Madonna King: Yes, words matter – how lovely to see them being used to great effect

Justice Lee delivered a historic verdict this week. But he also reminded us that words matter.

Justice Lee delivered a historic verdict this week. But he also reminded us that words matter. Photo: TND/Getty

Justice Michael Lee dispensed more than a dose of justice this week; he brought the word omnishambles into common lexicon in the most apposite way.

The Bruce Lehrmann case, with all its roundabouts and rabbit holes, was an omnishambles, he announced, in just one of the sublime descriptions that gambolled out of his 324-page judgment.

Omnishambles. First used 15 years ago in the BBC political satire The Thick of It, became the Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year in 2012, before being formally added to the dictionary in 2023.

In brief, it means shambolic disorder. Chaos. Not like your child’s bedroom, however much of a mare’s nest it might be.

Omnishambles is a cracking way to describe havoc in politics and decision making, budgetary decisions and international disorder.

And it’s not just this week’s case – where Justice Lee so aptly described Lehrmann as “having escaped the lions’ den”, before making “the mistake of going back for his hat”, that stands as a stellar example of the omnishambles we live among.

Our treatment of mental health is a national omnishambles that our politicians need work harder to address.

And next month’s budget will show what commitment they really have to reducing the hell and the heartache that comes with mental illness.

It wasn’t possible, this week, to listen to the parents of Bondi Junction murderer Joel Cauchi and not wonder what else we can do.

When teens have to wait two years to see a psychologist or those in rural areas have to wait a similar time to receive an NDIS assessment, we have an omnishambles.

When hospital wards can’t cope with the number of those seeking help for eating disorders and when anxiety is prompting thousands of families to choose to home-school, we know our treatment of mental health is an omnishambles.

Last Saturday, at Bondi Junction in Sydney, we got another reminder. And we shouldn’t wait for the next one.

The Inland Rail project, a 1600-kilometre freight rail line connecting Melbourne to Brisbane is an omnishambles of a different type. It’s inland, has rails – but doesn’t connect to a port at either end.

The multiple responses to global warming is another stellar example, as is what continues to unfold in the Middle East, and in an American courtroom.

In the Middle East, ancient hatreds and yellowed maps make it an omnishambles for the ages. And in the case of Donald Trump, shambolic behaviour is not confined to the courtroom.

If omnishambles come in degrees or scales, Queensland’s Olympic planning might also make the grade. This week’s Senate hearings unleashed a competition of ineptitude, buckpassing and failed memories.

But it was Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation bid that prompted Justice Lee to remind us all of the value of word nuggets.

To describe Lehrmann as a poor witness was “an exercise in understatement’’, he said, and Brittany Higgins’ Bumble date was left like “a shag on a rock’’ who “no doubt (was) rueing swiping right’’.

An autobiography usually revealed “nothing bad about its writer except his memory’’, he opined, just as “nothing good happens after two o’clock in the morning’’.

And a Parliament House security guard, however experienced, was “not a breathalyser in human form’’.

This is gold for any English class; a smart and swish example of how to use poetic devices and imagery and clever phrases to draw a word picture and engage the audience.

And it worked. Almost 50,000 Australians, most of whom might never have sat in the back of a court room, tuned into YouTube to hear the judge deliver his verdict.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our judges and politicians and public officials and even priests – those who are responsible for engaging us – turned their attention to how they deliver their message – from the May budget to Sunday morning homilies, courtroom verdicts to police press conferences?

Instead of persons, we’d have people.

Instead of “if he is the person we believe, we don’t have fears of that person holding an ideation’’ we’d know who was holding what.

Instead of ambiguity, we’d have certainty. Engagement, not detachment. Understanding, not misunderstanding.

Justice Lee delivered an historic verdict this week. But he also reminded us that words matter. And so do those omnishambles that colour where and how we live.

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