The second edition of the Australian National Dictionary (hereafter referred to as AND 2e) published at the start of the month. This new edition includes many new words and idioms. Some of these are words and expressions that have come into usage since the publication of the first edition in 1988; others are those we have since discovered or found more evidence for. Idioms are a highly colloquial aspect of our vocabulary, often reflecting Australian attitudes and values, and they have been given a greater emphasis in the dictionary this time round. In this article, I would like to highlight a selection of the idioms and expressions that we are including in the second edition of our dictionary on historical principles.
Over its history, Australian English has developed a variety of idioms, some of which we use a lot. Chucking a sickie, or describing someone as being like a stunned mullet, form part of our vernacular. Other idioms and expressions are now dated and either forgotten or only vaguely known: we probably rarely describe someone as being as silly as a rabbit or curse someone with may your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down. Yet all of these expressions make up the colourful and fascinating history of Australian English recorded in our forthcoming dictionary.
A number of the new expressions in AND 2e have links to politics, many being coined by a politician. For example, keep the bastards honest is a well-known slogan uttered by Don Chipp (1925-2006), leader of the Australian Democrats, in 1980. He was alluding to the party’s role in holding the balance of power in the Senate. The phrase has since entered popular usage in a transferred sense, although still largely used in a political context. Another expression coined by a politician, in this case Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, is life wasn’t meant to be easy. A different kind of contribution to Australian English comes from Prime Minister Harold Holt, whose mysterious disappearance in 1967 led to the development of the rhyming slang phrase to do a Harold (Holt), ‘to do a bolt’, first recorded in 1984.
Popular culture and literature have also contributed to our range of Australian idioms. For example, the Australian film The Castle (1997) has given us the expression straight to the pool room, ‘a catchphrase used to express the great value of a gift or prize’. The comic strip character Flash Gordon, published in Australia with the name Speed Gordon, is the origin of the expression in more trouble than Speed Gordon, first recorded in 1944. The chocolate bar Violet Crumble has given us the expression that’s the way the violet crumbles (first recorded 1988). On a more literary note, Xavier Herbert’s novel Poor Fellow My Country (1975) popularised the title as an expression of deprivation and loss. The phrase has its origins in Australian Pidgin. And the refrain in John O’Brien’s poem ‘Said Hanrahan’ (1921)— we’ll all be rooned —is surely the ultimate expression of pessimism.
Unsurprisingly, sport is the source of numerous Australian English expressions and idioms. To do a Bradbury, ‘to be the unlikely winner of an event; to win an event coming from well behind’, is one of the most recent sporting-derived idioms in Australian English. It refers to Steven Bradbury, an Australian speed skater who won a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics after all his opponents were involved in a pile-up during the 1000 metres event. Wally Grout is rhyming slang for ‘shout’; Wally Grout was an Australian test wicketkeeper (1957-66). Although undoubtedly in use earlier, this bit of rhyming slang is only first found in print in 1988.
A number of idioms refer to the harsh Australian environment, some of which have a long history in Australian English but which weren’t included in the first edition of AND. They include where the crows fly backwards (to keep the dust out of their eyes) (first recorded 1899) and wet enough to bog a duck (1948). Australian idioms also include a number that are derogatory or offensive, and that speak to some of the less flattering aspects of Australian society and history: I must have killed a Chinaman, used to refer to bad luck (first recorded 1893); as full as a Pommy complaint box, ‘very full; very drunk’ (first recorded 1985), and wouldn’t serve it to a Jap on Anzac Day, used to designate something that is unacceptable in the extreme (first recorded 1976).
A characteristic Australian bluntness is often in evidence. An ugly person might be described as having a head like a robber’s dog (first recorded 1946) or being as ugly as a hatful of arseholes (also US, but chiefly Australian, and first recorded in 1957). If you’re thirsty, you could describe yourself as being as dry as a kookaburra’s Khyber (first recorded 1971), and something unpopular or offensive might be described as being off like a bucket of prawns (first recorded 1981). Someone who is incompetent might be the target of the disparaging but inventive couldn’t train a choko vine over a country dunny (first recorded 1981).
A concern with laziness also seems to have prompted the creation of a number of idioms – whether this is indicative of a national propensity to avoid hard work is not for us to judge! These expressions include: wouldn’t work in an iron lung (first recorded 1971), Australia as the land of the long weekend (first recorded 1966), to be on a good lurk, ‘to have an easy job; to be engaged in a profitable enterprise’ (first recorded 1906), and of course Australians are notorious for their willingness to chuck a sickie (first recorded 1988).
Australian English also includes a range of idioms referring to people variously considered to be eccentric, stupid, or very angry. Julia Miller discusses some of these on p. 7 of this edition. In addition to the many expressions Julia has collected relating to the forms ‘as mad as’ and ‘as crazy as’, we include the following expressions in AND 2e: to chuck a wobbly (first recorded 1986); to be a stubby short of a six-pack (and variants); mad as a gumtree full of galahs (first recorded 1941); to chuck a mental (first recorded 1979); short of a sheet of bark (first recorded 1885), to chuck a berko (first recorded 1995), and to be not the full dollar (first recorded 1976). As can be seen from this list, which is not exhaustive, the form ‘to chuck a… ’ is also commonly found in Australian English.
A variety of animals inspire Australian idioms, most commonly dingos, crows, chooks, and dogs. But the most ‘productive’ animal for Australian English is surely the bandicoot, an insect-eating Australian marsupial. In AND 2e, we record that one can be as bald, hungry, lonely, lousy, miserable, poor, silly, and crazy as a bandicoot. What did the poor bandicoot do to deserve such a stigma? Perhaps the bandicoot’s long face suggested why he might be miserable or lonely, but some have speculated that we just like the sound of the word ‘bandicoot’. While these bandicoot idioms were recorded in the first edition of AND, they are still around, and attest to the resilience of some of these expressions to persist in our vernacular.
Place names have also inspired a handful of Australian idioms. As crook as Rookwood, ‘very ill, out of sorts; corrupt, dishonest’, first recorded in 1971, alludes to the Sydney suburb of Rookwood where there is a cemetery. The tough working class history of another Sydney suburb is reflected in the stoical expression Balmain boys don’t cry, first recorded in 1983, and coined by NSW Premier Neville Wran. Things are crook in Tallarook is a rhyming catchphrase used to indicate that things are bad or unpleasant.
Finally, here are a selection of colourful favourites. If you don’t already use them, perhaps you might like to!
so windy it would blow a blue (cattle) dog off its chain, ‘extremely windy’. First recorded in 1991.
not to know when it’s Tuesday or Bourke Street, ‘to be in a state of confusion; to be disoriented’. First recorded in 1952.
to have a death adder in one’s pocket, ‘to be extremely miserly; to be stingy’. First recorded 1948.
flash as a rat with a gold tooth, ‘very showy but of dubious character’. First recorded 1978.
wouldn’t shout if a shark bit him, used with reference to someone who wouldn’t buy (‘shout’) a round of drinks; a stingy person. First recorded 1963.
to have more arse than class, ‘to be very cheeky; to be very lucky’. First recorded 1974.
stiffen the wombats, an expression of surprise or exasperation. First recorded in 1940.
like a seagull on a hot chip, ‘very eagerly’. First recorded 1989.
go see a taxidermist, euphemism for ‘get stuffed’. First recorded 1969.
Dr Amanda Laugesen is Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, ANU. She completed her PhD in the History Program at the ANU in 2000, and subsequently worked as a research editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, ANU, as well as undertaking teaching in the History Department. Amanda’s research includes publications in the areas of historical memory, the history of reading, libraries and publishing, cultural history (with a particular interest in the cultural history of war), the history of Australian English, and lexicography.
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Image source: John O’Neill, Wikipedia Commons