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2003-12, 340, Australian Slang, Janet Robinson, Language

Books about Words

I have always regretted that I didn’t study a second language at school. However, this didn’t stop me getting by with a few odd words of German, when I was in Austria over 40 years ago. I was hitchhiking with a friend and there was a shortage of youth hostels. We would front up at possible bed and breakfast accommodation and request “ein zimmer forr zwei madchen – billig?” It might not have won us prizes in German but it got the message across.

However, I am fascinated by the English written word, by our colloquialisms and by Australian slang. I realize, from Brian Taylor’s article on “Australian English” in the December 2002 issue of Biblionews, that I am only brushing the surface of the literature available. So far I have managed to acquire five books on Australian slang and it is fascinating to compare some of the entries, though these vary considerably. My references are:

A Dictionary of Australian Slang by Sidney J. Baker 1982 Currey O’Neil;

John Blackman’s Best of Aussie Slang 1996 Pan Macmillan;

The Australian Slanguage by Bill Hornadge 1980 Cassell Australia;

Macquarie Book of SLANG – Australian Slang in the 90s General Editor, James Lambert 1996 Macquarie Library Pty Ltd;

Great Aussie Slang compiled by Maggie Pinkney 1999 Five Mile Press.

In his article, Brian Taylor discusses many diverse and much earlier books illustrating Australian English, such as Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue 1796. And there is Nino Culotta’s humorous They’re a Weird Mob 1964. In 1978 there was published A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms by G.A. Wilkes with the expressive “starve the lizards” (an exclamation of astonishment). And haven’t we all been called a “silly galoot”, the word for “stupid fellow” used by Joseph Furphy, Henry Lawson and C.J. Dennis. The Macquarie Dictionary of Australian Quotations was first published in 1990 and I like the quote from Patrick White’s Voss – “History is not acceptable till it is sifted for the truth”.

Australian slang can cause problems overseas, as illustrated in The Australian Slanguage by Bill Hornadge. A Dutch born Australian, George, met a Dutch lady in Indonesia. They returned home to their respective countries and corresponded, which led to a cabled proposal of marriage to the lady. She replied with the one word “ja”. George responded equally briefly with the single word “whacko”. No one in Holland knew what this meant and the young lady wept for days. Then the Dutch Post Office took it upon itself to cable the Australian Post Office and ask the meaning of the word. The reply came back that the word was Australian slang for “wonderful” and so the story ended happily.

Of the five books I have compared, very few have more than two of the same entries, except for common slang words known to most of us. Some entries mentioned only once would be:

Alberts = Toe or foot rags worn by tramps or swagmen of low degree (Baker),

Camel driver = An unsuccessful jockey (Macquarie),

Weak as a wet whistle = Very weak or ineffectual (Pinkney),

Shaggledick = Affectionate term used to greet someone who is quite familiar but whose name you’ve forgotten. “G’day shaggledick – can I buy you a beer?” (Blackman’s),

Dandruff = Nickname for someone who was so weak he allowed himself to get the brush off wherever he went (Hornadge).

Around the bowling clubs, I am told, a common expression is OBE. Someone recently had a birthday and collected his OBE = over bloomin’ eighty!

Some very descriptive expressions I have never heard before:

Head like a twisted sandshoe = incredibly ugly (Pinkney).

Cut lunch commando = a member of the Army Reserve (Macquarie).

The all-night chemist = a talkative individual who “never shuts up” (Hornadge).

Fitzroy Yank = An Australian male trying to pass himself off as an American (Baker).

On a recent holiday in Bright, Victoria, my husband Gordon and I visited a nearby Deer & Emu Farm at Eurobin, where we noticed a Furphy’s Farm Water Cart on display. On our return journey to Bright, at Boynton’s Winery, we saw an end-casting with the wording:

Good, better, best

Never let it rest

Till your good is better

And your better – best.

According to Hornadge, John Furphy owned a foundry at Shepparton. During World War I metal carts were supplied to the army for water carrying and sanitation purposes and the firm’s name and the above slogan were embossed on them. These carts were centres of unfounded rumour and gossip which became known as “furphies”.

An amazing number of words are to do with sex and are rather hair-raising, but I think I had better leave you to look them. up yourselves.

“Fair cow” indicates a disagreeable person, thing or event (Baker). I once heard it said that Australia is probably the only country where you could call a dark horse a “fair cow” and be understood!

As a nation, we tend to make excessive use of diminutives (Hornadge). We like to shorten words: arvo afternoon, journo journalist, rego car registration. There is also ambo for ambulance officer (Macquarie), compo for workers’ compensation (Pinkney) and demo – you can stage a demonstration to protest against something, or take a car for a demo run (Blackman).

According to Baker, a “pie eater” is a contemptuous term for a person of no importance. Pinkney has the same expression down as a resident of South Australia. Homadge seems to combine the two, stating that Pie Eater is a now obsolete derogatory term for a South Australian. Take your pick!

I like the words thingummyjig or thinguminybob as a name for a thing or person not precisely designated (Macquarie). My own version is “whosie-flops” for a person, which I can’t find mentioned, though “whosie-whatsit” is (Macquarie).

The books by the wide ranging scholar, Dr Rudolph Brasch, written over many years, include How Did it Begin? 1965, That Takes the Cake 1994 and A bee in your bonnet 2001, all published by Angus & Robertson. He traces the origins of beliefs, superstition and customs and the original meaning behind sayings, words and traditions. His research is absolutely mind boggling. The question mark, which we know so well, originated with the Latin questio, meaning “question” and was used at the end of a sentence. This was abbreviated to QO and then writers began to put the Q on top of the 0. Soon the Q deteriorated into a squiggle and the O to a dot. And that is the question mark we use today (How Did it Begin? ).

Dog-eared pages in a book are those which the reader, lacking a bookmark, has turned down the corner, making it look like a floppy dog’s ear. (That Takes the Cake). But you, of course, would never, ever do that!

The lamington is a delicious and genuine Australian cake. I now know that it was named for the Scottish born eighth Governor of Queensland, Baron Lamington, who served from 1896. He was so well liked that the most popular cake in Queensland was named after him on his departure in 1901. (A bee in your bonnet).

A recent article by Bruce Elder In Search of the Strewth (S.M.H., 9 Jan. 2004) deplores the dying out of ‘our dinkum Aussie vernacular’, with the mass media dominated by America. Okay, I agree that people nowadays go to the movies rather than the ‘pictures’, as we did. And perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t agree that the words ‘possie’ (look for a possie to park the car) or ‘jiffy’ (for a moment in time) have died out. Nor the descriptive ‘donkey’s years’ for a long period of time, or ‘Buckley’s chance’ meaning none at all, have gone out of use. We probably know more slang than we would ever put into words and, half the time, I don’t think we realize when we are using our slang.

But let us be more aware of, and indeed use our distinctive Australian slang. It is unique to us and it makes our language so much more colourful. It would be very sad indeed if, in the future, it should only survive in printed books.

Janet Robinson



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