Kangaroo court A kangaroo court is officially defined as “an improperly constituted court having no legal standing, especially one held by strikers, mutineers or prisoners”. More broadly the notion is that in a kangaroo court the accused will not receive justice, but that rough punishment will follow almost immediately upon accusation. So any unofficial court that punishes people unfairly is a kangaroo court. Oddly, this expression appears to be Australian influenced – but not of Australian origin. In fact, the phrase appears to have been born in the United States. The earliest citation is from Texas in the second half of the 19thcentury. The suggestion has been made that the term kangaroo court was born on the gold fields of California in the gold rushes that began in 1848. The phrase may have been coined because there were Australians who’d joined the rush, and they were teaching the yanks a word or two; or because the first such “rough justice” tribunals were aimed at punishing “claim jumpers” – and anyone who’s a “jumper” can be nicknamed a “kangaroo”. So (perhaps) originally the expression may have referred to the accused, rather than the fact that the so-called “court” leaped to judgment in a single bound (with the agility of an Australian macropod).
And while we’re talking about kangaroos—one persistent verbal myth is that the word kangaroo doesn’t mean the familiar marsupial macropod, but rather “I don’t understand”. The myth claims that when Captain Cook, in 1770 (at Endeavour River, in north Queensland), gestured at a kangaroo and asked its name the local natives replied that they didn’t understand him. But he took their utterance to be the name, and the mistake has continued ever since. That story, however, is of recent origin and lacks confirmation. It’s true that in the Sydney region local aborigines called this animal “patagorong” or “patagorang”. However, in 1787 it was claimed that kangaroo was the name used in Tasmania, and (later, in 1835) in the Darling Ranges of West Australia. Those claims seem unlikely given the large number of Aboriginal languages in Australia. What is more likely is that kangaroo was the local name of the particular type of kangaroo Captain Cook was pointing at, at the time – and that it was English speaking settlers who carried the word around Australia.
Net zero The expression “net zero” is first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1989 but it’s in now 2021 that the term has come into its own and come to dominate public life. But is a coherent expression? Does it mean anything that makes sense? Is its semantic content credible? The ‘net’ part of ‘net’ zero means ‘what is left after deductions are made.’ So, the total amount is the ‘gross’ and when you deduct outgoings from incomings you get the ‘net’ result. The ‘zero’ part means that this net number is supposed to be neither a positive nor a negative number—that the aim is for the outgoings and incomings balance each other exactly to give you a ‘net’ of ‘zero.’ Applied to the global climate ‘net zero’ means (according to the Oxford): ‘an overall balance between the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.’ This paints a picture of two great machines—one pumping CO2 into the air and the other sucking it out again. But does this make sense linguistically? The only ‘machines’ sucking CO2out of the atmosphere are trees and plants. Through photosynthesis, forests and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce oxygen. We, of course, inhale the oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. As comedian Shelley Berman used to say: “No matter how mean you’ve been today, no matter how nasty, every time you breathed out you made a little plant happy!” According to NASA, forests around the world are estimated to absorb about 7.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. Add all the other plants in the world (including the plants that feed us) and the figure is higher. But this expression ‘net zero’ means that both sides of the equation have to equal each other. However, if we succeed in reducing carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere we will reduce plant growth—which depends on that carbon dioxide for life. But if the plant growth decreases then the equation is out of balance and we don’t have ‘net zero’—so we will have to reduce our carbon dioxide output still further, which will reduce plant growth still further. So, rather than being a point of stability, as the coiners of the phrase ‘net zero’ meant to imply, it actually means a steady downward cycle of less CO2 leading to less plant growth, which would require still further cuts in CO2 and so on. Philosophers call this sort of expression “a vicious infinite regress.” Someone should tell Extinction Rebellion that the real road to human extinction is the pursuit of ‘net zero.’
Slogan world This is (to the best of my knowledge) a brand-new expression, that appears to have coined by a letter writer to The Australian newspaper (the letter was signed Jane Beiger of Brisbane—to give due credit). The idea is that “slogan world” is where all those people live who refuse to debate or discuss; they have their views summed up in short, simple slogans and all they are prepared to do is shout their slogans at you. If you fail to agree then you are not only wrong—you are evil and should be de-platformed and banned from making any public utterances at all. Jane, the letter writer, calls the slogans that occupy slogan world—“glib, insidious statements that seduce our youth.” And the younger people are the more vulnerable they are to the simple-minded approach to life found in “slogan world.” Among the slogans that dominate “slogan world” (at the moment, they may change with changing fads and fashions) are such slogans as: “nett zero”; “trans women are women”; “believe the women” (that is, overturn the presumption of innocence); and “change the date” (with respect to Australia Day). I’m sure you can think of many more. What do you think of the phrase? I like it. I find it a useful way of explaining much that is happening to public debate these days. When I say I like it, I mean I like the verbal inventiveness of the phrase, not the hideous emptiness and lack of soul it names.
Unvaccinated A radio talkback called alerted me to a possible problem with the word “unvaccinated.” His argument was that “unvaccinated” looks suspiciously like the past tense of the verb “to unvaccinate”. However, the is no such as verb as “to unvaccinate.” Indeed, the entire concept defies common sense. Once a person has been vaccinated the vaccine cannot be removed from their system—they cannot be “unvaccinated.” So, does that mean that when politicians say “This is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated” they are talking nonsense? Well, it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. The Oxford English Dictionary (the final authority, in my mind, on all such language questions) does list “unvaccinated” as a real word. It’s an uncommon word, first recorded in 1871. And it is not the past tense of a verb, but an adjective. So “unvaccinated” works as a word that can qualify a noun. Hence, the politicians can say “Unvaccinated people” and being speaking in a sensible, grammatically correct way. Used in that way the adjective “unvaccinated” carries the meaning of “non-vaccinated” or “never has been vaccinated.” When the caller raised the issue is troubled me for a while, but I think that (as so often) the OED has settled it for us.
In Like Flynn This phrase means “a dead certainty” and it’s commonly thought to be a reference to the ease with which Aussie born Hollywood movie star Errol Flynn charmed (and seduced) women. More specifically, many believe it to date from Flynn’s 1942 statutory rape trial, in which he was acquitted. The phrase has been associated with Errol Flynn since at least 1945, when an article in the journal American Speech magazine stated that it referred to Flynn’s swashbuckling cinematic feats. As an action hero, everything seemed to come easily to him on the silver screen. It’s clear from other evidence, however, that the phrase does not stem from the 1942 rape trial. American researcher Barry Popik has found several uses of the phrase prior to Flynn’s trial. One as early as July 1940, in reference to a party of people being told they would have access to the New York World Fair: with the words “Your name is Flynn… you’re in.” Furthermore, the sexual connotations of the phrase did not clearly appear until the 1970s. Early uses are not references to seduction. But it’s possible that the phrase still refers to Errol Flynn because he was certainly famous long before the rape trial. Another theory links the phrase with Edward J. Flynn (1892-1953), a US Democratic machine politician from the Bronx. Flynn’s candidates (reputedly) always won. The date of the phrase’s appearance fits with this explanation, but there is no solid evidence of a connection. On the other hand In like Flynn may simply be rhyming slang, originally not referring to anyone at all. David Niven (in his book Bring on the Empty Horses) certainly claims that Errol Flynn was stuck with the expression (and hated it). Gerry Wilkes includes the phrase in his Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, and, if it really is of Australian origin, there is another possible source: the Reverend John Flynn, known as Flynn of the Inland. The mission he took on was to cast a “mantle of safety” over the isolated folk in remote communities. As such he was the inspiration behind the Flying Doctor Service. Might not his legendary nickname be the source of the expression? The expression Flynn of the Inland was certainly well known from 1932 when Ion Idriess’ book of that title was published.
Hoon The Oxford English Dictionary records hoon as Australian and New Zealand slang for a show-off with limited intelligence adding “origin unknown”. Hoon is most often applied to young male drivers who are more interested in attracting attention than in being cautious. Sid Baker, in The Australian Language suggests hoon might be a contraction from the houyhnhnms (the anthropomorphic horses in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). The problem with this idea is that the horses are civilised, it’s their human slaves, the yahoos, who are the dills. Hoon might be of New Zealand origin, since New Zealand has many other related expressions: hoonish, hoon bin, hoon chaser, hoondom, hoonery, hoon it up and so on. It’s often been suggested that hoon is a contraction of “hooligan” or, perhaps, a combination of “hooligan” and “goon”. Another proposal is that it’s rhyming slang for “baboon”; while yet another suggestion is that it’s based on “buffoon”. All are possibilities. A more unusual suggestion is that huhn is German for “chicken” and thus a hoon might originally have meant someone running around like a headless chicken. And there is, apparently, another (very similar) German word for an ancient mythical race of clumsy giants. Lots of possible sources for hoon – no certainties!
Good-oh Good-oh is a general term of approval in Australia – or used to be. I suspect it’s declining in currency. It’s an example of that oddly Australian construction that sticks an “oh” on to the end of something. Thus we talk about the salvos, or call an ambo if the accident involves a derro or a wino. From the same bizarre stable came such expressions of approval as “right-oh”, “whack-oh” and good-oh. Interestingly the earliest Australian citations for good-oh seem to come from the First World War, but there is an earlier New Zealand citation (from 1905). So perhaps the exclamation good-oh was first heard in the land of the long white cloud, and became a part of Aussie English when the Anzac fighting force was formed. It is certain that the Anzacs brought a lot of their slang back with them to civilian life – including, it would seem, good-oh. A related expression is “whacko-the-diddle-oh”—an exclamation of pleasure or approval; used elsewhere but first recorded here in Australia (in 1937). Often abbreviated to just whacko! (Great old Aussie expressions!)
Flash mob  A flash mob is a group of people – co-ordinated by mobile phone messages – who congregate in a public place for a piece of unscheduled performance art, and then melt away again. Like the crowd of several dozen who gathered at an intersection in a German city: each took off their left shoe, passed the shoes around the circle, put their own shoe back on again, applauded each other and left. This flash mob phenomenon appears to have begun in New York and to have rapidly spread around the world. Interestingly in the phrase flash mob the word mob is being used in a distinctively Australia way. More broadly “mob” means a disorderly or lower-class gathering. But in Australia mob has the wider meaning of any mixed gathering or group – so it looks like it’s the Aussie meaning being employed by the performance artists when they call their group a flash mob. Another small sign of the export power of Aussie English.
 In earlier usage “the flash mob” could refer to the well-dressed crowd in the expensive seats.
Infuriating phrases In the light of the recent exchange we’ve had, both on the “Words Matter” segment on Peta Credlin’s program and on the Q and A of this website I want to tell you about a book which came out some years ago in Britain called She Literally Exploded: The Infuriating Phrase Book written by two English journalists: Christopher Howse and Richard Preston. They, in turn, draw our attention to such over-used and infuriating phrases as: “not a problem”, “take on board”, and “doing nothing is not an option.” The list in endless. In fact, one of the phrases in this list is: “the list is endless.” And their title – “She Literally Exploded” – draws our attention to one of the most infuriatingly misused terms of all: literally. It seems that literally no one knows how to use the word “literally” these days. They use it as if it were a synonym for the word “virtually.” It’s not. It’s the exact opposite. Only if something happened, physically, literally, to the letter, as described can it be said to have happened “literally.” Hence, no one ever “literally” explodes with anger.
Hermit kingdom When New South Premier Dominic Perrottet announced the re-opening of the state he said: “We can’t remain a hermit kingdom forever.” He’s not the first to apply that expression to the way our governments have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. This expression has used to label Western Australia or Queensland or New Zealand or (in fact) the whole of Australia. The phrase “hermit kingdom” refers refer to any country, organization or society which wilfully walls itself off, either metaphorically or physically, from the rest of the world. The tiny kingdom of Bhutan – a small landlocked country bordered by India, China, Nepal and Bangladesh – was once called a “hermit kingdom” as the royal family resisted the influx of the modern world. North Korea is most commonly called a “hermit kingdom” these days. Our federal government’s decision to ban Australians from leaving the country (or returning to it from overseas) during the pandemic has been a classic “hermit kingdom” response. This isolation may well have been the right move in the early days before vaccination, but its continuation looks rather like Bhutan trying to keep out the rest of the world! (A “hermit kingdom” indeed.)
Misandry A reader has emailed to say that the English language as the word misogyny meaning ‘hatred of women’ and misanthropy meaning ‘hatred of humanity’, but that we lack a word that means ‘hatred of males’. He suggests misandry based on the Greek word for man. Well, it’s a good idea. So good, in fact, that the word already exists. Misandry can be found in the full Oxford English Dictionary (the big one) along with many ‘miso-‘ words indicating a loathing for one thing or another. Included in this delightful list are such words as misogelastic (hating laughter), misopogonist (a hater of beards), misobalist (a hater of kings), misotheist (a hater of God), misology (a hatred of reason), misocapanist (a hater of tobacco smoke), misoneist (a hater of novelty) and so on. And haters of blokes are misandrists. (There’s one here for everyone on that list, so pick what you loath and a you’ll find a word to name you.) And, by the way, whenever you hear someone talking about “toxic masculinity” you’ll know that you are hearing a misandrist speaking.
Faction The hot political word of the moment has to be “faction”. In Victoria the anti-corruption body, IBAC, is currently investigating the actions of the right wing faction in the Victorian Labor Party (and it may, in due course, also get around to look at its rival—the socialist left faction). And when Dominic Perrottet became the premier of New South Wales there was moaning at the bar that he came from the “wrong” faction—namely the right wing of the Liberal Party, rather than the left wing faction (who call themselves the Moderates). Hence this word “faction” is being bandied around. The word came into English from Middle French around the 15th century—so it’s a very old word. And behind the French word is a Latin source word that meant (roughly) “a class of persons either professional or social who came together in the making or doing of something.” It seems that originally each of the companies or organizations of contractors for chariot races and (later) other public entertainments, identified themselves with a particular colour—and these companies or contractors were called “factions.” That’s where it started. Today the word means: “An organized dissenting group within a larger one, especially in politics or religion; (more generally) a group of people united in maintaining a cause, policy, or opinion in opposition to others; a party, a side.” In other words—it’s still gladiatorial, and still a battle to death, just as it was in the days of the combat in the arena in ancient Rome.
Decimate Decimate is a word that continues to trouble and confuse journalists. In fact most people seem a little uncertain as to whether decimate means leaving ten percent intact or 90 percent—doing massive damage or only some damage. Have no doubts – it is the latter. Decimate comes, as you’re aware, from a Latin root meaning ‘ten’, and its current use dates back to a practice in the Roman army of selecting by lot and killing one in ten. So if a body of soldiers was guilty of mutiny, or some other crime, on a random basis one in ten would put to the sword, thus ensuring that the surviving 90 percent would behave themselves in future. Nowadays we correctly use decimate if we mean that a large proportion out of a particular group has been killed or removed or suffered severe loss. It no longer has to be the strict ten percent. But it should be a minority. Decimate quite definitely does not mean wiping out the majority.
Streeted In a recent piece in The Australian newspaper paper Terry McCrann (the doyen of economics writers—he of the robust common sense) wrote that New South Wales’ Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant “has streeted all her peers through the pandemic.” This struck me because I had never come across the word “street” used as a verb before. Terry tells me this is a bit of Aussie sports slang (it’s ours—no one else in the world seems to use this—or, at least use it quite the way we do). So, I did some research and tracked down the sporting lingo Terry was using. It turns out that in colloquial Australian “to street” someone means “To defeat by a large margin.” The earliest use of the term is recorded from 1975 in (would you believe it?) a pigeon fanciers’ magazine! In its January-February issue for 1975 it said that “The father-and-son combination ‘streeted’ their rivals... with a total of 11 points.” There are further citations from Runners’ World (in 1983) and the Gold Coast Bulletin (in 2003). The earlier expression “by a street” (an adjectival phrase) also meant to win by a wide margin. This is recorded in London as long ago as 1886 and was still being used by The Times as late as the 1950s. But seems to have died out back in Britain while it survived here. And only here in Australia has this adjectival phrase been turned into a verb.
Daddy The word daddy is found around the English speaking word as a child’s name for their father. The Oxford English dictionary records it in this way from as long ago as 1523. But in Aussie English calling something “the daddy of them all” became a way of saying that it was the best of its type. It was used this way in 1898 by the famous bush balladist of horses Will Ogilvie about an old horse that was still the most skilled at rounding up cattle: “Though shaky in the shoulders, he’s the daddy of them all.” This compares with the more widely used expression “the mother of all… (whatever)” which is used to say that something is larger, better, worse, etc., than all other things of the same kind. This was famously used by Saddam Hussein in the expression “the mother of all battles.” In this he was translating an Arabic phrase umm al-maʿārik. But the Oxford English Dictionary records “the mother of all” being used in English from 1878: “I seed the biggest trout I ever laid eyes on... The mother of all the trouts in Reese River, by thunder.” (F. H. Hart Sazerac Lying Club) But the masculine version, “the daddy of them all” appears to be a distinctly Australian coinage. Used to mean “the best” is can be applied to males or females, as in words of Ion Idriess: “Of the territory pioneer women perhaps the ‘daddy’ of the lot is Mrs Phoebe Farrar” (Tracks of Destiny, 1961).
Deep cleaning One of the most intriguing expressions to come out of the entire 18-months of this pandemic is “deep cleaning.” We read that countless schools or work places are being closed for “deep cleaning” because someone in the place tested positive. The expression is not exclusively Australian (it turns up, but only rarely, in American news reports). However it appears to be far more common here than in any other part of the infected English speaking world. I checked with the most up-to-date edition of the full Oxford English Dictionary (the online edition) and so far the Oxford scholars seem not to have heard of “deep cleaning.”
In Britain they are satisfied with just the word “cleaning” alone regardless of the depths to which the cleaners plunge. Sometimes there are unexpected results, as in the library in Sussex in which the cleaners removed all the books from shelves, cleaned them, and then replaced them in order of size. So much for the Dewey Decimal System.
Before the pandemic I’m not sure what was accepted as cleaning. In many of the offices I’ve worked in over the years the contractors seemed satisfied with a quick flick with the duster, emptying the paper bins and giving the carpets a vacuum once a year (whether they needed it or not). Presumably the newly fashionable adjective tells us that cleaning teams are now going beyond that. But “deep” remains an odd qualifier, since we are told that it is surfaces that carry bacteria and viral droplets. At any rate “deep cleaning” is now an expression (along with “social distancing”, “covidiot” and the rest) that the coronavirus has added to our personal glossaries.
And the industry has taken notice. The expression “deep cleaning” now appears on the promotional websites of a number of domestic and industrial commercial cleaners. But this may not have been a service they were offering before COVID. It may simply be a band-wagon they saw shooting past, and leaped on to.
What I’m waiting for is the company that offers “shallow cleaning.” Now that would be honest advertising!
The Aussie accent A new study by researchers at the University of Western Australia shows that the most trusted accent in Australia is (surprise reveal)… the Australian accent! The researchers asked etheir volunteers to rate six recorded speeches by three male speakers in terms of trustworthiness.
The topic they spoke about was bungee jumping. (Why bungee jumping? Ask me something easier, like… is there intelligent life on other planets?) The speakers had three different accents: Australian, British and Swedish. (Why Swedish? File that alongside bungee jumping).
The author of the study (published in Human Ethology), Dr Cyril Grueter said “both British and Swedish English [accents] received lower trustworthiness ratings; so the boundary isn’t drawn between native speakers and non-native speakers but between Australian English speakers and other English speakers.” Dr Grueter did not explain why this should be so (he was pre-occupied by Swedish bungee jumping)—so I’ll suggest an explanation. In fact, two.
The first is the obvious one that we are tribal, and we trust the members of our tribe more than we trust others. The second possible reason is more interesting—we speak a demotic accent that flattens out differences. This is unlike Britain, where you identify which class you belong to in society the minute you open your mouth. But the Australian accent runs across all classes and is broadly inclusive.
There is evidence that the Australian accent developed very quickly—by the 1830s, just fifty years after the first settlement. And it was produced by what linguists call “flattening down.” The settlement contained people from all over the British Isles, all marked by regional accents. To make themselves understood by those around them they consciously flattened out the differences in their pronunciations. This became even more pronounced in their children. With the result that an early visitor called the Australian accent “the most pure English on earth”, meaning untainted by the many British regional accents. And, with some ups and downs, it’s been that way ever since.
So the Aussie accent is not just a tribal indicator, it’s also the voice “of the people”—of all the people. No wonder it conveys a bucket-load of trustworthiness.
New wordsThe Oxford English Dictionary has just added some 800 new words. Here are some of them.
The first group are words that have come into English from the (growing) cultural influence of South Korea…
· Hallyu—“Korean wave” (meaning exactly that Korean influence)
· K-pop—Korean pop music that is popular in the west
· K-drama—such the series the series Squid Game or the movie Parasite
· Manwha—Korean comic books (similar to Japanese Manga)
· Mukbang—someone eat vast amounts of food on a social media livestream
· Banchan—a side dish of vegetables
· Bulgogi—thin slices of beef or pork, usually stir fried
· Kimbap—the Korea equivalent of sushi
· Daebak—a windfall or a jackpot
· PC bang—and internet café
· Skinship—close contact (between lovers or between parent and child)
· Fighting—a word shouted as an encouragement
The latest additions to the Oxford also include a bunch of Caribbean words…
· Bammy—Jamaican flatbread
· Pelau—a spicy Creole chicken dish
· Jug jug—a dish that consists mainly (as far as I can gather) of peas and pigeon
· Mannish water—a nice name for thick, spicy soup
And there are new words that have grown out of the English language, such as…
· Bants—meaning teasing or mocking (possibly from “banter”)
· Ghosting—ignoring someone on social media (turning them into a ghost)
· Anti-vaxxer—which is familiar also turns up in the dictionary for the first time (although a differently spelled version “anti-vacks” was used as long ago as 1812 by the Edward Jenner who invented vaccination against smallpox).
Ridgy-didge When I was talking to Tod Johnston on Radio 6PR (Perth) he asked me about this expression. Tod said his producer, Nick, had used it, and they were both puzzled about where it came from. The old Aussie expression ridgy-didge means “all right”, “genuine”, “fair dinkum”. Ridgy-didge is first recorded by Sid Baker in 1953, but there seems to be an earlier expression from which ridgy-didge developed. In 1938 Eric Partridge recorded ridge as an Aussie slang word meaning “good”, “all right”, “genuine”. And although this wasn’t recorded until the 1930s there’s a suggestion that it might go as far back as the gold rushes – the word ridge referring to gold (to a gold bearing ridge, perhaps) and from this it came to apply to a gold coin, and then to anything that was the genuine article, that was “as a good as gold”. And this slang word ridge was then expanded (in the way that informal English so often does) into the rhythmical rhyming expression ridgy-didge.
Bimonthly A reader wants to know if the word bimonthly means “twice-a-month” or “once-every-two-months”. Well, The Macquarie Dictionary gives two definitions for bimonthly. The first says: “occurring every two months” and the second says: “occurring twice a month; semi-monthly”. In saying that the Macquarie is not having a two bob each way – it is accurately reporting the linguistic facts. In other words, I’m afraid that bimonthly really does mean both, and can be used with either meaning. In publishing bimonthly is used consistently to mean “every two months” – but everywhere else the meaning is ambiguous. My advice: don’t use it! Say “twice a month” or “every two months”. The same ambiguity infects biannual or biweekly: much better to say “every two years” or “twice a year” (or “twice a week” or “every second week”). In communication clarity counts – in fact, it counts for about 90% of the effectiveness of communication. So, join me in the battle against ambiguity and ban all the “bi-” words!
Americanisms I receive a steady trickle of emails complaining about “Americanisms” creeping into Australian speech. So let’s warn you against a few of them. In Australia the military rank lieutenant is LEFT-tenant. Only in America is it LEW-tenant. And lieutenants order strikes with missiles not missuls. The path to travel in Australia is a route (ROOT) not a ROWT. We fill our cars with petrol, not gas. And we follow a schedule (SHED-ule) not a SKED-dule. (Although this one may be changing—a recent study shows that most Australians under 40 use the American pronunciation. Another victory for the yanks!) And if you have pre-schoolers who watch Sesame Street you have to carefully correct their pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet from ZEE to ZED. That said, I don’t think Aussie English is being “swamped” by Americanisms. In fact, I think, on the whole, Australians are selective about which bits of American speech they choose to use – and Aussie English remains vigorous and healthy. Furthermore, Aussie sayings are creeping into American speech, so it’s a two-way street.
Magpie Magpie is not a distinctively Australian word – there are black and white birds in England also called magpies. Their name came about because as early as the year 1250 these birds were called “pies” meaning that they were “pied” that is “decorated or mixed” (in the same way the “pied piper” was so named). This use of “pie” probably comes from the Latin pica meaning “painted or embroidered”, as if a black bird was painted or embroidered with white. Then the birds called “pies” were given a personal name (much as the birds called wagtails were given the name “Willy”). And the name these pies was given was the common and popular name “Margaret”, playfully shortened to “Mag”. The result was magpies. When European settlers landed on our shores they saw a remarkably similar black and white bird and so named it too magpie. However, I am told that the European magpie belongs to the crow family and the Australian magpie to the butcherbird family. They may dress alike, but they are only the most distant of relatives.
As mad as a cut snake As mad as a cut snake can mean “angry” or “crazy” or “eccentric.” This is as Australian coinage first recorded in 1917. And the earliest version of the phrase was shorter, just “as mad as a snake.” The longer version (as mad as a cut snake) is first recorded in 1932. It most probably comes from nothing more complicated than observations of how Australian snakes behave in the bush. Since Australia is home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world, settlers very quickly learned to be wary of them. A disturbed snake would strike out aggressively – hence “mad as a snake.” Snakes around the farmhouse had to be killed, of course – often by chopping them into a couple of pieces with a hoe or a spade. The resulting bits would thrash about madly before expiring, hence as mad as a cut snake. A variation on this is as mad as a meat axe. (First recorded in 1946.) The source of the expression is not clear, since tools (even tools with a sharp cutting edge) are not inclined to go crazy. However, it may be a case of transferring the attitude of the homicidal manic to the weapon he’s waving. And as an expression it probably caught on, and has persisted, because of the neat alliteration between the madness and the meat axe. Both this and the above expression are part of a whole group of Aussie expressions that start with the words “As mad as….” The group includes: as mad as a beetle; as mad as a dingbat; as mad as a Chinaman (now politically incorrect); as mad as a goanna; as mad as a gum tree full of galahs.
Tornado or willy willy You may have seen on the news that three people were injured when a tornado ripped through NSW’s Central West on Thursday afternoon, damaging properties and leaving a 30km trail of destruction. One local interviewed on television called the “tornado” by the older Australian name of “willy willy.” So what is the source of the two words? “Tornado” comes from a Spanish word and was originally (in the 16thcentury) used by English sailors to describe wild storms in the Atlantic. The Spanish source word means “thunder.” From that origin it broadened out to the meaning we know today. But “willy willy” is our expression – distinctively Australian. It’s an Aboriginal name (from the Yindjibarndi language from north western Australia) for the whirlwinds of the outback. An eyewitness account from 1898 says: “They usually begin upon a very small scale… a dancing column of dust, dung, dead flies and old paper. Give them time and they will show sport. But the willy-willy has no perseverance; he lacks continued effort, and the slightest opposition in the shape of a tin hut or a telegraph pole so destroys his symmetry that he dies of disgust in a heap of refuse. But with plenty of room he becomes rampant. When he gets over 50 feet high his power is vast.”