It’s a shame these days that much of the new slang you hear in Australia is not only largely devoid of any invention or wit but so easily imported from North America. The vivid metaphor or simile seems to be evaporating. And in the midst of the mangled hyperbole that stands in its place is often that most dull and lazy attempt at rhetoric: the initialism.
The ubiquity of trite Americanisms such as “WTF” or “LMAO” is nothing to “LOL” about.
Indeed, the other day I saw a girl in a white baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Justin’s BAE”. The Justin in this case is, of course, the Canadian pop star Justin Bieber. As for the “BAE”, well, this cryptic neologism stands for “beyond/before anyone else”. In other words, your sweetheart. It reportedly first appeared in a hip-hop number in 2011. Clever, isn’t it? I bet you wish you’d come up with that.
At times like these it’s worth reaching for that bible of Australian slang, A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms. This collection, compiled in 1978 by GA Wilkes, foundation professor of Australian literature at the University of Sydney, is now in its fourth edition. You can only imagine Wilkes’s horror had he seen the aforementioned baseball cap. “Stiffen the lizards!” he would have cried.
A tacky initialism like “BAE” would never have made his dictionary, especially when there were saltier ways to say sweetheart — like, for instance, “charlie” (“f. rhyming slang Charlie Wheeler = sheila, perhaps related to “charlies”, English slang for breasts”).
And speaking of breasts, the origin of the slang variant “norks” may come from, as Wilkes suggests, the wrapping of Norco butter, which once pictured a cow’s udder.
But, of course, such risky etymology might have earned you the cold shoulder from your charlie. In other words, you would have been “on the coat”. Worse still, you might have copped a “Christmas hold” (f. prison slang for “handful of nuts”).
To avoid that, your best bet was to probably go for a solitary drink, or a “Jimmy Woodser” (so called after James Wood, an 1880s shearer who was reluctant to shout and thus drank alone).
Then again, if you were “pooned up” (welldressed) and had had a few too many “cruisers” (20oz beer in NSW) you might be tempted to fall into the arms of a woman of the night, such as “that old chromo from Campbell Street”, whom D’Arcy Niland warned you about in his 1959 novel The Big Smoke. You know the woman he means: “the wrinkled face flaring with rouge and floury with powder”.
Add to that the risk of getting king-hit — or “given Bondi” — as you staggered home. (Wilkes suggests this latter term may stem from a “fracas between larrikins and the police at Bondi on Boxing Day, 1884.) And if you did “lock on” with someone there was a good chance you’d end up “in the logs”.
Of course, reading all this, you might think I’m “on the pea”. That is, like cows or sheep which, if they eat Darling pea — “a pretty shrub with whitish leaves and a crimson pea-shaped blossom” — go mad.
In fact, you could accuse me of taking no moral responsibility for what’s just been reported. You might think, as one politician put it in the 1972 Hansard, that I’m adopting the attitude of “the piano man in a brothel” — “affecting neither to know nor care what goes on upstairs”.
And while I may pour scorn on new Americanisms, Wilkes notes that we owe some of the best Australian slang to newly arrived immigrants, or “black hats” (so called in colonial times for their “city clothes”).
The other day a sports journalist friend of mine was regaling me with an impersonation of the cleaner at his office.
The cleaner, a garrulous Greek, happily admitted that vacuuming office floors was, as Joseph Furphy said in his 1903 novel Such is Life, a “soft collar” — nothing compared with the hard yakka he puts in in his other job as a gyprocker. It also gives him time to watch his beloved Canterbury Bulldogs. You needn’t ask him whether the Dogs are going to win. He tells you: “The doggies’ll fix ’em up, mate.”