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.
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).
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.