PM comes out fighting over linguist carnage

No-one would accuse Tony Abbott of shying away from a fight, but has Australia's attack dog prime minister finally bitten off more than he can chew?

Not content with facing off against everyone from boat people to big-end-of-town bludgers, Abbott has gone into battle against a far more resilient adversary - the humble word "program".

Across much of the English-speaking world "program" was long ago eradicated by its big brother "programme", except in North America, or when it appeared alongside a computer.

To the chagrin of the new PM, an arch-monarchist and University of Oxford Rhodes Scholar, its more recent rise to prominence in Australia reflects a creeping Americanisation of his nation's fair-dinkum take on traditional Queen's English.


The Government's own style guide sides with "program", as do major dictionaries, which describe the longer version as a "minor" alternative.

But despite a gradual fall in popularity, "programme" continues to evoke extraordinary passion.

Back in the late 90s, the title of a new ABC TV show, The Micallef Program, could hardly have seemed more inoffensive. Until the complaints started.

By the time Series Two aired on the national public broadcaster it had a new name - The Micallef Programme. "We're spelling 'programme' correctly this time," host Shaun Micallef told viewers. "That's entirely due to your feedback and we thank you for that. Certainly don't get that level of pedantry from viewers of commercial television."

While Micallef revelled in the absurdity (the final series was called The Micallef Pogram), the same can't be said for some of Australia's politicians, who have been squabbling over the word for years, seemingly as part of a wider ideological battle around national identity.

John Howard was the first to take a stand. After winning power in 1996, he sent a memo
to bureaucrats telling them to avoid what he regarded as the American spelling. Eleven years later Kevin Rudd changed it back and now Abbott is hoping 2014 will mark a comeback for the old order.

This time there have been no memos, but departmental emails are flying over two words that sparked debate long before Howard's intervention.

They evolved from "programma", created by the ancient Greeks to describe a "written public notice". By the time of its first "recorded" appearance in English - in Scotland in the early 17th Century - it was written as "program".


But the 19th Century Victorian fascination with all things France, as well as the long-lasting linguistic fallout from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, saw the French "programme" adopted by and spread around the British Empire.

Since September's poll it's also been spread around the Australian government, appearing on an array of official documents, websites and media releases. Although Abbott's advisers say departments have not been told to change the spelling, senior public servants have been left in little doubt about what is preferred, and expected.

Some have reportedly been told to "get with the programme". Others are awaiting official word.

The result is linguistic carnage in Canberra, where government websites are now a mish-mash of different spellings.

While "programme" may reign supreme on Abbott's official (35 mentions to six), he has a long way to go to turn the orthographic tide. On you'll find almost 550,000 references to "program" and just 30,000 to its counterpart.

Susan Butler, editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, described the PM's personal agenda as "ludicrous and time-wasting".


"The government should follow its own house style regardless of who is in power and what preferences individual politicians might have," she wrote recently.

"Tinkerers should be banned. It simply makes for unnecessary trouble."

Or maybe the government should simply adopt the compromise adopted by the official Micallef DVD - p(r)ogram(me).