of Justice Dawson, but noted that Justice Dawson was in ‘descent’ (spelt D-E-S-C-E-N-T rather than D-I-S-S-E-N-T). I don’t recall whether it was this or some other criticism in my book that distracted him, but Justice Dawson later told the story of how my book had cost him $800. He explained that he was so bemused about what I had related in the book that, when backing his car out of his garage, he unfortunately forgot to open the garage door!

My own children have given me a rich supply of howlers in the course of their language acquisition. Words with more than one meaning were ‘deciduous’ — or was it that trees that lost their leaves were ‘ambiguous’?! I don’t exactly recall. But I do recall that coffee without caffeine had been ‘decapitated’. And that a person who said one thing and did another was a ‘hypnotist’.   

These are all classic howlers. But, as Troy points out, the humour can sometimes come from unfortunate juxtaposition and sometimes from mishearing. My favourite example of unfortunate juxtaposition is an advertisement placed by the Law Society of New South Wales years ago in The Sydney Morning Herald as part of Law Week. It read: ‘Mutual wills are a good idea when both partners die together. A solicitor can advise on how this might be arranged.’ My favourite example of mishearing, told to me by my good friend Tony Blackshield who is here this evening, is that Tony was once asked by a student to tell the class he was teaching a little more about Justice Windeyer. He misheard the question and gave the class a ten minute burst on the Supreme Court of India!

And then there are the typos, and their modern reincarnation in the form of the electronic autocorrect function. I was puzzled years ago when a faculty meeting item at UNSW read: ‘use of the word professor in the faculty’. Had some people been exaggerating their status? No, in the early days of electronic typewriters, the item was intended to read: ‘use of the word processor in the faculty’.

More recently, in a book I edited just this year on legal education,[13] one eminent author made a plea for teachers with more ‘mastery’ of their subjects. I was lucky to detect a typo beyond the reach of spellcheck when I noticed that the proofs had her calling for teachers with more ‘mascara’. And autocorrect once led our HR adviser at ANU to conclude his advice to us with the hope that he had ‘calcified’ the situation. Perhaps not as potentially calamitous as the example of a colleague of mine who meant to end an email communication with a student with the words ‘Let me know if there is anything else you need’ and fortunately discovered, before it was too late, that her draft said ‘Let me know if there is anything else you nerd’.

As I have said, we all have our own experience of howlers and our own favourites. There is an abundant, perhaps endless, supply that Troy could draw upon for many more editions of The Funny Dictionary.

But I want to finish on a serious note, and congratulate Troy not only for his erudite account of the history and nature of student howlers and his wonderful collection of them, but also for making a significant contribution to our mental health and well-being. However you view humour, whether as therapy or just as something to be enjoyed for its own sake, these howlers will bring a smile to your face, perhaps even a tear to your eye. The authors are anonymous, so there are no victims. We cannot help but enjoy and be uplifted by the humour.

I once met and got on very well with a visiting professor from Germany. The feeling must have been mutual, as he subsequently wrote to me and clearly meant to say that he looked forward very much to meeting me ‘once again’. In the distinct way, however, that words are ordered in German, what he actually said was, ‘I look forward very much to meeting you again once’. (Although you never know — perhaps that was all he could offer in his busy schedule!) In any event, Troy I look forward very much to consulting your Funny Dictionary again, not once but over and over, and I am delighted to declare the book officially launched!

End notes
1 Emeritus Professor and former Dean, ANU College of Law, Australian National University.
2 Michael Coper, ‘Rome: Lawyers, Lessons and Legacies’, talk given at the National Museum of Australia’s Rome: City + Empire exhibition of objects from the British Museum, for a Minter Ellison client event and private viewing, 26 September 2018.
3 Mary Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome (University of California Press, 2015).
4 Troy Simpson, The Funny Dictionary: An A-Z of Kids’ Funny Definitions (NLA Publishing, 2018).
5 Michael Coper, Encounters with the Australian Constitution (CCH Ltd, 1987).
6  Tony Blackshield, Michael Coper and George Williams (eds), The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia (Oxford University Press, 2001).
7 WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates (Methuen Publishing, 1930), first published in serial form in Punch magazine and republished in many later editions, most recently in 2009.
8 Arthur Mailey, 10 for 66 and All That (Shakespeare Head, 1958).
9 Above n 5.
10 ‘The Constitution and the Pounding Panthers’, Australasian Political Studies Association Annual Conference, University of Wollongong, October 1994; edited version published in Constitutional Centenary, Vol 3 No 4 (December 1994) pp 20-22, http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/2235374.
11 See Helen Irving, ‘Who are the Founding Mothers? The Role of Women in Australian Federation’, Papers on Parliament No. 25, June 1995, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/~/~/link.aspx?_id=B9378B5C2AB54D38A3C993BF4F182AA8&_z=z .
12 The same Professor Hanks who himself was the victim of a typo when, in a review of my book, he purported to note that it was a fine exposition of ‘pubic’ law.
13 Kevin Lindgren, François Kunc and Michael Coper (eds), The Future of Australian Legal Education (Lawbook Co, 2018).