Bogan—from obscurity to Australia’s most productive word?

In this article, reproduced from our latest issue of Ozwords, Mark Gwynn explores the evolution of the Australian English word ‘bogan’.

In the mid 1980s, a new Australian term appeared in youth slang for a person regarded as uneducated and unsophisticated, especially such a person from a working-class background. This term was bogan. The earliest evidence we have found for it comes from the Sydney surfing magazine Tracks in September 1985: ‘So what if I have a mohawk and wear Dr Martens (boots for all you uninformed bogans)? Does that give [a] reason for us to beat each other up?’ An antecedent for bogan is westie, a word earlier applied to people from the western suburbs of Sydney; westie is a loaded term that implies a perception of these suburbs as working-class, uneducated, and uncultured. Across Australia regional terms for this stereotypical character have emerged in the last three decades, including bevan (Queensland), booner (ACT), and chigga (Tasmania). None of these terms have come close to the popularity of bogan.

The origins of bogan are still unclear. An obvious candidate is the Bogan River in western New South Wales. The river and the district around it have provided a number of terms in Australian English including Bogan gate (a makeshift gate), Bogan shower (a dust storm), and Bogan flea (a plant with spiny seeds). Perhaps the implication of our 1980s word is that a bogan is even more ‘west’ than the Western suburbs of Sydney? The Oxford English Dictionary posits a possible connection to the surname Bogan, and points also to the short story The Luck of the Bogans (1889) by American author Sarah Orne Jewett: a story concerning Irish immigrants to the United States. The problem with these possible origins (the river, the surname, the short story) is that there is no evidence of a link connecting any of them with the term that appears in the youth slang of 1980s Australia. While we are uncertain about the origins of bogan, it is obvious that the word itself has become extremely popular, and has subsequently generated a large number of derivatives and compounds.

The forthcoming second edition of the Australian National Dictionary will include a number of terms derived from bogan. The first decade of the 21st century produced bogan chick, ‘a female bogan’, boganhood, ‘pride associated with being a bogan’, boganism, ‘the state or quality of being a bogan; an instance of bogan behaviour or language’, and boganity and boganness, both referring to ‘the state or quality of being a bogan’. More recently bogan has generated: boganesque, ‘having the characteristics or resembling the style of bogans’, boganest, (superlative adjectival form – ‘he’s the boganest politician in parliament’), bogandom, ‘bogans regarded as a group’, boganology, ‘the study of bogans’, and two terms for a wealthy bogan, boganaire and cashed-up bogan (also CUB). As is clear, the term has become very productive and the possible forms are almost endless: hence attributive forms such as bogan pride and bogan vote.

In recent years we have seen bogan undergo a process of amelioration. It was initially a term of abuse, ridicule, and disparagement, as illustrated in the TV show The Comedy Company (1988–90), where it was used by the schoolgirl character, Kylie Mole, to refer to people she described as ‘losers’. But bogan has since been adopted by bogans themselves as a badge of honour and pride—perhaps as an affirmation of an Australian stereotype that harks back to the larrikin (originally a hooligan or degenerate, but now an individual with a disregard for authority and convention). With recent television series such as Bogan Pride (2008), Upper Middle Bogan (2013), and Bogan Hunter (2014) appearing on our screens, Australian culture is acknowledging that bogans are an integral part of contemporary society and identity. The productivity of the term bogan suggests that Australian English is reflecting ongoing debates about Australian culture and identity.

Mark Gwynn has been a researcher and editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC) since 2002. Mark is the editor of a number of Australian Oxford dictionaries and thesauruses. He has conducted research on various historical and social aspects of Australian English. Mark is also the manager of the ANDC’s social media platforms.

Ozwords logoOur biannual newsletter Ozwords contains articles on various aspects of English, especially Australian English, in partnership with the Australian National Dictionary Centre. If you are interested in reading more on Australian English and hearing news from the Australian National Dictionary Centre, why not subscribe?

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