Words of Oz

Aus­tralia’s unique words and id­ioms are as bright as a box of bud­gies and as fit as a mallee bull. Kel Richards ex­plains.

Australian Geographic - - Snapshot -

LIN­GUIS­TICS EX­PERTS these days don’t talk of the English lan­guage but about ‘Englishes’. That’s be­cause the world is now f illed with English di­alects. And the most colour­ful and in­ven­tive of them all is Aussie English.

Yes, I know it’s im­mod­est of us to make such a claim… and Mum al­ways said, “Don’t have tick­ets on your­self.” But it’s not only us Aussies say­ing it.

When re­view­ing Tim Win­ton’s novel Breath in Bri­tish weekly mag­a­zine The Spec­ta­tor, nov­el­ist Philip Hen­sher pro­claimed: “Aus­tralian English must be the most con­sis­tently in­ven­tive and cre­ative arm of the lan­guage.” Then he added: “I would rather be ship­wrecked with a good dic­tionary of Aus­tralian slang than with any other ref­er­ence work.”

Michael Quin­ion, in his re­view of Gerry Wilkes’ Dic­tionary of Aus­tralian Col­lo­qui­alisms, de­scribes Aussie English as “a col­lo­quial lan­guage un­like any other”. This is be­cause, he writes, Aussie English is inf lu­enced by “the cant and slang of crim­i­nal trans­portees… the di­alect of im­mi­grants’ home ar­eas… con­tact with many Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages… a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally sar­donic sense of hu­mour and an en­vi­able abil­ity to turn a phrase in a mo­ment”.

WHERE DID THIS bonzer be­wdy bot­tler lan­guage of ours spring from? Aussie English grew out of four com­po­nent bits, listed on the pre­vi­ous page by Michael Quin­ion.

To be­gin with there are re­gional di­alect words from Bri­tain, many of which have died out in their home­land but re­main part of the living lan­guage Down Un­der.

The English lan­guage that ar­rived in Aus­tralia on 26 Jan­uary 1788 was a mix­ture of di­alects from all over the Bri­tish Isles: the con­victs came from ev­ery­where, from Abing­don to York – and all the let­ters of the al­pha­bet in be­tween. The di­ver­sity of their ori­gins meant it was an in­ter­est­ing sort of English lan­guage that they brought with them, full of di­verse bits of slang from dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try and an odd as­sort­ment of re­gional ex­pres­sions.

All those ac­cents and as­sorted re­gional slang words must, in­evitably, have alerted those f irst Bri­tish colonis­ers to the odd­ness of lan­guage. I imag­ine this sort of ex­change would have been com­mon.

Con­vict 1, as he bumps into Con­vict 2: “Sorry, me old china, I must’ve stum­bled on the ap­ples.”

Con­vict 2: “Speak English, you cock­ney id­iot!” Con­vict 1, pa­tiently: “I said, ‘Sorry, mate, I must have stum­bled on the ap­ples and pears.’”

Con­vict 2: “On the what?”

Con­vict 1: “On the stairs.”

Con­vict 2: “Oh, I see. Any­way, I’m not your mate. I’m not mar­ried to you, we’re just work­ing to­gether, that’s all. But you’re a de­cent bloke, so as far as I’m con­cerned you’re my cob­ber.”

Con­vict 1: “What’s a bloke? And what’s a cob­ber?” And so on for pos­si­bly sev­eral more pages of his­tor­i­cally du­bi­ous di­a­logue.

The point is that this process of Bri­tish re­gional di­alect words be­ing adopted – and adapted – in Aus­tralia was one of the seeds from which Aussie English sprang.

Here is my sug­ges­tion: this dis­cov­ery of un­ex­pected va­ri­eties of English was the birth of the mod­ern Aus­tralian lan­guage – of a dis­tinc­tively Aus­tralian form of English, and an in­ter­est in play­ing with lan­guage that con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate Aussies to this day.

A good ex­am­ple of the way this process worked is ‘dinkum’, a word orig­i­nally used by min­ers in Der­byshire to mean work (es­pe­cially hard work). The way dinkum has changed over the years is typ­i­cal of the way many Bri­tish re­gional di­alect words have been in­cor­po­rated into Aussie English.

Dinkum went on mean­ing work for quite some years. In his 1882 novel Rob­bery Un­der Arms Rolf Bol­drewood (the pseu­do­nym of Aus­tralian au­thor Thomas Alexan­der Browne) has his cen­tral char­ac­ter Dick Marston say, “It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak.” He was talk­ing about the hard work of driv­ing a mob of cat­tle.

Later on, dinkum took on the mean­ing of the ad­jec­tive fair, with the no­tion of ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’. Then, this no­tion of hon­esty took over and be­came the main mean­ing of the word. Today, dinkum means ‘true; hon­est; gen­uine’. But it started out in life as a Der­byshire di­alect word.

When­ever you use words such as ‘lar­rikin’, ‘boof head’, ‘bloke’ or ‘pad­dock’, you are speak­ing 200-year-old Bri­tish di­alect words.

CRIM­I­NAL SLANG WAS the sec­ond source that con­trib­uted to the growth of Aussie English. Known as ‘the f lash lan­guage’, this was the lan­guage spo­ken by the crim­i­nal class in the streets of Lon­don. For ex­am­ple, ‘swag’, which turns up in the lyrics of bush bal­lad Waltz­ing Matilda as the jolly swag­man car­ry­ing his tuckerbag, is one of the most Aussie of words. But it be­gan as a bit of f lash lan­guage mean­ing a bun­dle, par­cel or pack­age – usu­ally some­thing stolen. Here in the sun­burnt land, that mean­ing slowly changed to be­come the bun­dle car­ried on the back of the swag­man in the bush. From the cock­ney streets of Lon­don to the Aussie bush, that’s the jour­ney made by the word swag.

A good ex­am­ple of how this process worked is ‘dinkum’, a word orig­i­nally used by min­ers in Der­byshire to mean work (es­pe­cially hard work).

Kel Richards

From this is­sue, cel­e­brated word­smith and broad­caster Kel Richards joins AUS­TRALIAN GE­O­GRAPHIC as a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor, writ­ing on the Aussie lan­guage: his first col­umn is on page 18. Kel’s pop­u­lar Word Watch show about lan­guage was broad­cast on ABC ra­dio for many years be­fore he moved to com­mer­cial ra­dio.

It’s just one of many such terms. The f lash lan­guage was a spe­cial type of slang that was meant to work as a kind of code, so its users could speak to each other in the pres­ence of hon­est cit­i­zens (even mag­is­trates or thief-tak­ers) and not be un­der­stood.

Their coded slang meant they could ut­ter ap­par­ently in­no­cent, or in­com­pre­hen­si­ble, re­marks that would con­vey a sin­is­ter mean­ing only to those in the know.

Many of those words are still with us today. When you ask for a ‘dol­lop’ of cream on your dessert, for ex­am­ple, call your clothes ‘duds’, say that some­one who was dressed up smartly looks ‘f lash’, or call your fair share your ‘wack’ – you’re speak­ing the f lash lan­guage of our early con­vict pop­u­la­tion.

THE THIRD IN­GRE­DI­ENT in Aussie English is all those local Abo­rig­i­nal words that our fore­bears had to bor­row to name the strange f lora and fauna of the wide brown land.

Gover­nor Arthur Phillip made an ef­fort to study and un­der­stand the tra­di­tional in­hab­i­tants of the Syd­ney area. An Abo­rig­i­nal man named Ben­ne­long was, on Phillip’s or­ders, cap­tured and brought to Syd­ney Cove for ob­ser­va­tion in 1789. He es­caped in 1790 but later re­turned to the set­tle­ment. A hut was built for him in 1791 on the eastern side of what is now Cir­cu­lar Quay.

In ad­di­tion to such off icial at­tempts at con­tact, un­of­fi­cial and in­for­mal con­tact was con­stantly be­ing made. When a gang of work­ing con­victs – or a squad from the New South Wales Corps – came across a group of cu­ri­ous Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, at­tempts would be made by both groups at com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Each side was puz­zled by the other and both were cu­ri­ous.

Some of the set­tle­ment’s lead­ers – in­clud­ing Deputy Judge Ad­vo­cate with the First Fleet David Collins,

cap­tain of the First Fleet ship HMS Sir­ius John Hunter, and Gover­nor Phillip him­self – col­lected glos­saries of Abo­rig­i­nal words.

Clearly, colonis­ers were slowly learn­ing local names for the odd an­i­mals and plants around them. And not just plants and an­i­mals: names for weapons, dwellings and some cul­tural terms were also recorded.

Of course, there are many Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages and we have bor­rowed from a host of them. ‘Kan­ga­roo’ is a north Queens­land word; ‘coolibah’ (an­other Waltz­ing Matilda word) comes from the Kami­laroi lan­guage, from the Syd­ney area; ‘mulga’ is a Yuwaalaraay word; and when we call a black-and-white bird a ‘cur­ra­wong’ we’re us­ing a word from Ja­gara and neigh­bour­ing lan­guages.

For the most part, as the years con­tin­ued to roll by, English-speak­ing colonis­ers named local wildlife odd­i­ties by tr ying to f ind out the Abo­rig­i­nal name for whatever it was they were look­ing at, which is how the bilby, yabby, waratah, mallee, budgeri­gar (later short­ened to budgie), dingo and count­less other Aussie plants and an­i­mals were given their com­mon names.

In many Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages plu­rals were in­di­cated by sim­ply dou­bling the world: so koori, which comes from the Awabakal lan­guage, means a per­son and koori koori means peo­ple, which is the source of the NSW pla­ce­name Kurri Kurri.

THE FOURTH AND f inal brick in the foun­da­tion of Aussie English is formed by those con­vict/mil­i­tary words that were part of the life of the colony. For ex­am­ple, if you grazed an­i­mals in Bri­tain you would do so on a farm and that would make you a farmer. In the USA your prop­erty would be called a ranch and you would be a rancher. But in Aus­tralia the man whose ru­ral ac­tiv­ity con­sists mainly of rais­ing ei­ther sheep or cat­tle, or both, is called a gra­zier and his prop­erty is called a station. Why a station and not a farm or ranch?

The name comes from the mil­i­tary use of the word station. The nature of armies, and navies for that mat­ter,

is to be on the move. If not prop­erly mo­bile they are not of much use. What any good gen­eral wants to dis­cover when he ar­rives at his army base af­ter a good night’s sleep is that his troops have risen early, en­joyed a full English break­fast and are now on the move.

Wher­ever they were based for a pe­riod of time, which is when they were ‘sta­tion­ary’, was known as a station. Hence, that place where the coloniser stopped and set­tled down be­came a station.

In Bri­tain, gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, es­pe­cially bu­reau­crats, are called ‘civil ser­vants’ but in Aus­tralia they are pub­lic ser­vants. Why the switch? Are they less pub­lic in Bri­tain or less civil in Aus­tralia?

It turns out that con­victs didn’t like be­ing called con­victs, so other terms were coined. Some­times they were called gov­ern­ment men or ser­vants of the crown. But, quite com­monly (and as early as 1797), con­victs were known as pub­lic ser­vants.

Peo­ple in gov­ern­ment em­ploy have been pub­lic ser­vants ever since, but only in Aus­tralia.

OUT OF THOSE FOUR EL­E­MENTS – di­alect words, the f lash lan­guage, Abo­rig­i­nal words and con­vict/mil­i­tary words – Aussie English was born. It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that our ver­sion of the English lan­guage be­came a full-blown, full-grown di­alect quite early on in the piece. As early as 1828, just 40 years af­ter the f irst set­tle­ment, there are ref­er­ences to a colo­nial lan­guage.

A news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ment by an English gen­tle­man that ap­peared on 15 Au­gust 1828 in Ho­bart paper the Colo­nial Times re­quested, “If you know of any per­son who is pro­fi­cient in the Colo­nial lan­guage, you will do me a great ser­vice by rec­om­mend­ing them to me, as I am re­solved that my chil­dren shall not re­main ig­no­rant of the di­alect of the land they live in.”

In just a few decades that solid foun­da­tion had pro­duced the sturdy build­ing that is the Aus­tralian di­alect of English.

Is Aussie English still go­ing strong? Or is it in dan­ger of dy­ing out? Ev­ery so of­ten there will be a panic-stricken news­pa­per ar­ti­cle claim­ing that Aussie is be­ing swamped by Amer­i­can English and fad­ing away to a mere shadow of its for­mer self.

Dis­tin­guished Aussie jour­nal­ist Hugh Lunn de­voted a book called Lost for Words to make this case. But I say he’s wrong. In fact, Hugh and I once de­bated the sub­ject at an event or­gan­ised by the Mac­quarie Dic­tionary. There was no of­fi­cial ad­ju­di­ca­tion, but my as­sump­tion (en­tirely un­off icial, of course) is that I won hands-down.

What Hugh and oth­ers like him com­plain of is the slow dis­ap­pear­ance of older bits of Aussie slang. He gave the game away when he said he was most dis­tressed about the slow dis­ap­pear­ance of ex­pres­sions he used as a boy, in the 1940s and 1950s.

What these whingers fail to recog­nise is that slang is the most ephemeral, fastest chang­ing part of any lan­guage. The fact that Aussie slang is chang­ing is proof of life rather than death: Aussie English is a river that con­tin­ues to f low, not stag­nate.

Those peo­ple who used ‘stone the crows’ to ex­press sur­prise in the 1930s would never have called their speedos ‘budgie smug­glers’. Old bits of slang die and new ones are born.

Plus, Aussie English con­sists of more than just slang. There are those dis­tinctly non-slang words and terms that were coined here and are all Aussie – ‘above-ground pool’, ‘home unit’, ‘off­sider’ and count­less oth­ers.

Plus, there is our dis­tinc­tive ac­cent as well as the par­tic­u­lar and spe­cial ways in which Aus­tralians put sen­tences to­gether. All of that makes up Aussie English and, so far, it’s show­ing no sign of car­diac ar­rest.

“Re­ports of my death have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated,” is what Amer­i­can writer Mark Twain is sup­posed to have said when his obit­u­ary was pub­lished some­what pre­ma­turely and he was ob­vi­ously alive and kick­ing.

Some­thing sim­i­lar has hap­pened to Aussie English: re­ports of its death have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

For the most part, English-speak­ing colonis­ers named local wildlife odd­i­ties by try­ing to find out the Abo­rig­i­nal name for whatever it was they were look­ing at.

JUNE FAC­TOR IS A DIS­TIN­GUISHED Aus­tralian folk­lorist who has had her f in­ger on the pulse of the lore and lan­guage of Aussie kids for a good few years now. Her def ini­tive book on Aus­tralian chil­dren’s folk­lore Cap­tain Cook Chased a Chook ap­peared in 1988. Ear­lier, in 1983, she pro­duced a book of Aus­tralian play­ground rhymes as a chil­dren’s book, Far Out, Brus­sel Sprout! This in­cluded an in­vi­ta­tion for chil­dren to con­trib­ute more Aussie play­ground ex­pres­sions and so en­thu­si­as­tic was their re­sponse that seven more books fol­lowed: Un­real, Ba­nana Peel; All Right, Vegemite; Real Keen, Baked Bean; Roll Over Pavlova; Okey Dokey Karaoke! and oth­ers.

Then in 2000 she gave us Kid­speak, a dic­tionary of Aus­tralian chil­dren’s words, ex­pres­sions and games. This de­light­ful book tells us that Aussie kids are just as likely to say ‘grouse’ as they are to say cool or awe­some. Aussie kids still know what ‘gravel rash’ is while the phrase would baff le most Amer­i­cans. The cur­rent crop of Aussie kids, June Fac­tor records, will say ‘f lat­ten the mag­gies’ as an ex­pres­sion of sur­prise.

Aussie kids still use ‘f lash’ to mean over­dressed, an echo of the ear­lier ex­pres­sion ‘as f lash as a pox doctor’s clerk’. They talk of be­ing ‘knack­ered’ or ‘f lak­ing out’.

And only here, and mainly in Mel­bourne, are Greeks nick­named ‘f ish and chips’. Kids are still us­ing ‘f ly ceme­tery’ but they’ve ex­tended its mean­ing from a fruit slice to any bis­cuit made with sul­tanas, raisins or cur­rants.

The list could go on, but the point is clear: Aussie English is in good hands and the kids are hav­ing as much fun with it as ever.

As a fur­ther ar­gu­ment for the con­tin­u­ing vigour of our lan­guage I would add that, in ad­di­tion to the lin­guis­tics de­part­ments in all our uni­ver­si­ties, we have not one but two dic­tionary cen­tres. The Aus­tralian Na­tional Dic­tionary Cen­tre is based in Can­berra’s Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity and op­er­ates in con­junc­tion with Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, while the Mac­quarie Dic­tionary Cen­tre is at Syd­ney Univer­sity and works with Macmil­lan, the pub­lish­ers of the Mac­quarie Dic­tionary range.

A use­ful com­par­i­son here is with Canada. There are about 24 mil­lion of us and about 35 mil­lion Cana­di­ans. Both of our coun­tries be­gan as Bri­tish colonies and are English-speak­ing.

The Cana­dian Ox­ford Dic­tionary made its f irst ap­pear­ance in 1998, while our Mac­quarie Dic­tionary has been in print since 1981 and the Aus­tralian Na­tional Dic­tionary ( AND) ap­peared in 1988, 17 years and 10 years re­spec­tively be­fore the Cana­di­ans burst into print.

The AND con­tains some 10,000 Aus­tralian con­tri­bu­tions to the English lan­guage, while the Cana­dian Ox­ford boasts of con­tain­ing “2200 true Cana­di­anisms” – about a quar­ter the num­ber of Aus­tralianisms found in the AND.

From this I con­clude that we have one of the world’s rich­est and most in­ter­est­ing di­alects of English, enough to keep all our lin­guists and both our dic­tionary cen­tres in busi­ness for a long time to come.

When it comes to Amer­i­can English, the traff ic is def­i­nitely two-way. For ex­am­ple, ‘bludge’ ap­pears in the latest – the 11th – edi­tion of Web­ster’s Col­le­giate Dic­tionary, which def ines bludg­ing as ‘goof ing off ’. But they didn’t in­vent it. They got it from us.

And those Amer­i­cans love our dis­tinc­tive di­alect just as much as those very English lit­er­ary per­sons I quoted ear­lier. Some time ago I had rea­son to greet a vis­it­ing Amer­i­can cou­ple at the air­port.

When I met them for the first time al­most the very f irst thing they said to me was “Go on…say it for us.” “Say what?” I thought. Then the penny dropped, and I said, “G’day.” “He said it!” they squealed with de­light, “He said g’day!”

So we can all relax, be­cause Aussie English is still go­ing strong. It’s ‘as f it as a mallee bull’ and ‘as bright as a box of bud­gies’. And I hope to help keep it that way by giv­ing you a little in­sight into one of our colour­ful Aussie ex­pres­sions and where it came from in ev­ery is­sue of Aus­tralian Ge­o­graphic from now on. See my first ‘stab’ on page 18.

Aussie kids still use ‘flash’ to mean over­dressed, an echo of the ear­lier ex­pres­sion ‘as flash as a pox doctor’s clerk’. They talk of be­ing ‘knack­ered’.

Af­ter more than four decades as a broad­caster, Kel Richards is at ease be­hind the mi­cro­phone at the Syd­ney­based com­mer­cial ra­dio station where he now presents a weekly talk show.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.