Why Banjo? Our national poet is known to us all as Banjo Paterson. But why “Banjo”? Born Andrew Barton Paterson in 1874, his father’s name was also Andrew so he was called by his middle name—Barty. After growing up in the bush he became a solicitor in Sydney—a job he loathed but which gave him the background for “Clancy of the Overflow.” When he started publishing his bush ballads in The Bulletin in the 1880s he used the pen name “The Banjo.” But you mustn’t imagine he saw himself as a tinkling musical instrument: “Banjo” was his favourite horse! Paterson was a champion amateur jockey and polo player, and a great judge of horse flesh so the pen name was appropriate. In fact, if you read “The Man from Snowy River” out loud you can almost hear the thunder of the horses’ hoofs. Our Banjo is probably the only poet in the world named after a horse!
Funeral Along with most other Australians I watched the funeral service for Prince Phillip from St George’s chapel at Windsor. This suggested that I should check out the origin of this familiar word ‘funeral’. The Oxford English Dictionary (the final authority on such matters) says that ‘funeral’ is: “Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin.” So this word ‘funeral’ came into English from what is called Anglo-Norman – that is, the sort of French spoken by William the Conqueror and his Norman knights. And behind that French word lies a Latin source word funeralis connected with the ceremonial burial of the dead. The Latin source word dates back to at least the first century. And the English word ‘funeral’ is first recorded by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales in 1385. Appropriately Chaucer uses the word in his story called “The Knight’s Tale” – appropriate because Prince Phillip was certainly a noble knight.
Bushfire Given the dramatic bushfire seasons goes through from time to time, it seems only right to look at this distinctively Australian word. And it is distinctive. What we call a bushfire is called a “wildfire” everywhere else in the world. The name we’ve adopted comes from the Aussie habit of constructing expressions including the word “bush” or tacked-on to “bush” (as in a “bush so-and-so”). Hence, this phenomenal explosion of “bush” words fills no fewer than 36 pages of the second edition of The Australian National Dictionary. As for bushfire itself—this is first recorded in 1832. It turns up in the Sydney Monitor that year, the following year in the Perth Gazette, in 1841 in the Launceston Courier and so on through the centuries and around the country. It seems Dorothea Mackellar could have added “land of bushfires” to her “land of droughts and flooding rains.”
Whalers and walers Two creatures in Aussie English pronounced identically but spelled differently. The first is a fish and the second a horse. The fish is the Murray cod, known colloquially as “whales” because of their size. They’ve have been nicknamed “whales” since the 1870s. A large Murray cod can weigh as much as a man (and live as long). And there was a certain type of swaggie called a “whaler” because he followed the banks of Murray, Darling, Lachlan or Murrumbidgee Rivers, living on the cod he could catch (better than working hard to earn a feed). The horse was called a “waler” (short for “New South Waler”) and was noted for its strength and toughness. In the First World War the Australian Light Horse was mounted mainly on walers—often rounded up from brumby herds and broken to harness by a team of rough riders under the command of Major “Banjo” Paterson.
Woke On Sky News I talked to Peta Credlin about the word ‘Woke.’ This word (originally the past participle of the verb ‘to wake’) is used these days to mean: ‘in the know; awake to what’s really going on; aware.’ Used in this way ‘Woke’ comes from Black American English. It’s first recorded in this way in 1891 The earliest citation is from Joel Chandler Harris (the man we associate with Uncle Remus, Br’er Rabbit and tar babies). Writing in 1891 in a story called ‘Balaam’s Ass’ he spoke of an unaware person by saying ‘He ain’t woke good yet.’ For the next hundred years or so it remained exclusively part of Black English in America. Then it was taken up by trendy Left wing white people around the world. (Something they would call ‘cultural appropriation’ is anyone else did it.) They now use ‘Woke’ of themselves to claim that they see more than others, are aware of more than others, and know more than others. Other people are not ‘a wake up’ to what’s really going on, and the ‘Woke’ are the smartest people in the room. However, the strange thing is that they believe their ‘Wokeness’ gives them the right to attack others, disparage others, and be rude to others. There is a moral vacuum at the heart of ‘Wokeness.’ Comedian and Left wing activist Magda Szubanski has backed away from a tweet she made suggesting Jenny Morrison is subservient to her Prime Minister husband: “Let me be clear … I’m not actually making a disparaging comment about Jenny. I just genuinely thought it was a meme!” she tweeted. But even this explanation is bizarre. The word ‘meme’ was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins to mean a ‘transferable concept’—that is, an idea that could be passed on from one person to another and spread through a community. He meant it to be the mental equivalent of a gene—just as genes can spread through a community so memes can spread through a community. So Magda Szubanski has used a trendy word which she appears not to understand—in place of an apology. As I said—there is a moral vacuum at the heart of Wokeness.
Sneak peak An amazing 202 years ago, back in 1819, the very first dictionary ever written in Australia appeared in print. It was a dictionary of slang. And it was written by a convict. Somehow those two facts make it an appropriate first dictionary capturing something of Australia’s history and down to earth culture. Called “A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language” its author was a colourful character named James Hardy Vaux. The slang it records (the “flash language”) was spoken by convicts—as a code making it hard for officials to understand what they were saying. Vaux’s little dictionary contains a host of words that became a permanent part of Aussie English: swag, cove, cadge, bash, duds, dollop, yarn and hundreds more. So, happy 202nd birthday to the “flash language”—the birthplace of Aussie slang. And I tell you this because my new book tells the story of that dictionary and the—colourful and astonishing—life of the convict who wrote it. The book is called Flash Jim and it will be published by HarperCollins on March 5. You will be able to buy it online from Booktopia from that date.
Aussie for food There are a number of distinctively Aussie expressions for food. Most people will have heard of a “brown sandwich” – that’s a bottle of beer. But what about a “seven course meal” – that’s a six-pack of beer and a meat pie. On the subject of which, there are all those delightful expressions for “meat pie” in Aussie English – such as a “rat coffin” or a “maggot bag”. With the same display of exquisite good taste Aussie English has nicknamed the vanilla slice either a “snot block” or else a “phlegm sandwich”. By the way, in both Perth and Brisbane sandwich shops you should order a “round” of sandwiches (a “round” being one sandwich). While in Tasmania that same sandwich would be called a “four pointer”. And Aussie English has a nice description of someone who is a little too fond of their tucker: a fatty is called a “salad dodger”.
Binge ‘Binge’ has become one of the trending words of the early 21st century. It’s first recorded in 1854 with the meaning of ‘a heavy drinking bout.’ A meaning it retained until the 1990s when it was extended to cover both drugs and overeating. Now ‘binge’ has gone on to broaden it’s meaning to any and every indulgence, becoming far more common over the past ten years. It’s possible these days to ‘binge view’ a complete series on Netflix. Which is why (according to a new survey by the Menzies Centre) recipients of Jobseeker should not ‘binge’ their handouts on cigarettes, Netflix or restaurant meals but use the money only on essentials. Among the essentials voters polled by the Menzies Centre approved of are mobile phone bills, car rego, televisions, laptops, mortgages, childcare and a home internet connection. Considering the core meaning of ‘binge’ it’s interesting to note what most Australians now see as essential and what still counts as self-indulgence.
Cultural cringe The expression ‘culture cringe’ was coined in 1950 by literary critic A. A. Phillips to describe the cringing assumption that anything that is Australian is second rate. We thought we’d got rid of ‘cultural cringe’ in the 1970s—but now it’s back with a vengeance. Academics at Melbourne University’s Graduate School of Education have declared that our schools are ‘part of a system of colonial rule’ that is ‘deeply embedded’ with ‘structural racism.’ In other words, they have declared Australia to be shamefully and morally second rate. Their message is that only international standards—set by such bodies as Black Lives Matter—should be allowed to rule in this country. Perhaps their shame over being Australian, and their obsequious cultural cringe before imported ideas, doesn’t speak for most of us—but they have certainly breathed new life into A. A. Phillips’ old coinage.
Collective guilt The NSW Department of Education is running a program called “Racism No Way” which (according to the Daily Telegraph) is teaching children about “white privilege” and “unconscious bias.” This involves running a “privilege for sale” game which education bureaucrats admit can cause emotional harm to children creating feelings of shame—leading some children to need the help of a counsellor. At the same time a Deputy Mayor of Paris, Audrey Pulvar, has called for a ban on white people in France talking about racism. These progressive ideas about race and “whiteness” are based on a spurious expression ‘collective guilt.’ This is a linguistically incoherent expression—which might explain why ‘collective guilt’ does not appear in either the Oxford or Webster’s dictionaries. In fact, all dictionaries define guilt as being personal—as something that applies to one person: the person who has done something wrong. Even people who act in groups (gang rapists, guards at Auschwitz) are guilty because of their own actions, not because of their group membership. All this talk of “white privilege” (and the accompanying attacks on white people just for being white) is based on the unexamined assumption of ‘collective guilt.’ But that is an incoherent, nonsense expression. There is no such thing as ‘collective guilt’—it does not exist. This unexamined assumption needs to be dragged out into the light of day, critically examined, and exposed for the oxymoron it is: if it’s ‘collective’ it can’t be ‘guilt’; and if it’s ‘guilt’ it can’t be collective. And any program or campaign based on this silent assumption must be exposed and stopped as the dishonest twisting of language that it is.
Hypocrisy Chris Kenny has recently caused a stir with a major article calling out the hypocrisy of the Woke warriors. For example, those of the Left who call for more respect for women in politics, while doing nothing to stop of the harassment of Nicole Flint by the Left. Or the organisers of March4Justice who want to stop sexual violence against white women, but who are silent on the plight of indigenous women in remote communities. Which made me go back to this word ‘hypocrisy.’ It has been part of the English language since around 1225—and it comes from an ancient Greek source word hupokrisis. To the ancient Greek this was the word for actors in those classical Greek plays, so the word meant ‘acting, playing a part.’ And the key to understanding the power of the word is to remember that in ancient Greece the actors on stage word masks. So ‘hypocrisy’ means ‘hiding behind a mask’—pretending care and concern for a group of people (that’s the mask) while really only being interested in playing party political games (that’s the real face behind the mask).
The Lucky Country Given Australia’s experience of the Covid pandemic compared to many other countries in the world there are more and more people (both politicians and commentators) using Donald Horne’s famous expression ‘the lucky country’ to label Australia having so few Covid deaths. However, their use of the expression might be more ironic than they realise. When Donald Horne coined ‘the lucky country’ as a book title in 1964 he did not mean it in a positive way. In fact, what he said was “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” Since the start of the pandemic in 2020 it is arguable that we have seen state premiers behave like Donald Horne’s “second rate people”—badly organising security for hotel quarantine and locking down whole states full of uninfected people on the basis of just one infection, in one suburb, in one city. And in the case of the Queensland and WA premiers they have been rewarded with thumping great election wins. Australia truly IS a lucky country—in this case an island nation quarantined by water from the rest of the world—and (in Donald Horne’s words) ‘run by second rate people who share it’s luck.” So those who use this expression with simple-minded enthusiasm are being more ironic than they realise.
Duffer This word duffer is part of a large family of words that were originally very negative and became softer and less pejorative over time. In the 18th century duffing was “passing off a worthless article as valuable”. From this it’s clear that a duffer was a criminal of sorts, specifically one who sold trashy goods. Thus duff goods were goods that were not what they appeared to be, or were not the real thing, or were not up to scratch. E. E. Morris in his Austral Dictionary in 1898 said that duffer meant (among other things) ‘a claim on a mine that turned out to be unproductive’—so that, clearly, grew out of the gold rushes. In 19th century Australia a cattle thief was not a rustler (that’s an American expression) but a cattle duffer. From all this came a further spin: a person who was a bit useless, without practical ability, inefficient, incapable was called a duffer. By the mid 20thcentury this had been softened into silly duffer.
Care homes When did ‘nursing homes’ become ‘care homes’? The expression ‘nursing home’ was well established in Britain by about 1880, but it often meant just a small, private hospital—rather than a place that specialised in providing accommodation and health care for the elderly. Starting in the 17th century the institutions that provided such accommodation and meals were called ‘poorhouses’—but they covered anyone below the poverty line, not just the old. It was after WWII that the expression ‘nursing home’ came to be applied to places for the elderly who were sick and/or poor. It was in America, starting in 1959, that these institutions began to be called ‘care homes.’ My guess is that when the Royal Commission into Aged Care revealed how little real ‘nursing’ was going on in some ‘nursing homes’ that the industry did a quick sideways shuffle and decided they were now ‘care homes.’ For many years politicians have been playing the game of ‘change the name, change the perception.’ Since it’s worked so well for them, clearly anyone can play!
Sexist words? The Oxford English Dictionary is currently asking “how and why sexist terms are recorded in the dictionary and what this language reveals about the world around us.” The three examples they gave when announcing this are ‘bitch’, ‘bint’ and ‘maid.’ We have all heard the first of these used as an abusive term so that makes sense. The other two puzzled me. It turns out that ‘bint’ comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘daughter’—and during both the First and Second World War British soldiers serving in the middle east came across it and used as a label for a ‘girl, woman or girlfriend’—and, the Oxford adds, ‘usually derogatory.’ The original meaning of ‘maid’ (from the 13th century) is ‘unmarried woman’ or ‘virgin.’ (Which is why Robin Hood’s girlfriend is called ‘Maid Marian.’) Only in South Africa (and there, only in the second half of the 20th century) did ‘maid’ become a derogatory and offensive label for a young woman. Is it just me who thinks the Oxford is looking too hard to find ‘sexist’ terms so it can beat itself up?
Godzilla If you are an obsessive wordie like me you may have wondered about the origin of the name of the monster ‘Godzilla.’ He’s been around since his first appearance in a Japanese horror movie made in 1954. And he’s back right now in his latest epic: Godzilla vs Kong. Ben Zimmer is also an obsessive wordie, and he has tracked down the origin of the name. He wrote about it in yesterday’s Weekend Australian, and in case you missed it, here is his argument. That first Japanese movie was actually called Gojira. This was a made-up word put together from the Japanese word for ‘gorilla’ (‘gorira’) and the Japanese word for ‘whale’ (‘kujira’)—so originally the name was meant to convey the idea of a ‘gorilla-whale’ (which, given Godzilla’s origin in the deep oceans, makes sense). When the movie was dubbed into English and released in America (with additional scenes featuring Raymond Burr) they had to find an English equivalent of ‘Gojira.’ What they did was to take the word ‘gorilla’ and replace the letter ‘R’ in the middle with the letters ‘DZ’ which were supposed to represent the ‘J’ sound in the original Japanese. Do that, and what you end up with is ‘Godzilla.’ Thank you Ben Zimmer.
Grass castles Australian author and historian Mary Durack (1913-1994) was a daughter of the legendary Durack family of cattle kings. She grew up on the remote cattle stations of Argyle Downs and Ivanhoe in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. She and her sister Elizabeth managed Ivanhoe in the 1920s and 30s. In her book Kings in Grass Castles (1959) she coined this expression grass castles to describe the fragility (the dependence on unpredictable weather to grow cattle feed) of these “cattle kingdoms.” The book told the story of the many ups and downs of her family’s pioneering work as overlanders and pastoralists. Then from the 1980s journalists gave a clever twist to this expression grass castles. They started calling the sprawling western suburbs “McMansions” owned by drug syndicate bosses grass castlesmeaning palaces built on an entirely different kind of “grass” —marijuana!
Single use / bag rage A few years ago “single use” was the Collins Dictionary’s international Word of the Year (and the people’s choice in the Macquarie’s Word of the Year in the same year). Which makes sense because “single use” was prominent in headlines at the time, and in conversations here in Oz. There was at the time (you may remember) a clamour and furore over the decision of the major supermarkets to remove single use plastic bags, and make customers bring their own reusable bags instead. The dust has died own now, but I think “single use” probably deserved its gong as one of the newly prominent words down under. “Bag rage” is another expression related to this. When you get to the supermarket checkout and discover you’ve left all your reusable bags in the boot of your car, that’s when you experience “bag rage”! In fact, this was (at one time) on the short list at the Australian National Dictionary Centre for their Word of the Year (it was pipped at the post by “Canberra bubble” —that strange, isolated dreamland occupied by politicians, their media advisors and the Canberra press gallery).
Toxic masculinity On Sky News Peta Credlin talked to me about this expression ‘toxic masculinity.’ Brauer College in Warrnambool, Victoria is in the news for having made all the boys in the school stand up at an all-school assembly last Wednesday. They were directed to “stand up and apologise” to their female peers on behalf of their gender—in other words the boys were made to apologise for being boys. Some of the boys were as young as twelve. (The school has since conceded the gesture was “inappropriate”.) This is the notion of “toxic masculinity” being put into practice to shame boys just for being boys. The expression “toxic masculinity” grew out of the SNAG (“Sensitive New Age Guy”) movement of the 1980s and 1990s. The idea behind the expression (inspired by feminism) was that men should be “freed” from expectations that they would be masculine. They had to “get in touch with their feminine side” and eschew the horrors of their masculinity. The expression was taken over by radical feminists as a way verbalising the view that masculinity is essentially evil. Just having testosterone makes a person guilty. Perhaps the answer is that testosterone not only wins football matches—it also wins freedom. On D-Day, June 6 1944, 132,000 young soldiers—many of them only 19 or 20—charged out of landing craft and up the beaches of Normandy into a wall of bullets from German machine guns. More then 10,000 of them died. Testosterone made that sort of courage possible. That victory was fired up by testosterone—and that’s why today’s anti-male radical feminists have the freedom they have. Testosterone is nothing to apologise for boys!
Happy as Larry This just means “very happy”. The source is not certain, but here’s what we do know. In the first place, this is definitely an Australian term. It has spread around much of the world, but it started here. Sidney J Baker, in his classic book The Australian Language says that while we can’t know for sure, it’s possible that it comes from an Australian boxer named Larry Foley (1847-1907). Why he was regarded as a happy pugilist is lost in the mists of time, but, apparently he was. Happy as Larry is first recorded in 1905, but was probably part of the spoken language well before that. There was an older expression a Larry Dooley or a Larry Foley meaning a fight. And, I guess, if you liked a fight that would make you as happy as Larry.
Hooroo Australian Geographic reader Robert Warren has emailed to ask about “the origin of the saying hooroo as a good bye or see you later in Australian slang. My understanding is that it might be African in origin. I’m unsure.” Well, Robert there is quite a story behind this. It seems to have begun as huzza which appears to have been a sailor’s term. A quote from 1740 says “It was derived from the shouts seaman make when friends come aboard or go off.” Over time this changed to hurrah and hooray. Possibly (the experts say) the change was influenced by battle-cry of Prussian soldiers in the War of Liberation (1812-13). Then Aussie verbal inventiveness changed it again from hooray to hooroo—first recorded in the Bulletin in 1906. Have no doubt Robert, hooroo is as Aussie as a kangaroo (who name might have influenced the change). Do you have a question about Aussie words? Email me directly through the contact page ln this website.
Aunty arms With many women, when they get to a certain age their upper arms (their triceps) get to be…. well… there’s no other way to say this: flabby. These flabby upper arms in older women can be called aunty arms (because everyone’s aunty has got them); or nanas (because your nanna has probably got arms like this); or bingo wings (because when they leap up to shout “Bingo!” this is the bit that flaps); or goodbye muscles (because this is the bit that flaps around when they wave good bye); or piano arms (because when they’re belting out a tune on the piano this is the bit that flaps around like mad) – or (and this one is my favourites) they can be called reverse biceps (because instead of standing up, as biceps normally do, they hang down). All of which is a salute to Aussie verbal inventiveness. And to how much we love our dear old Aunties.
Ode to a Sausage Having eaten a classic Aussie sausage sandwich in the car park at Bunnings, I decided it was time to celebrate this very Aussie edible item. So here the simple sausage gets its very own ode—Ode To a Sausage…
Serve ‘em curried or barbecued,
Serve ‘em fried or serve ‘em stewed,
They’re always something out of the bag,
The humble but wonderful sizzling snag.
Served with potatoes or onions or peas,
Eaten indoors or outside in the breeze,
Swaggies would carry a few in their swags,
The handy, transportable, sizzling snag.
Turned into sangers with slices of bread,
‘Give us more bangers!’ is what they all said,
The symbol our country should have on its flag,
Is the beautifully barbecued sizzling snag.
‘I don’t like sausages!’ Uncle Alf said,
Now Alf is healthy, wealthy, and dead.
He would have survived if he’d eaten up bags,
Of humble, high-vitamin, sizzling snags.
A horse at Randwick a week or so back,
Was running so fast that it burned up the track,
The stewards asked who had been feeding the nag,
On the humble, high-octane, sizzling snag.
What is it that melts with delight in the mouth?
That tickles the tonsils as it travels down south?
I know the answer (tho’ I don’t want to brag):
Your taste buds, my friend, have just struck a snag!
Cask wine Cask wine (a plastic bag in a cardboard box) is an Australian invention from the 1960s. This in turn inspired Australians to great verbal invention. Aussie slang very quickly came up with a string of names for cask wine starting with “chateau cardboard” and going on to call it a “handbag” or a “briefcase” often tied to a local place name. This gave us the Balga (Perth) or Bellambi (Wollongong) or Broadmeadows (Newcastle) or Dubbo (central NSW) handbag. Less inventive were names such as “boxie” or “box monster”. And rather grimmer was the nickname “bag of death”. Then it became a “goon” or “goon bag” or “goon sack” or just a “goonie”. One type of Moselle was nicknamed “lady in the boat” because of the picture on the box. And then there’s my favourite “vino collapso” (Aussie verbal invention at it’s best!)
Islamic terrorism ASIO’s Director-General Mike Burgess has announced that ASIO isn’t going to use words connected with Islam when talking about Islamic terrorism. ASIO will now use the term ‘religiously motivated violent extremism.’ To make this verbal flummery even close to being correct ASIO would have to point to the existence of Methodist terror squads. Oh, that’s right—there aren’t any. And this language change comes despite the fact that ASIO itself said (in a submission to a Senate inquiry) that ‘the principal source of the terrorist threat remains Sunni Islamist extremism…’ So why drop the obviously correct language? They seem to be influenced by those Islamic groups who distance themselves from the terrorists. But that’s not the point. Islamic terrorists self-identify as Islamic terrorists. And self-identification is the only evidence that’s required these days. If people with XY chromosomes ‘self-identify’ as women then they are women. If Bruce Pasco ‘self identifies’ as an Aborigine, then he is an Aborigine. All that counts in the world of Woke is self-identification. So ASIO should stop playing word games and accept that car bombers and suicide bombers self-identify as Islamic warriors. End of story.
He, she and they On Sky News Peta Credlin and I talked about what is happening to the old pronouns in the English language. In the UK a councillor on the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council has tabled a motion to ban the use of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she.’ Councillor Ms L.J Evans wants the council to ditch masculine and feminine terms, because she thinks they are ‘unnecessary and inaccurate.’ Councillor Evans says ‘he’ and ‘she’ should be replaced by ‘they.’ Can you imagine the confusion will be caused when the council discusses a dispute between rate payers and every person in the mix has to become ‘they’? No matter how ‘sensitive’ Councillor Evans imagines she (sorry ‘they’) is being, in fact she (there I go again) is being deeply insensitive to the English language. For twelve hundred years English has managed to cope with gender distinctive pronouns—and no one was hurt in the process. In fact, gendered pronouns contributed to the clarity and usefulness of English. But not if Councillor Evans has her (or their) way. Linguistic clarity will have died in the same ditch as common sense.
Spelling A new survey has found that more two thirds of Australian adults are worried about the spelling abilities of children – and not just children: 66 per cent of the respondents said that spelling standards are falling across Australian society overall. So, what’s gone wrong? A decrease in reading (books, newspapers, magazines) is blamed by 42 per cent, laziness by 26 per cent, and falling educational standards by 20 per cent (which I think lets the schools off lightly). But texting and social media must play a role. The reason is that kids now compose text messages with those flying thumbs of theirs. It is handwriting, pen and paper, that makes kids slow down enough to concentrate on spelling—not keyboards. There are small signs that the educators may be waking from what Kant once called ‘dogmatic slumbers.’ But until they get the kids writing again nothing will improve. Of course, some words will always remain a problem. A colleague once told me he had a policy of never contracting diarrhoea on the basis that “he wouldn’t get anything he couldn’t spell.” I understand his problem. How many Rs? And where does the O go? (How his policy worked out, I have no idea!)
Neenish tart A neenish tart is a small pastry case filled with mock cream and iced in two colours – white and brown or pink and brown. But is this a distinctively Australian culinary item? And, if so, where does the name come from? When this question was being debated in the columns of The Sydney Morning Herald in 1988 a certain Mrs Evans claimed that neenish tarts were first made in her home town of Grong Grong. She nominated Mrs Ruby Neenish, a friend of her mother, as the originator. Mrs Evans said that in 1913, running short of cocoa and baking for an unexpected shower tea for her daughter, Ruby made do by icing her tarts with half-chocolate, half-white icing. From then on they were known as neenish tarts. This would certainly account for the popularity of neenish tarts in country Australia. The earliest reference to the word neenish is for “neenish cakes” (not tarts) and appears in a 1929 cookery book published at Glenferrie in Victoria. However, the citizens of Orange, in New South Wales, claim that the first true neenish tart recipe appeared in the Orange Recipe Gift Book – from where it was reproduced in many other cookery books (especially Country Women’s Association cook books). However, there is an alternative spelling of neenish as “nienish” or “nienich”. Those who think that this was the original spelling claim that this sweet, glutinous treat was originally of Viennese or German origin. The word certainly has a Germanic ring to it, but, personally, I love the story about Ruby Neenish and I’m sticking with that!
Kwaussie A few years ago the Australian National Dictionary Centre chosen as their “Australian Word of the Year” this strange word kwaussie: a contraction of “kiwi” and “Aussie” and meaning someone who is part Australian and part New Zealander—such as poor old Barnaby Joyce who thought he was Aussie through-and-through only discovered he had acquired New Zealand citizenship without knowing it. Now, while I understand the usefulness of the word is it… well… it is really a word? I admire the Australian National Dictionary Centre and its brilliant head Dr Amanda Laugesen, but…but…kwassuie? Has it really become part of our national conversation? Has it appeared in print all that often? Is it a word the rolls off the tongue of talk back callers on radio? Until they chose it I hadn’t heard of it? Had you? Does this work for you as an Australian word? Let me know through the contact page of this website.
Offsider Not all Aussie words are slang. “Above ground pool” for instance, is regular non-slang language—but it’s unique to Australia. As is the word offsider (in the sense of “assistant, friend or mate”)—another expression coined here. Most overseas dictionaries think an offsider is a player in the wrong place on a football field. The Australian meaning arose from a bullock-driver’s assistant being called an offsider. He was so called because he walked on the “off-side” of the bullock team, while the bullocky himself walked beside the leader and cracked the whip (the “on-side”). From this offsider was extended to anyone who was an assistant in any occupation or enterprise. The earliest citation for this distinctively Australian use of offsider is from 1879. It’s nice to know that when you refer to your mate as your offsider you’re recalling the role the bullockies played in building Australia.
Independent In my column in the current issue of The Spectator Australia I make the point that the word ‘independent’ has been part of the English language since 1612. So how can anyone be confused about its meaning 419 years later? But some are. The most muddled are those calling for an ‘independent’ inquiry in an historic rape allegation against Attorney General Christian Porter. They know, as we all know, that NSW police began an investigation—not an easy task I would have thought, thirty years later and in the absence of either corroborating or refuting eyewitnesses. After doing their investigation, and being asked by the alleged victim (shortly before her suicide) not to proceed, the police said that was the end of the matter. The NSW Police Commissioner said the allegation “probably” would not have made it to court even if the alleged victim was still alive. The linguistic question has to be: in what sense is the NSW police not ‘independent’? In South Australia there may be a coronial inquiry into the woman’s death. In what sense is the South Australian coroner not ‘independent’? And now there will be a defamation trial before the NSW Supreme Court (in which Christian Porter is suing the ABC). In what sense is the NSW Supreme Court not independent? The combined expression ‘independent inquiry’ is recorded from around 1900 and means an inquiry ‘unaffected by others’ (Oxford English Dictionary). When the Greens, the Labor Party and sections of the media demand an ‘independent inquiry’ what allegations are they making about the NSW police or the SA coroner or the NSW Supreme Court? Or are they just hoping, once again, that no one will notice their slippery use of language?