Flash Jim Today is the official publication day for my new book Flash Jim in which I tell the story of convict James Hardy Vaux(1782-1841). Vaux grew up in a Shropshire village in a respectable, middle class family. He was given a good grammar school education. But by the time he was fifteen and was already sliding towards a life of crime. Sent to London to work in a lawyer’s office run by a friend of his grandfather, Vaux quickly cultivated a number of shady friends, and spent more time with them than at his desk. With the result that he was quickly unemployed and living by his wits. With a sharp mind, a glib tongue and a non-existent conscience he quickly became a fraudster, a conman and a pick pocket.
Vaux was transported as a convict to the colony of New South Wales not once, but three times (he clearly wasn’t paying attention to what was going wrong in his life). The first time he was convicted as part of a gang of pickpockets, the second time for a racket he ran with his wife stealing jewellery from pawn shops, and the third time for counterfeiting currency.
In 1811 Vaux was convicted of re-offending in the convict colony of Sydney Town. This time the charge was that he had been part of a plot to steal from the Judge Advocate of the colony (he was always a risk taker). As a result, Vaux was sent to Newcastle (then known as the “hell of New South Wales”) to do hard labour.
Never one for tough, physical work as he pushed trolleys in and out the coal mine Vaux hatched a plan to get himself a soft job in the quartermaster’s stores: he would write a dictionary of the language used by convicts and present it to the commandant of Newcastle. This little dictionary of the “flash language” would help when the commandant sat as a magistrate and had to understand what on earth the convicts were saying—either as witnesses or as the accused. Vaux complete his little dictionary (and got his soft job). And seven years later his dictionary was published in London as an addendum to his memoirs.
To find out more, or to order a copy, follow this link: Flash Jim, The astonishing story of the convict fraudster who wrote Australia's first dictionary by Kel Richards | 9781460759769 | Booktopia
Banana For a long time now we’ve referred to Queenslanders as “banana benders”, but it turns out that the people called bananas live in mostly Melbourne. In my book WordMap I’ve listed “banana” as an expression that turns up predominantly in one region of Australian – namely, as I say, the Melbourne region. Now, if you’ve never heard of anyone called a banana I should explain that a banana is someone who is strongly opposed to development of any kind – the greenest of the greenies. Banana is an acronym for “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone”. It is, I guess, an extreme case of the “Nimby” (“Not in My Backyard”). Although the acronym banana has caught on in Melbourne the earliest citation is from Sydney – from the letters column of The Sydney Morning Herald back in 1991. And banana is another Aussie expression that has now been picked up in both Britain and America.
Argy-bargy Why is a vigorous argument called an argy-bargy? The argy part comes from the word “argument”. It seems an old slang term for an argument is an argle (that’s a 16th century term). You could, in those days, talk about argling with someone. This word is probably a combination with (or confusion with) “haggle”: if you put “argue” and “haggle” together you get argle. Over time this came to be repeated in the form argle-bargle. This form is around by the early 19thcentury. Argle-bargle probably emerged just because colloquial English likes rhymes and repetition. Then argle-bargle was shortened into arGee-barGee– because adding the “e” sound to the end of words is a common way to shorten them. Finally, the “g” was softened and we got the expression we’ve got today: argy-bargy (this form finally emerging in the late 19th century). It’s a long journey from a 16th century argle to a 21stcentury argy-bargy but that’s the story of the word.
Annie’s room A reader asks for the meaning and origin of the expression “up in Annie’s room behind the clock.” Well, this expression was a joke answer when asked where somebody was. “Oh, they’re up in Annie’s room behind the clock.” According to Michael Quinion (of the World Wide Words website) it began life as First World War British army slang. In those days it was a dismissive, joking reply “Oh, so-and-so’s up in Annie’s room.” Eric Partridge suggests this answer was meant to imply that the missing person was “a bit of a lady’s man.” That sounds to me like a rationalisation for what was really nothing more than a bit of nonsense. After the First World War ended the phrase “behind the clock” was added, but nobody seems to know why. Even the all-knowing Michael Quinion can shed no light on it. Perhaps the intention was simply to make a nonsensical expression even more nonsensical.
More Than Words Australia’s first full and proper dictionary was the Macquarie Dictionary, first published in 1981. And the story of how the came about is told in a new book called More Than Words: The Making of the Macquarie Dictionary by Pat Manser. For those of us who love the Australian language it is a great story. The names of the people drove the project and brought it to a successful conclusion are probably not known to many Australians: Arthur Delbridge, John Bernard, Bill Ramson, David Blair, Sue Butler and a host of others. Pat Manser was one of them. She was an early member of the dictionary team, and tells the story from an insider’s point of view. The idea of a proper Australian dictionary—that would record Australia’s distinctive words plus the wider world of English that belongs in a standard dictionary as those words were understood and used in Australia—that idea was born in the 1960s. It’s road to a final, finished handsome desk dictionary in 1981 was a rocky one. But the finished product (and the newer editions and the spin-off publications that have come since) made all that work worthwhile. I have just finished reading the book and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and strongly recommend it.
If you’d like to buy a copy—here’s the link: More Than Words, The Making of the Macquarie Dictionary by Pat Manser | 9781760981105 | Booktopia
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 real trouble. 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.
AD/CE A reader wants to know why ancient dates (from the last 2,000 years) are now sometimes followed by the letters CE instead of the letters AD as used to be the case. The answer is that our calendar is Christian. In our multicultural society different cultural components have been contributed to the common mixing pot by different groups. The Christians have contributed things – including the calendar. The letters AD stand for the Latin expression Ano Domini – meaning “in the year of our Lord”. Both that label – and the modern calendar itself – were devised by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus back in the sixth century. There is now an attempt to change this to CE meaning “common era” – proposed by opponents of the “sharing together” notion of multiculturalism. Journalists, of course, have to avoid this whole issue, since the task of journalism is communicationand 99% of the population have no idea what CEmeans.
404 error One of the most common verbal signals you’ll encounter on the Internet is that ominous phrase “404 error – file not found”. This number 404 was, apparently, not chosen at random. The story goes that the response “file not found” was first sent out as a reply to a faulty enquiry by staff in room 404 at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, where the Web was originally devised. The man who devised the web (British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee) intended it merely meant to be a way for particle physicists to share information. Now (because of those dummies in room 404) we now get “404 error” signals on our PCs. And “404” has taken on extended applications, as in: “You’re got a 404 look on your face” (meaning “you look blank and confused”). Anyone who is noticeably uninformed is called “a 404”. And it’s now a verb: if you’re making no progress then you’re “404-ing”.
Administratium New words are being coined all the time, and I found this one pinned to a notice board (in a management area). The word is administratium and it’s the name for what is allegedly a newly discovered element – the heaviest element known to science. Administratium is said to consist of 1 neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons, and 111 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic weight of 312. These particles, it appears, are held together by a force called morons. As administratium has no electrons it is inert. However, it can be detected as it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of administratium causes a reaction that would normally last less than one second to take approximately four days to compete. And administratium’s mass will increase over time as morons become neutrons, thus forming isodopes. Clearly this is one new word that the world really needs!
Anzac Day Did you realise that the word Anzac is copyright? Originally, of course, it simply meant the “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”. But so deeply has this word entered into the consciousness of our nation that there are laws, passed way back in 1920, that control and protect its use. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs administers the protection of the word Anzac, and the minister’s approval is needed for the use of the word in connection with any “trade, business, calling or profession, any entertainment, lottery or art union, any building, private residence, boat or vehicle, or any charitable or other institution”. Even Anzac biscuits are protected by law. Well, not so much the biscuits as the name of the biscuits. And, by the way, Anzac is no longer an acronym – it is now officially a word: that means the “A” is upper case and the rest of the letters should be lower case.
C. S. Lewis C. S. Lewis is known for his Christian books such as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape [KR1] Letters, his literary criticism where he specialised in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, his Narnia books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and his science fiction such as Out of the Silent Planet. His marriage late in life to Joy Davidman is subject of the book, play and film Shadowlands. There are a large number of C. S. Lewis Societies around the world—and have been for many years. For instance, the New York C. S. Lewis Society began in 1969 (52 years ago). Finally, Sydney is about to catch up. Dr Christopher Cooper has announced the launch of The Sydney C. S. Lewis Society. The inaugural meeting will be held one week from today – Saturday May 1st– at the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel (Castlereagh St., near Town Hall station). If you have an interest in C. S. Lewis you are invited to come. The starting time will be 10:30am—with coffee, tea and socialising from 10am. (There will be a small charge of $10 to cover room hire and tea and coffee.) There will be two talks at this first meeting: Dr Cooper will chair the meeting and give a talk on his personal acquaintance with Lewis’ secretary Walter Hooper. Then I will talk about travelling “In the Footsteps of C. S. Lewis” in Oxford and Belfast. (I have written four “1930s murder mysteries” featuring Lewis and his brother Warnie as the “detectives.”) You can contact Dr Cooper at email@example.com or phone or text him at 0403-077-473.
You are needed! This week when I was talking to John Stanley on 2GB, 4BC, 2CC and the Nine Radio Network we talked about Aussie names for food. In particular John was fascinated (and appalled) by such names as “rat coffin” for a meat pie and “snot block” for a vanilla slice. John said he had loved vanilla slices all his life and he would never be able to eat another one – he would always look at a vanilla slice and think of the words “snot block.” Then John came up with this challenge: if we can come up with creative (and offensive) names for two very fattening foods he loves, we would achieve the worthwhile aim of putting him off those foods as well. He chose “bacon” and “M and Ms”. John loves both and in the interests of good health and weight control he would like to eat less of each. So can we think of a creative and offensive name for “bacon”? Get your little grey cells working and send me your horrible but creative nickname for “bacon” through the contact page on this website or by emailing directly firstname.lastname@example.org. And the same with “M and Ms”—come up with a creative and disgusting nickname please and send it to me through the contact page or through email@example.com. I have had one idea for “M and Ms”—why not call them “parrot poo”? They are roughly the size and shape of bird poo, and Australian parrots are multicoloured, hence multicoloured “parrot poo.” Does that work? Do you have a better idea? And do you have a similarly revolting nickname for “bacon” please? Zip me off an email and I will share your ideas with John Stanley this coming Tuesday night after the ten o’clock news on 2GB, 4BC, 2CC and the Nine Radio Network. (Thanks for your help.)
Public servant What picture does the title public servant paint for you? A pen pusher living inside the Canberra bubble on the taxpayers’ dollars? Well, the next time you’re caught in a web woven out of red tape and feeling like cursing all public servants it might give you some comfort to know that originally in Australia the term public servant meant… a convict! In her great little book Convict Words Amanda Laugesen explains that a pubic servant was: “a convict assigned to public labour or work for the government.” When it was first coined in 1797 it was a euphemism for “convict.” In other words, even in those early years every one hated to be called a convict so all kinds of other expressions were coined to soften this harsh word—such as “government man”, “prisoner”, or “assigned servant.” And at the head of the list of ways of not calling a convict a convict was public servant.
A Vegemite® moment Visitors don’t always react enthusiastically to this thick, salty, black sandwich spread. Upon trying Vegemite® on toast visitors have been known to screw up their noses and ask how we can eat that stuff. This response has given rise to the expression: a Vegemite®moment – a moment that you absolutely love or absolutely loath. There is no middle ground. That “love it or loath it” response is what gives the moment its name as a Vegemite® moment. And for the unenlightened: Vegemite®is a salty spread that’s both a national institution and a registered brand name. It was invented by food technologist Dr Cyril P Calister in 1922 for the original manufacturer Fred Walker. In WWII it became part of the survival rations of Aussie soldiers, and in 1954 an advertising agency came up with a jingle for the product that put the phrase “we’re happy little Vegemites®” into Aussie English.
Whiteness The Root is an African American online magazine. But it’s also a site that breaks astonishing news. While the rest of the world is worried about the Covid pandemic, Damon Young, writing on The Root website, has announced his breathtaking discovery that ‘whiteness is a pandemic.’ And just in case thought Covid was worse, here’s Young’s diagnosis: “Whiteness is a public health crisis. It shortens life expectancies, it pollutes air, it constricts equilibrium, it devastates forests, it melts ice caps, it sparks (and funds) wars, it flattens dialects, it infests consciousnesses, and it kills people.” So, all the effort put into developing a vaccine against Covid was clearly working on the wrong problem. What the world really needs is a vaccine against ‘whiteness.’ Damon Young’s problem, of course, is that he is trying to cure the world of a colour—a colour that has been called ‘white’ in English for well over a thousand years (and behind which is a similar word in Old Saxon). What Damon Young does if he walks outdoors on a snowy day I have no idea. Does he run back inside screaming? Does he call the emergency services to say that ‘whiteness’ is invading his front yard? It seems to me that, at the very least, ‘whiteness’ is less of a problem than being completely ‘witless.’
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!