By Mark Gwynn, editor and researcher at the Australian National Dictionary Centre
This year the ANDC is using social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, to find variations on a number of well-known Australian idioms. The responses we receive are providing evidence for our Australian English database, and may be considered for inclusion in future editions of our dictionaries.
The established idioms we have looked at so far are to have a head like a robber’s dog, to be a stubby short of a six-pack, and to chuck a wobbly. Evocative expressions like these and the creative use of idiom are typical of Australian English, so we were not surprised by the positive feedback from social media users when we asked them what similar expressions they knew based on these forms.
Here is a brief summary of our findings to date.
- To have a head like a robber’s dog (to be very ugly or unattractive). This is first recorded in the 1940s, and we already had evidence of these established variants: a head like a drover’s dog, a head like a beaten favourite, and a head like a sucked mango. We had a great response on social media, with our followers providing many variants including: a head like a bucket of smashed crabs, a head like a chewed minty, a head like an angle grinder, and a head like a kicked-in biscuit tin. A number of followers also suggested variants on a similar idiom with the same meaning, replacing ‘head’ with ‘face’: to have a face like a dropped pie and a face like a smacked bum.
- To be a stubby short of a six-pack (to be very silly, mad, or eccentric). First recorded in the mid-1990s, this is one of a number of idioms, with the same meaning, that follow the formula ‘an X short of a Y’. The formula is found in standard English today, but the earliest evidence is Australian. Established Aussie variants include: a sausage short of a barbie, a sandwich short of a picnic, a zac short of a quid, a kangaroo short of a full paddock, and a few snags short of a barbie. Our followers responded enthusiastically to this form and provided a number of variants including: a boiled lolly short of a raincoat, a few bricks short of a wall, a few slices short of a loaf, a few spring rolls short of a banquet, a few peanuts short of a Snickers, and two wafers short of a communion.
- To chuck a wobbly (to become angry or to have a fit of temper). This idiom dating from the mid-1980s is a variant of the British English to throw a wobbly. In Australian English the word chuck, meaning ‘to perform’, ‘to do’, or ‘to put on’, is found in a number of established forms including: chuck a berko, chuck a mickey, chuck a willy, all with the same meaning as chuck a wobbly. As well, there are several other chuck forms with different meanings, such as: chuck a browneye (make the rude gesture of bending over and exposing one’s buttocks and anus); chuck a sickie (take a day’s sick leave from work, when often not ill at all); and chuck a uey (do a U-turn). We asked for other idioms based on chuck, but this request elicited the least response on social media. Our followers struggled to provide variants, with the exception of chuck a tanty, chuck a hissy fit, and chuck a lucky seven.
Do you know of any other variations on these idioms? We would love to hear about them. And please stay tuned to our social media platforms (@ozworders and Australian National Dictionary Centre, ANU) for the next idiom to get a guernsey in our search.