Australian English- our idiosyncrasies of speech

Australian English- our idiosyncrasies of speech

There’s lots of words that Australians use, that are peculiar to the country or even the state. I’ve got into several good natured arguments over whether it is a potato cake or a potato scallop (it’s a potato cake, but I’m a Victorian so I have to say that), for example. Beyond rivalries over bathers vs togs, and devon vs stras and don’t even get me started on family words (I thought ‘zapper’ was a perfectly normal word for the TV remote for a long time), there is a lexicography that is Australian and has come about because of our mixed and fascinating history.

The PMI has a number of books on Australian words and Australianisms, including the Australian National Dictionary- which you can see below.

Australian national dictionary

We also subscribe to and index OzWords the journal of the Australian National Dictionary Centre. You can see the index on our catalogue here. 

Words come and go from the common vernacular, often shaped by events. For example I suspect ‘zooming’, in the context of online meetings, is going to be a new word for 2020. Probably along with isobaking- it was in true Australian tradition that isolation was almost immediately abbreviated and then added to other words. So I’m going to go through some of the books that the PMI has on the Australian vernacular, because as the Collections Librarian exploring the collection is always going to be a good thing, and explore some of the phrases and words contained within. I’d love if anyone has some other words they’d like to talk about if they could comment, and hopefully we’ll get an interesting discussion going.

Before I go any further I want to discuss the fact that English was not the first language spoken on the continent of Australia. There were hundreds of different languages, spoken across Australia for more than 60 000 years, before European settlement.

You can explore the indigenous languages of Australia visually through AIATSIS’ map,

You can also use AIATSIS’ AUSTLANG- which is a language database which covers not just the languages spoken, but all the other names they are known by. Both are worth exploring

Returning to English, I wanted to say a little bit about the The Australian National Dictionary (AND) which you saw in the photo above. The PMI holds the second edition, which was published in 2016. The AND is an historical dictionary, which means that each entry begins with “the oldest sense of the word and moves through to the most recent sense”. This differs from a general dictionary, which will begin with the most common usage of a word and move to the less common. The AND is modelled on the Oxford English Dictionary, in the historical model. The AND is essentially a biography of the language and the people who speak it, which means it contains both some fabulously obsolete words alongside new and modern words, it also contains a lot of slang, and as it’s an Australian dictionary- this means a lot of abbreviations.

For example: Aggie- an agapanthus- first mentioned 1988 in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘the aggies are coming into bloom’

I also like Ballarat lantern- a makeshift lantern formed by removing the base of a bottle and inserting a candle end first through the bottle into the neck. The first mention is 1875 from Wood and Lapham in Ballarat, but by 1887 it was being used in the Brisbane Courier, which just shows how, even what would seem to be a localised geographical word, can travel.

Another phrase which caught my eye, is emu bob:  the act or process of picking up litter, a group of people doing this, the act or process of searching an area of the ground for something. I particularly like this one, because it is so Australian and so evocative. You can just so easily visualise how it would look.

Modern political concepts also make an appearance  such as Pacific Solution- which dates from 2001 and outlines government policy in regards to Asylum Seekers.

It’s very easy to get lost in these dictionaries, scanning through them, and discovering new words, old words and everything in between. I wanted to finish my exploration of the AND with some rhyming slang: Pat Malone. The phrase it usually gets used in is, ‘on one’s Pat Malone’ meaning alone- it feel appropriate for our current isolating circumstances. Its earliest mention the AND can find is from 1900, when it is used in a Hobart newspaper. It’s possible the phrase comes from an Irish ballad about a Pat Malone who suffered a series of misfortunes, but no one is entirely sure.

So, to move beyond the dictionary; the other books I’m using to discover words and phrases are:

All these books look at much more specific realms of English in Australia.

So I thought I’d start with Lily on the Dustbin, which looks at slang of Australian women and their families. I picked this one, because ‘women’s words’ can sometimes be seen as less important, or frivolous. So I’m glad there is a book dedicated to them, and there are some real gems:

Putting make up on: “to put on your face”

Annoying children: “a pain in the pinny”

Trying to get children to behave: “birds in the their little nests agree”

Describing unkempt hair: “hair like a birch broom in a fit”

A blunt knife: “you could ride to Bourke and back on that knife and it wouldn’t cut your bottom”

A lot of the idioms are around house, family and domesticity, but not always, and some were shaped by the concept that women were not meant to swear, so they came up with more inventive but not invective phrases.

The 1819 Dictionary of Criminal Slang has a whole new gamut of words, this one is really interesting because it is the start of where a lot of our Australianisms are born.

I particularly like:

Go-alonger: A simple easy person, who suffers himself to be made a tool of and is readily persuaded.

Morning-Sneak: Robbing private houses early, by slipping in the door when the servants or shopman are occupied getting ready for the day.

Resurrection-Cove: Stealer of dead bodies

Cat and Kitten Rig: A game of stealing pewter pots from public houses.

Blow The Gaff: To reveal a secret.

Now I can’t see much use for some of these in today’s speech, but I could see Go-alonger making a comeback

Furphies and Whizz-Bangs: ANZAC slang from the Great War, has some other excellent examples, some which have become common now and others which have been completely forgotten.

Bumf: Now used to mean essentially useless stuff, it comes from bumfodder, slang for toilet paper and the ANZACs used it to mean official forms, paperwork and bureaucracy.

Furphy: Still used today to mean a rumour, or a lie it comes from the Furphy made water carts in World War One where soldiers would gather to swap tales and stories.

Hop the bags: To go over the top

Flybog: Jam- comes from the idea that it attracted flies. (probably not one condiment companies will be trying to revive)

Clefty: To steal, probably comes from the Arabic word kalifa which means to become brownish-red in the face.

Lost For Words brings together words that Australians once used everyday but have since fallen out of favour.

Strike me pink, yellow and blue, I’m an Irish cockatoo: Surprise

Wake up, Australia, Tasmania is floating away: Pay attention

It’s money for old rope: A no brainer

The creaking hinge creaks the longest: Someone who is always sick- essentially ‘they’ll outlive us all’

If his brains were dynamite they wouldn’t blow his hat off: Stupid

The final book we’re looking at is The Pronunciation of English in Australia. This one is much more technical and seeks to explain things like vowels, diphthongs, stress and rhythms. So I’m not going to go into detail about that here, but I will discuss briefly the ‘general impressions’ of Australian speech it outlines- keep in mind it was written in 1947

They do outline that these are sweeping generalisations and largely criticism.

Australian speech is “ugly, lazy and slovenly, nasal, drawling, not clear (lots of mumbling), cockney, marred by lip laziness.”

This is often how Australian, or really ocker (to use another Australianism), speech is viewed from outside Australia, I’d actually also throw in uncultured. None of this is true of all Australians and the way we speak and these assumptions have led to some truly awful Australian accents on movies and TV. It also leads to pejorative assumptions about a person before you’ve actually listened to what they’re saying, which is something to be avoided.

I think what all the books make clear, is that even if the ‘tone’ of Australian speech may be a bit grating to some, the words and phrases that have come to be uniquely Australian  are certainly filled with colour, history and for me a really vivid visual layer.

I want to finish with a brief discussion about a phrase that has gotten me many a blank look. Making a wigwam for a goose’s bridal- essentially you use it when someone asks you what you are doing, and it’s blindingly obvious. It isn’t in common usage these days, I picked it up from my family and when I use it automatically I’ve had some very odd looks. It probably originates from Britain or Ireland in the 16th or 17th centuries, there’s arguments over exactly what, if anything, it means. The ‘goose’ is possibly a term for a prostitute, or it might be mother goose of fairytale fame. Wigwam, seems to be a bit interchangeable with wing wong, or whim wong, or whim wham, it is also debatable whether it was originally bridal of bridle- bridle possibly making more sense. Whatever its origins or usage, I love that in one form or another this completely random phrase has been a part of Australian language, it typifies good Australianisms for me; colourful, visual, arguable origins and not always making complete sense.

You can see all the books I used on the PMI Catalogue. The links are below

Lily On The Dustbin:

1819 Dictionary of Criminal Slang:

Lost For Words:

Furphies and Whizz Bangs:

The Pronunciation of English in Australia:

The Australian National Dictionary