In other words of the year: shirtfront?

The Australian premier’s tough talk against Putin has snagged a ‘word of the year’ designation, but what was Tony Abbott really trying to say?

Rob Griffith/AP
Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks during a news conference in Sydney, Australia.

The American Dialect Society has not, as of this writing, named its Word of the Year (the really big one), but a number of publishers and other players in this game have. They seem rather slim pickings so far. 

The Oxford Dictionaries have announced their pick for 2014: vape, meaning to smoke an electronic cigarette.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg has named God view as his word of the year for 2014. As he explained in a piece for NPR, “It’s the term that the car service company Uber uses for a map view that shows the locations of all the Uber cars in an area and silhouettes of the people who ordered them.”

The media seized on the term when it came out that Uber had entertained visitors by pairing that view with customer data to display movements of named individuals.

From Australia comes another distinctive word of the year. But even Australians, it turns out, couldn’t be quite sure what it was supposed to mean.

The word is shirtfront, used as a verb. Here’s the story: Australia hosted the Group of 20 summit in November. It was to include Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Australians, who lost many of their compatriots aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, are profoundly unhappy, to say the least.

It can be dismaying to the host of an international gathering like this to have no control over the guest list. And so Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, under some political pressure to sound tough, commented at a press conference before the summit, “Look, I’m going to shirtfront Mr. Putin ... you bet I am.”

It might overstate it to say his comment went viral, but his term was picked up by at least a couple of other political leaders.

What exactly did he mean though? News Corp. national political editor Malcolm Farr explained that to shirtfront, in Australian rules football, means “to charge a rival player full pelt and hit them so hard they drop to the ground heavily.”

Ah, but Australian multiculturalism extends to the country’s sports, and among fans of another game, shirtfront has another meaning. Because I’m still trying to work out the nuances of round ball versus pointy ball versus sort-of pointy ball, I’ll just quote Mr. Farr: 

“In rugby territory – league and union, Mr Abbott’s game – to shirtfront means to grab by the coat lapels, or indeed the front of a shirt, and vigorously challenge. So, [was] the Prime Minister threatening to metaphorically slam the Russian President into the ground? Or simply to muss up his shirt? In terminology Mr Abbott is most familiar with, probably the latter.”

In the event, Putin was subjected to criticism forceful enough to prompt his early departure from the summit.

But the Australian National Dictionary Centre, the organization that named shirtfront its word of the year, is threading the needle on its exact definition. 

Amanda Laugesen, director of the center, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., “We’re defining it at the moment as ‘to challenge or confront a person.’”

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