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Baker, Sidney John (Sid) (1912–1976)

by W. S. Ramson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sidney John Baker (1912-1976), philologist, was born on 17 October 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand, son of English-born parents Sidney George Baker, journalist, and his wife Lillian Selby, née Whitehead. Educated at Wellington College, he attended Victoria University College in 1930-32, but did not graduate; he was later to evince some rancour when academic critics alleged that his publications lacked scholarly rigour. Jack to his New Zealand friends, Sid to his Australian, he came to Sydney in 1935 and lived at Kings Cross with Ross McGill and Peter Harding. Very much the young intellectual, he was influenced by Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, and admired D. H. Lawrence. Baker worked briefly as a journalist on the Daily Telegraph before joining the Bathurst National Advocate. On 14 August 1936 he married a typist Eena Dale ('Sally') Young at the district registrar's office, Bathurst; they were to have two daughters: Suzanne born in 1939 and Stephanie five years later.

Having visited London in 1938-39, Baker returned to the land of his birth where he published New Zealand Slang (Christchurch, 1941?), but was soon back in Sydney working on the A.B.C. Weekly. Twice rejected as unfit for active service, in 1942 he crewed in a trawler engaged by the United States Army Small Ships Division to ferry arms and supplies to New Caledonia. He had received a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship and published his Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang (Melbourne, 1941) which was to run to three editions by 1943. The book marked the beginning of his devotion to collecting and to interpreting Australian colloquialisms as a manifestation of national character. With his appetite whetted by finding Australian and New Zealand words and phrases which were unfamiliar in London, he fossicked unremittingly and became the tireless correspondent of hundreds of Australians as he compiled his major work, The Australian Language (1945). His interpretation of the Australian character was based on his ordering of the thousands of Australianisms that he identified and on what he regarded as the inventiveness of the idiom. A whole stratum of the vocabulary which E. E. Morris had previously neglected was categorized by Baker as, for example, the language of the soil, the bush, the road or the city. His categories have not been shaken by subsequent, more sober, accounts.

Again a Commonwealth literary fellow in 1950 and 1964, Baker published two supplements to The Australian LanguageAustralia Speaks (1953) and The Drum (1959)—before a second, heavily revised edition of The Australian Language appeared in 1966. He wrote a host of articles on the subject which were published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in other popular reference works and in journals such as American Speech. His interest was undying, his energy unflagging, his fascination with the vitality and life of Australian English endless.

Meanwhile, he worked on the A.B.C. Weekly (1941-42), Daily Telegraph (1943-46), Melbourne Herald and Sun News-Pictorial (1946-47) and the Sydney Morning Herald (from 1947); he edited the latter's Saturday book pages in 1953-63. Advisory editor of the International Journal of Sexology (Bombay), he published articles on linguistic psychology from 1948 until 1955. Nonetheless, it was Baker's 'magnificent obsession', rather than anything emanating from his journalistic career, his novel, Time is an Enemy (New York, 1958), republished as The Gig (Melbourne, 1960), or his biography of Matthew Flinders, My Own Destroyer (1962), that ensured his honoured place as an Australianist.

His was a private quest that carried its own strains and brought its own rewards. Divorced in 1950, on 16 June at the registrar general's office, Sydney, he married a journalist Noni Grace Irene Rowland; she left him in 1953. Divorcing her in 1957, he married a 27-year-old make-up artist Barbara Spence Still on 24 May 1958 in the same registry. He had the reputation of fractiousness and irascibility, and was not an easy person to live with. From about 1942 he suffered from multiple sclerosis which made his remaining life a struggle. A frail figure, bespectacled and bearded, he was increasingly handicapped, though never defeated, and never idle. Survived by his wife, and by the daughters of his first marriage, he died of cancer on 2 February 1976 in Sydney Hospital and was cremated. Allan Ashbolt remarked at his funeral: 'he was always at work—not out of any puritan zeal, but because he knew that creative work was the purpose, the essence, the real joy of existence'.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Author, 8, Apr 1976, p 26
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1941, 3 Oct 1949, 31 Oct 1964, 3 Feb 1976
  • S. J. Baker papers (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

W. S. Ramson, 'Baker, Sidney John (Sid) (1912–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-sidney-john-sid-9411/text16445, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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