In this article, reproduced from our latest issue of Ozwords, Mark Gwynn investigates the questionable etymology of the Australian phrase up in Annie’s room.
In Australian English the term Annie’s room refers to an unknown, mythical, or unspecified place. It is chiefly used in the phrase up in Annie’s room, a facetious reply you may give to a question asking the whereabouts of someone or something, especially when you don’t know the answer. ‘Where are the car keys?’ ‘Up in Annie’s room,’ you might reply, or even (in a later, extended form): ‘Up in Annie’s room behind the clock’, as recorded by Nancy Keesing:
Had Christopher Robin been an Australian child the answer to his plaintive query: ‘Has anybody seen my mouse?’ might have been: ‘It’s up in Annie’s room behind the clock’. (Lily on the Dustbin, 1982)
As an answer to a question, up in Annie’s room seems to have its origin in military slang. It is first recorded in W.H. Downing’s Digger Dialects (1919), a glossary of words used by Australian soldiers in the First World War. Downing defines in Annie’s room as ‘an answer to questions as to the whereabouts of someone who cannot be found’. After the war Australian Private Edward Lynch wrote about his wartime experiences (published much later in 2006 as Somme Mud). In his account he comments: ‘When I enquire of the O.C.’s whereabouts someone replies, “Up in Annie’s room”‘. And an entry for Up in Annie’s room is included in the Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F., compiled during the early 1920s at the Australian War Museum by A.G. Pretty. He defines it as a ‘facetious answer to questions as to the whereabouts of someone who cannot be found’.
A couple of earlier references to Annie’s room have a military context but a different meaning, and are likely precursors of the idiom up in Annie’s room. Private Garnet Rundle’s account of his experiences on board a transport carrying Australian troops to Egypt includes this comment about soldiers who jumped ship: ‘The – deserters returned early this morning, and report having a great time. They’re in “Annie’s room” now (otherwise the Detention Room), so they shall repent a leisure.’ (Terang Express, 15 January 1915) In 1916 a New South Wales newspaper published a letter from Sergeant-Major Norman Pinkstone, who was at Gallipoli. He heads his letter with a fictionalised location: ‘”Annie’s Room”, “Coota Alley”, Somewhere in Gallipoli. 11 December, 1915.’ (Cootamundra Herald, 29 February)
Both these instances of Annie’s room refer to a specific place of privation or hardship. A sense of privation (in its ultimate form – death) is expressed in another military reference to Annie’s room, this time in the familiar form of a response to a question: ‘Baldy Evans, the cook, went up in the shell burst … “Where’s Baldy?” … “Up in Annie’s room.”‘ (Anzac Memoirs: Humorous Sketches by a Returned Soldier, 1920) The location of Annie’s room here is not specific, as in the two previous examples, but euphemistic and ironic.
Despite the evidence that up in Annie’s room was clearly used in soldier slang during the First World War, it does not fully explain the origin of the expression. But Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937) may provide a clue. He notes that ‘(up) in Annie’s room)’ was in military use slightly before the First World War. He defines it as ‘a military c.p. [catchphrase] reply to a query concerning someone’s whereabouts’, and says that it originally implied the missing person was ‘a bit of a lad’; that is, he was with a woman (Annie).
A sexual connotation is also associated with another sense of the term (recorded from the 1930s, and likely to derive from the earlier military use). In a supplement to a later edition of his dictionary (1974), Partridge records a meaning specific to the game of darts, where up in Annie’s room denotes a throw of a double one: ‘With a pun on double room, or a room being used as one.’ This implication has been lost in general Australian English use.
In post-war Australia, up in Annie’s room was used in a more general way to suggest a person or thing was missing:
My little girl age 4 is always asking where her doll and other toys are, and I always say, ‘Oh, up in Annie’s room’. The other night we had visitors, and I happened to be out when they came, and my wife said to our little girl, ‘Where is your father, Elaine?’ You can imagine her surprise when Elaine said: ‘Oh, I s’pose he’s up in Annie’s room!’ (Sydney Arrow, 11 March 1932)
In the absence of further evidence, we cannot claim to know with absolute certainly the origin of up in Annie’s room. However, the implication of sexual hanky-panky that Partridge associates with both the military and the darts usages of Annie’s room provides us with an interesting clue.
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.
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