Cold shoulder “Did you talk to him about it?” I asked my friend. The only response was a gloomy shrug and the words, “All I got was the cold shoulder.” Now, I understood exactly what he was talking about, having been given the cold shoulder on more than one occasion myself. You know what the feeling is like: it involves the one doing the cold shouldering looking down their nose at you as if you were some kind of insect. But where does the expression cold shoulder come from? Well, a “shoulder” (as you know) is a cut of meat – that usually becomes a very nice roast. The expression “to give the cold shoulder” refers to the medieval practice whereby important guests were given roast meat, sizzling from the spit, while the unimportant people were served the cold roast left over from previous meals. Perhaps being served the cold shoulder might be described as “service with a sneer”.
Anosmia Someone who has no vision is ‘blind’, and someone who cannot hear is ‘deaf’, but what do we call someone who has lost their sense of smell? Well, the loss of the sense of smell is called anosmia, and someone who suffers from this condition is properly called anosmic. The word was coined in the 19thcentury from the Greek word for ‘smell’ with the ‘a’ used to negate Greek attached to the front. But not only was anosmia coined in the 19thcentury – it appears to be stuck there. The last citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a medical textbook published in 1872, which speaks of ‘a case of anosmia occurring after a blow received upon the occiput’ (the occiput being the back part of the head or skull). By the way, this word gives us another way to tell that dreadful old joke: “My dog has anosmia.” “How does he smell?” “Terrible!”
Get sport back on the front page This is one of those catchy political phrases coined in Australia (like John Howard’s “barbecue stopper” or Julia Gillard’s “captain’s pick”) that caught on and became memorable. In the case of “get sport back on the front page” the expression was coined (more or less) by Malcolm Fraser in 1975. Following three years of massive upheaval under the Whitlam Labor government (which came after 23 years of rather more placid Liberal-Coalition government) Fraser was asked during the election about the three dramatic and turbulent years that had ended with the sacking of Gough Whitlam. Fraser responded that he thought Australians might prefer to have a dull government so they could go straight to the sports pages of the newspapers. This was reported as Fraser saying he wanted to “get sport back on the front page.” Not quite the words he used, but more or less what he intended. It caught on and was used frequently during that election campaign -- often in an attempt to deride Fraser (who, nevertheless, won the election).
Galah Officially a galah is a grey-backed, pink-fronted cockatoo. As such the word galah comes from the Aboriginal name for this bird (from the Yuwaalaray language). But galah has been extended to become an Australianism for a fool, a nincompoop, a simpleton, a drongo, dill, drip, dope, mug or boofhead, perhaps from the thought that such a person is a birdbrain. (Australian English seems to have more words to describe stupidity than any other language on earth. Why, I don’t know.) Then, from the noise that galahs make when they flock together we also get the expression galah session – meaning a private conversation, especially between isolated women on inland stations via outback radio. And there used to be another expression galah pie, which was an old country dish much favoured by station hands and drovers.
G’day The distinctively Australian use of G’day is recorded in The Australian National Dictionary as long ago as 1857, where the citation reads: “Not one of them spoke to me, except to give me the occasional ‘Good day, mate’.” The shorter spelling of the expression (G’day) is first recorded in The Bulletin in 1927. It is, of course, an abbreviation of the rather more pedestrian English expression “May you have a good day.” This form of words is very old indeed, being recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as long ago as 1205. It had become the slightly elliptical “Good day” by the time of Jane Austen, but it was Australians who managed to turn it into a single word: G’day. And Mick Dundee, Steve Irwin and others have made this familiar around the world (especially in America). So, when you meet a tourist – don’t let them down. You’ll make their day if you remember to greet them with G’day. And I should add that the legendary Slim Dusty once recorded a great song called “G’day” (you’ll find on the “Best of Slim Dusty” CD).
Furphy In Australia a false or unreliable rumour is a furphy. The earliest recorded use is 1915, and, indeed, it seems to come from the diggers of the First World War. The firm of J. Furphy and Sons operated a foundry at Shepparton in the late 1800s. One of their products was a water cart. These water carts were used by the Australian Army in World War I and (inevitably) became the place where diggers gathered and gossiped. The name Furphy was prominently printed on the back of each water cart, and became the name for the unreliable gossip exchanged there. When soldiers start swapping stories – especially about what the brass have got planned for them, where they’ll be shifted next, and when they’ll get some leave – they are bound to get it wrong: and, hence, to spread furphies. The word scuttlebutt has an identical origin. It means much the same (“idle gossip”). On a sailing ship the scuttlebutt was the cask (or butt) of drinking water stored on the deck near the scuttle (or hatchway) where sailors gathered to exchange gossip. Remarkably parallel stories behind those two words: scuttlebutt and furphy. By the way, each Furphy water cart had the following words of wisdom on the side: “Good, better, best: never let it rest, until your good is better – and your better best.” That’s the kind of motto our grandparents lived by (and it didn’t do them any harm, either).
Fossick I was watching an episode of the UK television program The Antiques Roadshow filmed in Australia. An Aussie guest said, “Here’s something I found fossicking in the junk room”. The visiting English expert looked puzzled. After some explanation the Pommy antiques expert said, “Ah, yes, you mean rummaging”. We can easily forget that fossicking is an Australian word. The verb to fossick is first recorded from 1852, in the Australian Gold Diggers’ Monthly Magazine. And that’s where it comes from. Nowadays we can fossick around for anything, but originally you fossicked by looking for surface gold in lose dirt around the diggings. Fossick seems to be another of those English dialect words that died out back in the UK while surviving here. A fossicker may have originally been a troublesome person (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). And at the gold diggings someone who came along to potter around your dirt heaps to pick up what you missed would certainly be looked upon as troublesome.
Forgotten people This is a one of those expressions coined by, or associated with, an Australian prime minister. In this case Robert Menzies. Behind Menzies’ expression lies an even older one: ‘the forgotten man.’ That expression was coined in 1883 by Yale social scientist William Graham Sumner who said that the ‘average’ American was ‘the forgotten man’ in American politics. By this he meant all those Americans who are in the middle class, who exercise no power and are just getting on with their lives. The forgotten man, Sumner said, works, votes, probably prays, and certainly pays – but his life and his struggles are ignored in Washington. The phrase was forgotten until the Great Depression when it was picked up and used in the 1930s by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to promote his ‘New Deal’ policies. Then in 1942 our own Robert Menzies picked it up and expanded into the forgotten people. These are the voters who elected Menzies for so many years. And they elected Scott Morrison in 2019. (He called them ‘the quiet Australians.) Similar expressions used more recently are John Howard’s “battlers” and Scott Morrison’s “quiet Austtralians.”
Fogger boller Used in Australia to mean “whats-a-me-call-it” or “thing-a-me-jig” or to name any unknown person, as in: “Isn’t that old fogger bollerover there?” The expression was brought to Australia by the Irish, who spelled it in the traditional Irish way as faugh-a-ballagh. Presumably the modern Australian spelling preserves the pronunciation – although there’s evidence that the older spelling was well known in the 19th century. The original Irish term was a battle cry meaning “clear the way.” Its first recorded use was as a regimental motto was by the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1798. It remains the motto of the Royal Irish Regiment today. And that meaning of “clear the way” may explain why it’s used as the name of a road in the Tarana Valley, near Oberon, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. And why it’s used by Banjo Paterson as a jokey name for a race horse in his comic bush ballad “Father Riley’s Horse”: “He had called him Faugh-a-ballagh (which is French for ‘Clear the course’), / And his colours were a vivid shade of green.” Calling faugh-a-ballagh French is, of course, Paterson’s joke since later in the ballad he says that “Banshee” is “Spanish for an elf.”
Flum Both a verb and a noun. As a noun a flum is “a fluke; a piece of luck”; while the verb “to flum” means “to fluke (something)”. It appears mainly in sporting contexts, and mainly in New South Wales (in fact, it’s possible flum is a word known only in some parts of Australia). The experts at the Australian National Dictionary Centre suggest that flum might come from the sugary dessert called “flummery” (which started as a Welsh word and dates back to 1623). Perhaps if things turn out sweetly for you, then you have flummed it. Or it might be from flummox meaning “confused or bewildered.” Flummox began life as an English dialect word and is first recorded in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers in 1837. In this case, if you have a stroke of luck that leaves people flummoxed then you have pulled off a flum. The experts remain divided. Flum is first recorded in a glossary published in a notorious newspaper, the King’s Cross Whisper, in 1967; then in 1972 it turned up in a glossary from Parramatta Jail. But where it came from (apart from being another piece of Aussie verbal invention) remains unclear.
Flat chat This is actually a group of similar expressions: “flat chat”, “flat strap” and “flat bickie.” The source of these is probably the earlier phrase “flat out” meaning “at top speed” – first recorded in 1932 and born out of the age of the motor car: if your accelerator pedal is “flat to the boards” (a related expression) then you’re going as fast as you can. Flat strap was originally “as flat as a strap” – if you lay a leather strap down it will be about as flat as anything can get. Flat chatis probably just a variation on that, one that caught on because slang expressions with a bit a rhyme seem to catch on – the key here being the rhyme between “flat” and “chat” rather than any particular meaning.
Infrastructure This word is in the news because Joe Biden’s team is trying to push a $US2 trillion infrastructure bill through the US Congress. ‘Infrastructure’ has been part of the English language since 1927. According to the dictionary, the word means: “the basic systems and structures that a country or organisation needs in order to work properly, for example roads, railways, banks etc.” However, Biden’s bill includes such things as “on going funding for the care of the elderly and disabled”—very necessary, but not infrastructure. It’s welfare, not infrastructure. The bill also includes $US175 billion for electric cars. Not what is normally meant by the word ‘infrastructure.’ Most of the $US2 trillion spend targets climate programs (and builds nothing). As the title of this segment reminds us every week: words matter. When the Biden government chooses to misuse the word ‘infrastructure’ to smuggle in its favourite welfare, climate, or pork barrelling spends it just further undermines confidence in governments. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell agrees that the Biden administration is abusing the English language. He says that less than 6 per cent of the total cost in the new bill is for infrastructure. Here’s the quote: “It’s not remotely targeted toward what Americans think they’re getting when politicians campaign on infrastructure. But instead of coming up with a better bill, Democrats have decided it’s the English language that has to change.”
Mother The Australian Breastfeeding Association has declared the word ‘mother’ to be ‘non-inclusive.’ Does this make linguistic sense? Not for a moment. Most words are ‘non-inclusive’—it’s how language works. There are (probably, we don’t know for sure) around a million words in the English language—and the vast majority of them work by being ‘non-inclusive.’ Words draw boundaries. That’s what they do. The word ‘child’ excludes everyone over the age of 18. The word ‘senior’ excludes everyone under 18. The word Parliamentarian’ excludes anyone who doesn’t sit in parliament. The word ‘lawyer’ excludes anyone who doesn’t have a law degree. Words work like that. It’s how they define the world for us. Only a relatively small number of words aim to be totally ‘inclusive’ – words such as ‘humanity’ or ‘democracy’—aim to encompass the lot of us. But generally the purpose of words to draw boundary lines by being ‘non-inclusive.’ So rejecting ‘mother’ because it’s ‘non-inclusive’ is rejecting it for functioning like a normal word. People without wombs cannot be biological mothers. Fact. End of discussion. We are not quite ready just yet to surrender the English language to the wonderfully Woke.
Identity politics This expression “identity politics” is all over the place these days, so what does it mean? The word “identity” comes partly from French and partly from Latin and has been part of the English language since early in the 16th century. Until very recently the word always referred to an individual – your “identity” being “who you are” (to quote one dictionary). If some online scammer steals your name and details they have stolen your “identity” – who you are. It’s personal and individual. That all changes when you add the word “politics.” In “identity politics” the individual vanishes in the crowd or group to which they are assigned. You are no longer you – you are just whatever group you fit: black, gay, trans, woman or whatever. Your group becomes you – and your individual characteristics no longer matter. The Oxford English Dictionary says “identity politics” is all about groups – “of people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc.,” In other words, “identity politics” does not respect individuals or grant any dignity to individuals. This lack of dignity and respect for individuals grows out of the source of “identity politics” – Marxism. Karl Marx saw the whole of society divided into just two groups: the oppressors and the oppressed. Modern Marxists subdivide the “oppressed” category into all those different groups (gay, black, trans,etc.) — but just like their master it is only the group they are interested in, with no respect or dignity reserved for the individual.
Bloke A bloke is an Aussie male. No one knows for sure the origin of “bloke”, but the best guess is that it comes from the language of gypsies and tinkers. Presumably it was brought to Australia by convicts. Its earliest recorded usage here is from 1841, from Van Diemen’s Land, where it referred to the man in charge, the proprietor or boss. And if you wanted to be treated decently and fairly then you had to find a boss (or bloke) to work for who was a “good bloke”. As a result qualities of fairness and decency came to be attached to this word bloke as it became a generalised term in Aussie English for an adult male. The word has developed again in more recent times, to be associated with what is called “blokeyness” – for instance, in the hearty, noisy behaviour of football players or fans. But the word bloke retains its association with good intentions, good heartedness, and decency.
Partner Will you join me in a small campaign to resist the use of “partner” to label our spouse? Last night on Sky News Peta Credlin and I launched a modest campaign against the use of “partner” as a substitute for “wife” and “husband. Members of the Australian Defence Force have been told to stop using the words “wife” and “husband” and replace both with “partner.” According to a Defence People Group Communication Plan the aim is to “Avoid using language such as ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ that assumes all relationships are heterosexual.” This is not only linguistically absurd it is also factually wrong. Ellen DeGeneres calls Portia de Rossi her “wife.” Elton John calls David Furnish his “husband.” And the words “husband” and “wife” do long belong to the gay community exclusively—they belong to all of us… the whole community. These two words “husband” and “wife” are venerable words that should be treasured. Both have been part of the English language and Western Civilisation since the 13thcentury. I do not have a “partner”—I have a wife. We are in a marriage not a law firm, so “partner” is inappropriate. In the Daily Telegraph yesterday there was a story about Kerrie-Anne Kennerly. It mentioned that she was still grieving the death of her late “partner” John. But Kerrie-Anne and John were married for some 35 years! These people who want to force us to drop “wife” and “husband” and use “partner” instead are verbal bullies—and bullies should always be resisted. Will you join the campaign? How? Whenever you fill in a form that has the word “partner” cross it out and write in the spouse word—“husband” or “wife.” If it’s an electronic form online and can’t be crossed out write (in UPPER CASE) the spouse word before the putting the name. If this crops up in conversation say “I don’t have a partner… I have a “wife”/”husband.” Will you join the campaign? You can use the contact page to drop me a one-line email saying you are on board with our modest (but important) campaign.
Evidence based Indigenous leader and educator Noel Pearson has taken a swipe at progressive identity politics infecting the education system and asked for a return to “evidence based” education. Of course, he’s quite right. For years the evidence has supported using phonics to teach children to read and exposed the weakness of the more trendy “whole language” system. Pearson also points to the evidence supporting teacher-led instruction instead of so-called “discovery learning.” The expression “evidence based” is first recorded in 1981. It arose because theory was replacing common sense in so many areas. The Oxford says, “evidence based” means “the practical application of the findings of the best available current research.” Every time I come across a call for an “evidence based” approach to anything the question I ask myself is – why would anyone ever do anything else? Noel Pearson is right about the need for “evidence based” education, but what I find alarming is that there also appears to be a need to promote “evidence based” medicine. In 2013 one medical journal said “Evidence-based practice is essential to safe, high-quality patient outcomes.” Quite right! If anyone is doing medicine that is not “evidence based” they should say so on their shingle so I can avoid them!
Equity Writing in the Daily Telegraph Miranda Devine said recently: ‘Equity is not the same as “equality.” It is a faddish Marxist code word for “equality of outcome”, as opposed to “equality of opportunity…” and says that we should be alarmed at how often educators are revealing the Marxist penetration of our school system by flashing this Marxist code word ‘equity.’ Once again the Marxists are distorting the language. ‘Equity’ came in English from Old French in the 14th century, and behind it is a Latin source word. As any dictionary will tell us ‘equity’ means ‘fairness’ (fairness of process) not ‘equality.’ That’s a distinction that’s vitally important. Those who want to bring about ‘equality of outcome’ should start by cancelling the Olympic Games. All competitors have ‘equity’ (fairness) because all start from the same mark, and all are judged under the same rules. But only one wins the gold medal. There is no ‘equality of outcome.’ And the same principal applies in intellectual disciples. The International Mathematical Olympiad is the World Championship Mathematics Competition for High School students held annually. It has ‘equity’ (fairness) because competitors all compete in the same tasks under the same rules. And true ‘equity’ means there can never be equality of outcome. Once again Marxists are trying to destroy our society by twisting language. ‘Equity’ plus competition equals a fair and effective society. The Marxists’ dishonest use of ‘equity’ aims to reduce everyone to the level of the lowest and the slowest.
Limerick Recently the Collins Dictionary Word of the Week (worth subscribing to if you are a wordie) was “Limerick.” We all know what this means—a five line comic poem with a rhyming scheme of AABBA. But why is it named after Limerick—the chief town of the county of Limerick in Ireland? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the story is that in Limerick there began an Irish custom at convivial parties according to which each member sang an extemporized ‘nonsense-verse’, which was followed by a chorus containing the words ‘Will you come up to Limerick?’ In other words, the earliest limericks would made up on the spot. Years ago I interviewed Sir Harry Secombe and he told me that he and his fellow members of the Goon Show (Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers) would sometimes do this. Each would, he said, write a line of a limerick and then fold over the paper so that only the end word (the rhyme word) was visible, then the next person would write the next line and so on. The following is the example that Sir Harry said was invented, on the spot, in this way:
There was a young man from Bombay
Took a slow boat to China one day
He was locked in the tiller
With a sex crazed gorilla
And China’s a long, long way.
Wellness ‘Wellness’—in the sense the word is used today—was coined in America in 1957. I remember interviewing (rather sceptically) an early proponent of the notion (a naturopath) on my radio show more than twenty years. His line was that the science of medicine had got it all wrong by focussing on sickness. ‘We need,’ he insisted in his jolly, smiling way, ‘to focus on wellness instead.’ Some approaches to ‘wellness’ are relatively harmless. Homeopathy, with its highly diluted, watered-down treatments is unlikely to do any harm. It will just be a waste of money. However, a new book suggests there is a possible dark side to the ‘wellness’ movement. Fake Medicine by Dr Brad McKay (Hachette, 2021) suggests the danger in connecting to a wellness guru comes when people decide (or are encouraged) to cut their ties to scientific medicine—with the result that they fail to seek real help when they need it. You can’t get rid of a cancer through an organic diet, meditation and frequent enemas. But surgery can. ‘Wellmess’ is such a positive, sunny-sounding word it can lure many. But just as sunshine casts shadows, there are dark shadows lurking under the ‘wellness’ banner.
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 this case of the Queensland and WA premiers they have been rewarded with thumping great election wins. Australia truly IS a lucky country—in the 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.
Intersectionality When a youth worker from Kingston Council (Victoria) addressed a Year 11 class at Parkdale Secondary College and ordered all the “white, male, Christian” boys to stand up in order to humiliate them as “privileged oppressors” she was supposedly teaching a class on “Privilege, Pronouns and Intersectionality.” Whoa! “Inter…” what? ‘Intersectionality’ is a jargon word of Marxist sociology based on the Marxist delusion that everyone in society is divided in just two groupings: the oppressors and the oppressed. ‘Intersectionality’ claims there are overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage and the more of these categories a person fits into the more oppressed by the power structure a person will be. Hence, a black, Muslim woman with one leg would be in real trouble. (She wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Sorry.) Except for the fact that the whole theory in nonsense. There are underprivileged white kids. There are disadvantage white kids. They cop it hard, and so called ‘intersectionality’ doesn’t come into it. The point of such jargon words is that they package ideology but tell us nothing about reality.
BHAG When one of you colleagues announces an big, difficult, or ambitious plan you now have a label for it. Such plans are called BEEHAGS (spelled B-H-A-G). This expression was coined in 1992 by two Stamford professors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. BHAG is an acronym for the phrase big, hairy, audacious goal. The BHAG is the bold mission that a team undertakes to reach for the highest level of success. For instance, when Peter Dutton challenged Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the federal Labor Party most commentators felt that he had set himself a BHAG (a “big, hairy, audacious goal”). As the example shows, many BHAGs never come off – this time it was Scott Morrison who sprinted through the field and won. But in a commercial context, just setting a Mount Everest of a goal can produce worthwhile results. This is one of those expressions that’s grown out of the jargon of motivational trainers – who, in their pep talks and paperback books are very big on BHAGS.
Gunk Gunk is one of those lovely words that seems to convey so much in one dripping, greasy syllable. For instance gunk can be used to mean any dirty, slimy, or offensive material. Or gunk can be unwelcome food – especially cloying, oversweet food. Anything which is thick and viscous can be called gunk – as in the expression: “She smeared cosmetic gunk all over her face.” And sometimes gunk can just mean rubbish. A very versatile word. But it began life as a proprietary name. In 1932, in America, Gunk was registered as a brand name for a range of liquid soaps and cleaners – especially (according to US patent office) for cleaning “articles and materials with a hard surface”. Much later, in 1970, Gunk was registered in the UKas the name of a degreasing compound. It’s a delightful thought that you might once have passed an advertisement plastered on wall that said: “Buy Gunk in the large economy size!”
Al desko There is a new name that has been given to those colleagues who insist on each lunch at their desk. You know the people I mean – the ones who leave biscuit crumbs, dollops of marmalade, and a smell of stale sandwiches around their desk. Sometimes they re-heat last night’s lasagne in the office microwave and make everyone else feel hungry. Anyway, there is a new title that has been given to this desk dining – it is now called: eating Al desko. It is (obviously) a playful pun on the word alfresco – the Italian word for open air dining. Al fresco literally means “on the fresh” – in other words, out in the fresh open air. The term al fresco first migrated into English from Italian back in 1764. And now there is this other option. When asked, “What you are doing for lunch today?” you can now reply, “I’m very busy, so I’ll be eating al desko.”
The Aussie Slang Dictionary The Australian Geographic people have just published a second (revised and expanded) edition of their great little book The Aussie Slang Dictionary. Originally written by the late Frank Povah—who a copy editor at Australian Geographic and the long-running “Dinkum Lingo” column—it has now been expanded by the inclusion of some of my “Ozwords” columns written for Australian Geographic. Like everything they published this a beautifully designed, handsome little book. It’s a hardcover which would grace the shelves of your library or make a great gift from someone overseas (or from overseas) who wants to know something about colourful and inventive language. My entries include the stories behind a string of words from ‘ankle biters’ and ‘aunty arms’ to ‘yarra’ and ‘yakka.’
If you’d like to buy a copy ($24:95), here’s the link: Book Releases - Australian Geographic
Art union An art union is something like a lottery, except that it is usually run to raise money for a charity, and the prize is usually not money but a house on the Gold Coast or a car or both. But art union? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any union, and art doesn’t seem to come into it. Well, the story is this. Art unions were formed in Britain and Europe in the 19th century as associations to promote art by purchasing paintings and other works of art and dispensing these things among their members by lottery. Over time in Australia and New Zealand (but only here) things changed. All kinds of prizes (not just paintings and other works of art) came to be offered, and consequently the name art union came to be applied to any lottery with prizes in kind rather than cash.
Boree A reader has asked about the word boree. Well, it’s an aboriginal word that white settlers applied to a type of timber. According to the Australian National Dictionary boree is a type of acacia tree, having the reputation of making good firewood. The word itself comes from the Wiradhuri and Kamilaroi languages. And this word boree was made famous by the title of a book of bush ballads called Around the Boree Log – published in 1921 and by “John O’Brien”. That, name, however was, in fact, the pen name of a Roman Catholic priest –Patrick Hartigan (who lived from 1878 to 1952). His delightful bush ballads celebrate everyday life in an outback Irish Catholic community. The most famous of John O’Brien’s bush ballads is “Said Hanrahan”: in which the gloomy central character predicts droughts when it’s dry and floods when it’s wet, and concludes every prediction with: “We’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan, before the year is out.”
Clayton’s Clayton’s is a product name that entered the language. Originally it was the soft drink Clayton’s Tonic, famously advertised by Jack Thompson with the slogan: “It’s the drink I have when I’m not having a drink”. The line was coined by Noel Delbridge, creative director of the advertising agency D’Arcy, MacManus and Masius. Clayton’s became part of Aussie English to mean “a substitute for the real thing”. Originally this was spelled out in full. As when a politician says his opponent has “a Clayton’s policy: the policy you have when you don’t have a policy”. But then the full explanation was dropped, and labelling something “a Clayton’s…” whatever, was enough. The original advertising campaign ran in 1980. It’s now fading a little, and like previous advertising slogans (such as “It’s moment’s like these you need Minties” and “Gone to Gowings”) is perhaps slowly being forgotten.
Australianist This appears to have been coined by an anonymous sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald in January, 1941. It appeared in a headline for an article about certain Australian poets (Ian Mudie, Garry Lyle and others -- the so-called “Jindyworobak” poets). The Macquarie National Dictionary defines Australianist as meaning “A person who espouses Australian attitudes or values; an expert in, or student of, some aspect of Australia, esp. its history or literature, or its Indigenous languages.” The great lexicographer Bill Ramson used the word to describe Sidney J. Baker in his entry about Baker in the Australian National Dictionary of Biography. Sid Baker devoted much of his life to researching and writing about the Australian language. The related word Australianism on the other hand is much older -- going back to 1842, defined as “pride in, or loyalty to, Australian nationalism; a character distinctively Australian.” I would like to think that this website is Australianist!
Our First Dictionary A nation is defined by its dictionaries. Yes, I know that sounds like a bad pun, but there is a powerful truth there. Sherry Sufi, in his recent book The Linguistic Roots of Nationalism: How Language Makes and Breaks Nation States, argues that for a nation to be cohesive it needs more than a shared political culture—it needs a common language. He gives the examples of the modern state of Israel, culturally bound together by the revival of Hebrew, and the old Soviet Empire that collapsed (at least in part) because it had no shared language.
From “sea to shining sea” (as the Americans would say) Australia has the powerful binding force of the Australian Language. The language we speak is a dialect of English, and, arguably, one of the most colourful and creative English dialects in the world.
When Philip Hensher was reviewing Tim Winton’s novel Breath in the British weekly The Spectator he wrote: “Australian English must be the most consistently inventive and creative arm of the language.” And then he added: “I would rather be shipwrecked with a good dictionary of Australian slang than with any other reference work.”
For more than 25 years I have pursued language as my journalistic speciality—following in the footsteps of such great journalist writers on language as Sidney J. Baker (his book The Australian Language was ground-breaking), and William Safire (who wrote the long-running On Language column for The New York Times).
The centrality and power of the Australian Language is demonstrated by the fact that for a young nation we have a particularly rich history of dictionary making. Compared to other nations that began life as English speaking colonies (such as Canada, New Zealand or South Africa) in Australia we have been inventing, blending and recording our language from our earliest days as an open air prison.
As early as 1812—just 24 years after those prison ships arrived carrying around a thousand convicts in chains and a few hundred soldiers to guard them—our first dictionary was being born.
In that year a convict named James Hardy Vaux (aka ‘Flash Jim’) sat down in the barracks at Newcastle to write a small dictionary of convict slang. He was doing it to curry favour with Thomas Skottowe, the commandant at Newcastle.
Skottowe frequently found himself baffled by the ‘flash’ language employed by the convicts. Vaux hoped his little dictionary would prove so useful, and would so ingratiate him with the commandant that he woulcd be relieved of his hard labour in the coal mine. What he wanted was a soft clerical job in the quartermaster’s store. His dictionary making efforts worked, and Skottowe moved Vaux from pushing heavily laden carts in the mines to sitting at a clerk’s desk helping to keep the records.
Vaux later wrote his memoirs in which he records his astonishingly colourful and eventful life. In 1819 those memoirs—together with his little dictionary as an appendix—appeared in print from London publisher John Murray.
As a language journalist I had become aware of how many convict (or ‘flash’) words are still part of the Australian Language.
If you call your clothes your ‘duds’ or your ‘togs’, ask for a ‘dollop’ of ice cream on your dessert, say you have ‘swags’ of sausages for the barbie, or call a drunk a ‘lush’ you are talking like a convict—using ‘flash’ words. There are hundreds of examples still alive and functioning in the Australian Language today.
This discovery led me back to Vaux and his colourful life (he was transported to Australia as a convict not once, but three times!) It became clear to me that this was a story that, as a journalist, I could not resist. And this is the story that I tell in Flash Jim—my new book from HarperCollins.
At the back of the book I have re-printed the whole of Vaux’s little dictionary—complete with his grovelling dedication to Thomas Skottowe.
It is somehow appropriate that Australia’s first dictionary was as dictionary of slang and was written by convict.
Clearly Aussie English began as it intended to go on—inventive, mischievous and down to earth. Today—202 years after the first appearance in print of Flash Jim’s little dictionary—the Australian Language remains as bright as a box of budgies and as strong as a mallee bull.
I suspect Vaux would be delighted by the language we have grown on his foundation.
Bang up Another day of looking at how we still talk like a convict – because there are still hundreds of convict slang terms that are still part of the Australian Language… and this is one of them: “bang up.” Here’s how convict author James Hardy Vaux defines “bang up” in the little dictionary of convict slang he wrote in 1812 (the first dictionary ever written in Australia): “A person, whose dress or equipage is in the first style of perfection, is declared to be bang up to the mark. A man who has behaved with extraordinary spirit and resolution in any enterprise he has been engaged in, is also said to have come bang up to the mark; any article which is remarkably good or elegant, or any fashion, act, or measure which is carried to the highest pitch, is likewise illustrated by the same emphatical phrase.” Those are Vaux’s words. And I think we still use the expression in almost exactly the same way – we say that someone has done “a bang up job” we mean it in much the same way that the convicts of 1812 did, and that Vaux recorded in his little dictionary. Mind you, an additional meaning has been added in the years since, as the Macquarie Dictionary reminds us – today to “bang up” can also mean “to make pregnant.” Well, it’s a living language so the river or words keeps flowing, adding new meanings to old ones!