Finding new Australian words

By Julia Robinson, editor and researcher at the Australian National Dictionary Centre

It’s a year since we celebrated the launch of the new Australian National Dictionary, with its 16,000 Australian words and meanings. Since then we have not been taking it easy and neither has Australian English—we began collecting new words even as we sent off the manuscript to the publisher. We now have more than 300 items worthy of further research.

Our list is deliberately inclusive since we can’t know which terms will prove to be stayers. A number are new or recent coinages that just missed our editorial deadline; others are older terms we rejected as having too little evidence, but now look more established; some are speculative; and some simply flew under our radar. Here is a sample of the terms under consideration as future entries.

Familiar Australian words such as bush, koala, Anzac, and preference (the political sense) are the basis for newer terms: bush rave (a rave party in the bush); koala diplomacy (the loan or gift of koalas to another nation’s zoo, as a form of soft-power diplomacy); Anzac fatigue (what we feel after over-exposure to Anzac centenary commemoration); and preference harvesting (the flow of preferences to a micro-party or independent as a result of strategic preference deals).

We continue to coin terms related to politics. The double-dissolution federal election last year alerted us to the abbreviation double D, and the same election helped popularise the democracy sausage (the sausage sandwich you buy on election day at a polling booth sausage sizzle). The term sixty-sevener (a campaigner for the 1967 referendum) glances back in time; current concerns are reflected in quarry vision (our continuing fixation with coal as a major source of energy and revenue). A nickname for Greens politicians may be more ephemeral: tree tories (conservative on economic policy).

State-based terms are represented on our list, especially from Tasmania. Tassie tuxedo (a puffer jacket); turbo chook (the Tasmanian native hen, a flightless bird with a fast turn of speed); and flannelette curtain. If you live on the wrong side of the flannelette curtain in Hobart, you live in the poorer suburbs—the wrong (flannie-shirt wearing) side of town. Western Australia gives us white, a term for a western rock lobster that is a pale pinkish-white colour after moulting, and white run, the annual event in late spring when whites migrate in large groups to spawning grounds in deeper water. Branch-bombing (branch-stacking) also seems to be associated with the west.

The typical Australian habit of creating words with an ‘ie’ or ‘o’ ending is still going strong. Recent coinages include convo (conversation); deso (designated driver); devo (devastated); smashed avo (seasoned, mashed avocado on toast); reco (surgical reconstruction, as in knee reco); nettie (a netball player); parmi (parmigiana, as in the dish chicken parmi); and shoey (the act of drinking alcohol out of a shoe to celebrate a victory).

The word kangaroo continues to be productive in Australian English, contributing to kangatarian (a person who eats kangaroo meat but avoids other meat, on environmental grounds). The trend for using ‘roo’ as a suffix in the names of national sporting teams (Socceroos, Hockeyroos, etc.) continues with the Wheelaroos (our wheelchair rugby team). We have also found ‘roo’ in wazzaroo, a one-off coinage for a roadkill kangaroo (‘was a roo’).

Several well-known Australians contribute to our list. John Farnham’s fondness for farewell shows is celebrated in Johnny Farnham comeback and chuck a Farnsie (referring to a comeback, especially after a farewell performance or retirement). Rugby League player Trent Merrin’s private life is alluded to in doing a merrin (having a partner who is considered out of one’s league). The historical figure Ned Kelly still has a grip on our imagination. He gives his name this century to the Ned Kelly letterbox (a letterbox resembling Kelly’s armour, especially the helmet, where the eye opening is the mail slot). The expression Black Caviar odds (very short betting odds) honours the four-legged legend of the racetrack, Black Caviar, undefeated in all her starts.

Our concern for wildlife is apparent in the terms resnagging (putting old logs back into river systems to restore habitat for native fish) and pinky (a pink, hairless pouch young, especially a baby wombat or kangaroo). An orphaned pinky may be rescued from the pouch of a female killed on the road, and relocated by carers into the pouch of a surrogate mother. We have seen this described as pouch-surfing, a play on ‘couch-surfing’. An old term we’ve discovered recently for a baby mammal is platypup, a name for platypus young, first used in the 1940s with reference to the first platypus bred in captivity.

Finally, we have collected a number of new idioms, such as calm your farm (calm down, relax), a twenty-first century expression we share with New Zealand; and more new starts than Centrelink (referring to someone who has had more chances or opportunities than they may deserve). For variants on established Australian idioms, Mark Gwynn discusses some results from our social media campaign elsewhere in this issue.

A living language is never fully contained between hard covers. Even so, we have been surprised by the number of potential Australianisms we’ve identified in a short period of time. We hope to continue gathering new words at a similar rate over the course of the next twelve months as we move towards launching the Australian National Dictionary on the Internet.

 

 

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