From musical flags to beach flags

By MARK GWYNN, editor and researcher at the Australian National Dictionary Centre

In the early 1980s as a surf lifesaving nipper (a junior) I always looked forward to the beach flags event at my local surf lifesaving club. The event started with us lying on our stomachs before scrambling to our feet on the starting gun, turning around, and sprinting some 20 metres to grab one of the ‘flags’ set into the sand. Beach flags is an elimination event so there are always fewer flags (in my day 30cm lengths of hosepipe) than competitors – if you miss out on a flag you are eliminated. The eventual winner beats the runner-up to the last flag. As part of a surf lifesaving carnival the event demonstrates important lifesaver skills including running on sand, hand-eye coordination, and aerobic fitness. However, beach flags had a somewhat less serious origin in the early 20th century when it was known as musical flags.

There is some evidence for the term musical flags in the late 19th century in the context of a school sports carnival, but no details are provided. In 1903 a cycling carnival included a musical flags event, described as ‘an amusing novelty race’ (Australian Star, 7 October). There are frequent references to musical flags as a cycling (and sometimes motorcycling) novelty event up to, and throughout, the First World War period. Like the later beach flags, it was an elimination race; competitors on bikes had to sprint to grab a flag once the music had stopped playing. It is more than likely that the concept for musical flags derived from the older party game ‘musical chairs’ in which a number of players compete in successive rounds for a decreasing number of chairs.

The first evidence for the term musical flags in a beach context is from 1919, although the event is not described. In the 1920s novelty events were quite common in all sporting carnivals, including surf carnivals: ‘A new series of beach events for which entries close… has been arranged. These will consist of march past, beach relay, beach sprint, sack race, pillow fight and musical flags.’ (Newcastle Sun, 26 March 1929) Confirmation that the musical flags event was similar to the one I remember from my childhood comes from a spectacular photograph that shows more than a dozen men sprinting to grab one of several real flags (such as the Australian flag, the Union Jack, etc.) set into the sand. The image captures several men diving, or about to dive, for the flags, and some pushing and shoving. The caption reads: ‘A unique photograph illustrative of the life and virile strength to be seen on Australia’s beaches, taken at Cronulla during a surf carnival. The contest is one known as “Musical Flags”.’ (Sydney Mail, 11 January 1928) It is difficult to pinpoint when music ceased to be played for this event, but it was certainly an element in the early years.

There is some evidence from the 1920s of musical flags also being described as the flag race. Certainly by the 1950s flag race was in common use, although it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the term musical flags became obsolete. The term beach flags is found from the 1970s and is now the official and common name for the event. While beach flags has been in the annual Australian Surf Life Saving Championships since 1947, sadly the pillow fight event was scratched in 1979.

This article first appeared in the April edition of Ozwords.

Don’t argue: how advertising gave us a sporting term


A 2017 article on the AFL Grand Final noted that the don’t argue was ‘one of Dustin Martin’s signature moves, so expect to see the “don’t argue” in full force when Richmond takes on Adelaide’. (Melbourne Herald Sun, 25 September 2017) For those who don’t follow Aussie Rules, Rugby League, or Rugby Union, the classic don’t argue is a straight-arm shove, often to an opponent’s face or head, by the player with the ball. The name of the move expresses its intention perfectly: ‘Get out of my way—and don’t argue!’ But what is the origin of this term?

The Herald Sun notes that the term has its origin in print-media advertisements for Hutton’s ham and bacon that ran for decades. A former employee explains the brand’s ‘logo and labels showed a person shoving his hand into the face of another person, with the expression “don’t argue”’. Some readers may know the image: a smiling man with a hat, bowtie, and cane pushes his hand at arm’s length into the face of a bearded man with an illfitting coat and umbrella. They look like vaudeville figures, and the caption reads: Don’t argue! Hutton’s ham is the best. Over the years the caption varies, but the words ‘don’t argue’ remain.

Further research has revealed more of the story. Hutton’s image and slogan is first found in newspaper advertisements in 1911. The company was probably using it the year before (perhaps as a poster), since independent references to its popularity appear in It gained wide public recognition at the time. Newspaper items alluded to it in many contexts, such as surf lifesaving, banking, boxing, horseracing, politics, and religion. A musical quartet and a lawn tennis team both took the name ‘The Don’t Argues’.

There is early evidence of its sporting use: ‘… two bulky opponents were struggling together at a critical moment near the line, when a big, stentorian voice alongside me on the hill roared out: “Get the “don’t argue” on to him!”’ (Sydney Sunday Times, 16 July 1911) It’s unclear if this means a straight-arm shove, but later evidence is plainer: ‘There is no doubt that Harry Caples has the best ‘don’t argue’ fend in Sydney… .’ (Sydney Sportsman, 9 July 1919) The don’t argue became established in the Australian sporting lexicon around this time.

The image of physical confrontation in the advertisement undoubtedly influenced the adoption of the slogan don’t argue as a name for the straight-arm shove. But the image and slogan have an older story—the Hutton company were not the first to use them.

In 1903 and 1904 a London society entertainer, Mel B. Spurr, toured Australia with a one-man show of comic monologues and songs. It was a huge success. One of his advertising handbills, reproduced here, shows a smiling man with his hand in the face of another man. The caption reads: Don’t argue! Go and see Mel. B. Spurr. There is no record of when the handbill was used, but circumstantial evidence suggests it was here in Australia: Harry Spurr’s memoir of his brother includes it in a chapter on the Australian tour, and a copy of the handbill exists in the State Library of Victoria. The image is unmistakably the same as Hutton’s.

Spurr died in 1904; Hutton’s don’t argue advertisements appeared around 1910. There’s no doubt Hutton used Spurr’s image, and this shows in the Hutton artist’s crude copying of the elegant handbill, down to the style of lettering. The origin of the image as a handbill for a variety theatre act explains its vaudevillian style.

Why did Spurr use the caption don’t argue? As far as we can tell, it is not a catchphrase associated with Spurr, his act, or his published songs and monologues. If the handbill was designed to attract an Australian audience, did don’t argue have a meaning for local audiences? It doesn’t seem so. Spurr first performed in Melbourne, but nothing suggests a Melbourne connection with the term—not even in Melbourne’s love of football. At this time don’t argue doesn’t appear to be associated with any football code, except as advice to players not to argue with the referee.

The phrase does appear in some contemporary advertisements, and perhaps Spurr or the handbill artist knew this. In the years just prior to Spurr’s tour it occurs in Australian newspapers spruiking things such as soap (don’t argue with dirt) and cough mixture (don’t argue the point … but get a bottle). Whatever the inspiration, the handbill was a happy marriage of words and picture, creating an arresting image that, with Hutton’s help, has resonated across a century. According to contemporary reports, Mel B. Spurr died in Melbourne on 24 September 1904 after a short illness, and was buried in St Kilda Cemetery. A trace of him remains in the Australian lexicon.

This article was first published in the April edition of Ozwords.

With thanks to Dr Clay Djubal, an expert on Australian variety theatre, for his comments on Mel B. Spurr and for drawing my attention to the Spurr handbill, and to John Rice-Whetton for alerting us to the term.

Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is ‘youthquake’

Oxford Dictionaries today announced its 2017 Word of the Year: ‘youthquake’.

Youthquake is defined as ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people’.

The word was selected from a shortlist using data collated by Oxford Dictionaries editors, which revealed a fivefold increase in usage of youthquake in 2017 compared to 2016.

The word first struck in a big way in June with the UK’s general election at its epicentre.

On 18 April, Prime Minister Theresa May, leader of the Conservatives, called a snap election triggering seven weeks of intense political campaigning. After the British public went to the polls on 8 June, headlines emerged of an unexpected insurgence of young voters.

So despite higher engagement figures among the baby boomer generation and despite Labour ultimately ending up with fewer seats than the Conservatives in the House of Commons, many commentators declared that ‘It was the young wot “won” it for Jeremy Corbyn’, and dubbed their collective actions a ‘youthquake’.

It was in September that the second, and largest, spike in usage of youthquake was recorded for the year – and a youthquake wasn’t even required to deliver this data.

Thanks to the precedent established in the UK, in New Zealand use of youthquake to discuss young people’s engagement in politics was rapidly picked up by politicians and the press alike during the country’s general election. The word enjoyed increased and sustained usage both prior to and after the polling, setting youthquake firmly on its way to become a fixture of political discourse.

The term was coined when, in 1965, emerging from a post-war period of tumultuous change, Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue, declared the year of the youthquake.

In an editorial in the Vogue US January edition that year, she wrote: ‘The year’s in its youth, the youth in its year. … More dreamers. More doers. Here. Now. Youthquake 1965.’

Oxford Dictionaries President Casper Grathwohl said that while youthquake had not yet made an impression in the US, evidence showed that it certainly had made an impression in the UK.

“We chose youthquake based on its evidence and linguistic interest. But most importantly for me, at a time when our language is reflecting our deep unrest and exhausted nerves, it is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note.”

Youthquake was selected from the shortlist below.

Shortlist graphic Final

Find more about youthquake at Oxford Dictionaries.





The greatest words Churchill never uttered

During World War II, when it was suggested that funding for the arts should be cut, Winston Churchill had other ideas.

“What are we fighting for then?”

The words say so much about the importance of the arts in our society, and in the value in knowing what you are fighting for.

But unfortunately, Churchill never uttered them. He might have said something similar, and, if you tried, you could see that he meant something like the quote, but you’ll have to squint.

In 1941 when the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was first published, it all seemed much simpler. At the time, it was taken for granted that a quotation was a familiar line from a great poet or a famous figure in history, and the source could easily be found in standard literary works or history books.

In the era of fake news and alternative facts, it is increasingly hard to know what to believe, particularly when misquotes can spread at the speed that social media and 24-hour news sources allow.

In addition, it can be difficult to question the accuracy of a particular quote when we really, really want it to have been what our heroes said; it is comforting and reassuring to know that individuals of power and prestige have expressed opinions that align with our own, and one well-expressed line can have more impact than any scholarly essay or detailed speech. And so, we republish their words on our own social media accounts and blogs, validating our own beliefs and interests.

I was thrilled and moved when I heard that CS Lewis had said,

“We read to know that we’re not alone”,

Here was the great writer, putting into words something I had always felt, but never articulated. I felt a sense of kinship with the great CS Lewis. I understood him, and somehow, he understood me. We both held books as providing a kind of comfort and companionship.

However, kindred spirits we were not. It turned out the words had not a flash of truth and brilliance conceived by CS Lewis, but the line was actually given to his character in the film Shadowlands, and so the credit for it should really be given to the screenwriter William Nicholson.

It is not hard to see how these misquotes can take hold, as unfortunately, sometimes the misquote is mightier than the more accurate version.

In the case of Churchill’s quote, he did speak in support of the arts at more length than the more famous misquote, including saying,

“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. The country possesses in the Royal Academy an institution of wealth and power for the purpose of encouraging the arts of painting and sculpture…”

And so, the powerful and succinct  misquotes are spread far and wide across the digital sphere, becoming synonymous with those who never uttered those particular words. Here, they are used to support argument and debate, strengthening a viewpoint with the weight of the words of a historical statesman.

However, while the internet might make it easier for misquotes (as well as other types of misinformation) to spread, through retweets, shares and even publication by fast-moving, 24-hour news services, technology has not had an entirely detrimental impact on the reliability of quotations. In some ways, it has made direct quotes much easier to source.

Words that might have seemed impossible coming from a US President are easy to trace to their origin through Twitter. While in the past, political leaders might have claimed they never said such a thing, criticising the height and girth of another world leader, the evidence is conclusive. And when phones can be used to record the words of public figures, and celebrities, the evidence is irrefutable.

An individual’s words can tell a powerful story about who they are and what they believe. They can help us form our own opinions, reinforcing prejudices or opening minds. But before we gleefully proclaim our favourite past prime minister made a critical point about the arts for us decades ago, it is useful to check the sources. Those words might be convincing, eloquent and erudite, but the might not have been his at all.

By Fleur Morrison, Marketing and Communications Advisor, OUP Australia

The Little Oxford Gift Box

A Christmas favourite, The Little Oxford Gift Box features the popular Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs and Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

‘Equality’ named the Oxford Children’s Word of the Year

After countless hours reviewing hundreds of entries, Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand has announced its 2017 Children’s Word of the Year: equality.

The word is a result of an Australia-wide writing competition in which students from Grade Prep to Grade 6 submitted a piece of free writing up to 500 words based on a chosen word. The writing could be creative or factual, funny or serious.

A judging panel, consisting of academics and experts in children’s English language, evaluated competition entries based on a word’s popularity, use of the word in context, and frequency, to determine the Australian Children’s Word of the Year.

Equality was used in the entries to refer to a wide range of issues, including racial, gender, marriage, sporting, pay, disability rights and even sibling equality. It was included in both fictional and non-fiction writing.


OUP ANZ director of Schools Publishing, Lee Walker, saysequality’ is a topical example of how Australian primary school children are tuned in to the social conversations happening today.

“The prevalence of the word ‘equality’ seems a fitting reflection of the current social landscape, with children incorporating the word in their stories across topics of gender, pay, culture, marriage, disability, religion, race and sport.

“It warmed our hearts to see the diverse range of issues that were top-of-mind amongst Australian children, and further confirmed how observant children are of the conversations that make up the daily news and social discussions around them,” Walker said.

Other words to appear in the children’s entries were traditional favourites including family, friends and sport, alongside words that previously have not been as prevalent, including soccer (as well as AFL football), bullying and war.


OUP ANZ managing director Peter van Noorden said the competition provided valuable insights into what Australian primary school students are thinking and talking about.

“The competition was important in furthering our understanding of the language used in the modern Australian school yard. We also wanted to see how we differed from our global counterparts.

“In the UK, the 2016 Children’s Word of the Year was ‘refugee’, and this year was ‘trump’, so it was fascinating to see how Australian primary school students absorb similar social and political news that make up the daily news cycle.”

To read some of the winning entries and for more information about the competition visit the Children’s Word of the Year website, or join the conversation on social media with #cwoty.

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.



Primary students show age is no barrier to creativity

There was a stubborn dog and a deadly beast, a new student in the class and a sleepy language-lover – the entries in the 2016 Wordlist Writing Competition for primary school students showed some wonderful creativity and originality.

In the lead up to National Literacy and Numeracy Week between September 4 and 10, we’re looking back some of the winning entries in last year’s Wordlist competition.

In an entry titled ‘Narrative Jam’, Agna from Grade 4 presented an original and surprising interpretation of the traditional fairy tale. She wove her love of writing into the storyline, using phrasing in unexpected ways.

“10 cent coins, 20 cent coins. Maths. I prefer writing. Writing narratives. Of course, lots of people like Maths better. Then there’s Dance, Drama, Geography and History and Music. I’m going in alphabetical order, if that helps, but let’s not get too carried away.”

Later, she became part of the fairy tale as a somewhat reluctant participant. Agna challenged fairy tale norms, writing about a ‘not-so-brave knight’ and expressing dismay at the ‘pink dress with puffy sleeves’ that she was wearing.

Another impressive entry came from Alessandra from Grade 2/3, who wrote a suspenseful story that included a description of being chased by fierce animals. Alessandra described the ‘vicious fangs’ and ‘razor sharp claws’ of the animal that pursued her.

“You’re running, running to be free of the chase. You hear the roaring right behind you so you go faster but you know you can’t outrun a deadly beast like this!”

It was not action, but emotion, that was at the heart of the story by Eva from Grade 5. In ‘Notebook’ Eva wrote about her character’s first day at a new school, and a poignant and insightful speech she made to her peers, despite believing that she looked like a “shaky blob of jellyfish”.

“A new beginning at a new school – again. Another teacher calling another roll.”

Other winners took a more light-hearted approach, with Pippa from Grade 5 writing about Rex the Stubborn Dog who wore “puffy floaties and a yellow sun cap” to the beach and was “as silly as a goose”. Splashing in the waves, chasing pelicans and singing a funny song, Pippa’s story was written with humour and a sense of fun.

“Suddenly, Rex saw a dark shadow in the ocean. He dodged, dove, ducked and dipped under the cold water. I wonder … am I tough enough to catch this creature?”

Grade Prep student, Tanvi, wrote about a rabbit called ‘Alasco’, who enjoyed going on adventures with his dad. However, when he discovered his father was missing one morning, he found his own adventure involving a treasure map and pirates.

“When he work up his dad was gone. Then he looked under his bed and he found a map. It was no ordinary map. It was a treasure map.”

Finally, Archie brought a creative approach to current affairs and politics, with his story involving a president who forced ‘Mexi Bunnies’ to build a wall.

“Mr Bunny was the president of the Bunny States. He was a mean president, he shouted, “Mexi Bunny shouldn’t be able to cross to Bunny States because they are the silliest of Bunnies!”

One of the most exciting elements of the stories from the 2016 competition was their diversity – funny, heartfelt, controversial and suspenseful – they revealed the wonderful depths of young people’s creativity.

We’re looking forward to reading this year’s entries in the Children’s Word of the Year competition!


This year, teachers and guardians can enter primary school students’ writing samples in the Children’s Word of the Year writing competition. Through the competition, Oxford University Press aims to find out more about the language of Australian children, and the way they use that language in their storytelling.

A lesson plan is available to help inspire students in their writing, and some great class and individual prizes are up for grabs.



More than Mercutio – English teaching for the future

By Michael Horne

Discussion of what teachers and educational leaders really want students to get out of their schooling has recently shifted to the types of skills that they will need in the 21st century. In the face of a paradigm that still emphasises knowledge retention and memorisation, and when viewed in combination with the development of cognitive dispositions to use those skills, this is a useful shift.

Even though skills such as collaboration, creative and critical thinking, and the ability to synthesise have always been the best outcomes of education and the most useful tools to carry into the world, it is clear that the explicit demand for them is up. The Foundation for Young Australians in their 2016 report ‘The New Work Mindset’[1] analysed over 2.7 million Australian job advertisements over two years and identified seven job ‘clusters’ into which specific positions and their required skills were grouped. The report argues that there are certain “enterprise skills”[2] that are consistently asked for, and transferable between clusters. These enterprise skills are consistent with what educators variously call higher-order thinking skills, “capabilities”[3], or “kinds of minds”[4]. They include:

  • synthesising
  • creating
  • collaborating
  • problem solving
  • meta-cognition.

So what does this shift in demand mean for schools, and in particular for English teaching? Two basic principles are needed to underpin an increased focus on the development of these skills:

  • a revised view of content and knowledge that sees them as the carriers and media of skill development, as well as being important in themselves; and
  • valuing the ability to meta-cognitively recognise and talk about these skills as they are being developed.

The first of these suggestions can be particularly challenging for us as English teachers. We can argue that access to great and well-known literature is part of a student’s cultural inheritance, and important for them to become socially and culturally conversant. We can argue that we want our students to experience To Kill a Mockingbird in the same transformative way that we did. Yet, slinking behind these arguments is the tacit truth that it probably doesn’t really matter if students don’t remember who Mercutio was, or what the essential themes of The Catcher in the Rye are. The texts that we cling on to, any texts really, are important as works of art and mirrors of our best and worst selves, but they are more important educationally as the media through which students develop skills.

The second of these principles suggests to English teachers the importance of developing and sharing a discourse of learning which sits above the lexicon of English. Students can only learn to identify their own thinking when they have a consistent language for it, and when examples of certain cognitive moves are pointed out to them. There is an argument here for articulating what we mean by ‘critical thinking’ in the context of textual analysis, for example, and for pausing to hover over examples when they arise in class. The depth of criticism that we look for in the best student work can be more frequently achieved if we specify both the cognitive and syntactical structures that characterise such work, rather than giving vague instructions to students like “more depth needed” or “lacks sophistication”.

These are not radical ideas, but carving out room for them within schools means thoughtfully identifying and removing redundancies – anything that doesn’t directly lead to the development of the skills and dispositions that students will need and benefit from in their post-school lives.

If we value a student’s ability to synthesise information from traditionally separate disciplines[5] within English, we might sometimes break down traditional divisions between textual and language analysis. If we want students to be able to critically evaluate a range of references and sources of information, what purpose do closed-book exams serve? Let’s let them bring in the sources and actually analyse them in an exam or test. If we want students to reflect on their own thinking and see where they need to go next, how do letter grades help to do this? (Although, of course, English teachers have always been good at specific and personalised feedback for improvement.)

Challenging and reviewing long-practised norms in English programs and assessment, and identifying those which might now be redundant, is difficult in a system where everyone has personal historical experience. But it is also necessary. If we really want to develop those skills that we profess we want students to have (and which the data shows us society wants) – critical thinking, open reflection, and collaboration – then we need to apply them to our schools and to our own practice.

[1] Foundation for Young Australians, ‘The New Work Mindset’. Melbourne: 2016. p. 10

[2] Ibid. p. 19

[3] Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Victorian Curriculum Critical and Creative Thinking. Accessed on 02/05/2017.

[4] Howard Gardner, ‘Five Minds for the Future’, summary in Plurilingüismo e Innovación Educativa 201 (4). pp. 6-7

[5] Patrick Griffin and Esther Care, ‘Test Construction’ in Patrick Griffin (ed.), Assessment for Learning. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 2014. Pp. 165-6.

Michael Horne was a co-author of Oxford MyEnglish, shortlisted in the Student Resource – Junior –  English/Humanities/Languages/Arts/Technologies/Health and Physical Education category of the Educational Publishers Award Australia.


Using humour to inspire young writers

Hey, want to hear a joke?
Novice pirates make terrible singers because they can’t hit the high seas. 
(Cue collective groan)

Sometimes humour can be in-your-face and silly (like the joke above), and other times it can be more subtle. Whether it’s a pun, a child’s knock-knock joke, a funny movie, or situation comedy on television, we all enjoy a good laugh. Given this natural human tendency to appreciate humour, how might we, as educators, leverage humour in our teaching?  This idea deserves further attention.

Consider how social humour is. Think about the last time you watched a funny movie or television show with someone. When something funny happens on screen we turn to the person beside us as if to say ‘did you get it?’ It’s almost as if sharing the joke or funny situation enhances its humour.  The same is true with children, especially with their reading. Think about when you were a child, and saw a group of other children huddled together around a book, laughing.  How did you respond to that situation? You probably wanted to know what was so funny!  We all want to know what’s so funny. We all want to be part of the joke. Humour is a social phenomenon.

I observed this firsthand when I researched how humorous children’s literature engages young readers.  My research revealed that humorous literature is a huge motivator for children to read. When they read humorous books, they want to read more in general, and more specifically they want to read books by that author or other funny authors.  Also, when they do read something funny, they want to share it with someone immediately, whether they are a friend, family member, or teacher. This has classroom implications for teachers around the globe, because humorous literature can reach both struggling and reluctant readers.

In a related research project, I found that humorous children’s literature also motivates young readers to become writers of humour.  This was more than just wanting to copy their favourite author’s style of writing, but a need to be creative and write funny stories as well.  That is why in my latest book there is an entire chapter discussing humorous texts and their value in the classroom, and what teachers can do to harness these texts in developing young writers.

Some tips to help promote writing using humorous texts:

  • Expand your definition of ‘genre’ to include humorous texts (comics, joke books, etc.).
  • Value and include comics in your classroom activities.
  • Read and learn about blended narratives (Zbaracki & Geringer 2014) such as the 13-Storey Treehouse.
  • Allow students to write their own comics, perhaps using technology, websites or apps, and read each other’s creations.
  • Use technology (such as the ‘Pun of the Day’ app) to encourage students to explore the multiple meanings of words.
  • Explore parodies of well-known fairy tales and nursery rhymes to inspire students to create their own parodies.

So, it’s important to remember that humour, in addition to being fun, has great benefits helping students in both reading and writing.   ‘Sigmund’, a grade five student in my research study summed it up best:

… all books kind of have some humour, and if you don’t, I’m not saying that you should put like all humour in the book, it’s just if you don’t it’ll be kind of dull, and it won’t … well, it’ll be like the cake without the icing.

He’s so right! Keep eating that cake with icing, and reading and writing those funny texts!

Matthew Zbaracki is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Australia Catholic University (Melbourne) and the author of Writing Right with Text Types (2015).


Featured image credits:  [1] OUP 9780195519068; [2]Shutterstock ID 144699151


The long and the short of it

In this article, reproduced from our latest issue of Ozwords, Julia Robinson investigates Aussie terms for Chinese wonton soup and Chinese noodle soup.

Recently we received this query from a Victorian reader: ‘I am writing to ask about the term “short soup”, as in the Chinese wonton soup. Other non-Australian speakers of English are unaware of this phrase, it seems. Is it uniquely Australian and when did it originate?’ (J. Bookman)

Short soup and its companion long soup are indeed Australian terms for Chinese wonton soup and Chinese noodle soup respectively. The name long soup probably derives from an English speaker’s way of describing the kind of noodle typically found in the dish; long soup contains long, thin noodles. Short soup contains wontons, a type of small dumpling formed by wrapping small, flattened pieces of noodle dough around a savoury filling. The first evidence for both terms occurs in the 1880s, with long soup appearing a few years before short soup. In early evidence they often occur together.

A longtime resident of Sydney’s Chinatown, Norman Lee, explained the difference between the soups, in recalling the people who frequented Chinese ‘cook shops’ in the early part of the 20th century: ‘It was good food—genuine stuff. Most of the customers were Chinese; only the Australian drunks came then. When they ordered plain soup with noodles, they called it long soup. With won tons, it was short soup.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 2007)

Much of the early written evidence occurs in the context of Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street, Australia’s first Chinatown, established in the 1850s. An early reference appears in the Australasian newspaper, in a full-page illustrated special on ‘The Chinese Quarter in Melbourne’. It is written as an anthropological investigation, and as with many similar newspaper reports of the period, the tone is frequently racist:

Very curious was it to watch them at their meal. In front of each was a bowl of soup of which, by the way, the Chinese distinguish two kinds—‘long’ soup and ‘short’ soup. This was ‘long’ soup, and it seemed to be a kind of chicken broth, thickened with flour. ‘Short’ soup is different—we do not exactly understand in what way. However, the gentlemen pictured above were busy with their ‘long’ soup, drinking it with little earthenware ladles. (21 April 1888)

This and many other contemporary references show that by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the names of these dishes were becoming familiar to non-Chinese Australians, and were seen as typical of Chinese cuisine.

A good number of references to short soup and long soup are found in court reports of the period. This may suggest that Chinese food was cheap, and that Chinese cooks were catering to a larrikin clientele who could not afford to eat at other restaurants. Fights and arguments between customers and staff were liable to break out over a bowl of soup:

Brawl in a Cook Shop. … Three men went to [Quon Cheong’s] cook shop in Heffernan’s-lane about midnight last Saturday, and after being served with ‘long soup’ broke a saucer and a soup basin, for which they declined to pay. Then they blackened his eye, split his lip open and gave him a severe mauling. (Melbourne Age, 30 June 1910)

In one case short soup was used as code for a sly grog operation: ‘Melbourne, August 24. Two Chinese cook shop proprietors were to-day fined £40 each on a charge of sly grog selling. Two revenue officers called at the establishment and asked for “Short Soup”, and were supplied with several bottles of ale.’ (Hobart Mercury, 25 August 1909)

Later evidence confirms that short soup and long soup were increasingly recognised as standard fare in Chinese eateries, if still considered exotic by many. In the late 1920s the Goulburn Evening Penny Post claims that there are ‘hundreds of Melbourne citizens who regularly relish the Oriental dishes of Little Bourke-street short soup joints’. (13 April 1927) The taste for Chinese food was well-established by mid-century. In the 1960s the Australian Women’s Weekly published a recipe for long soup (with chicken stock, vermicelli noodles, and shallots), and in an article on the favourite food of local pop groups, the Weekly records the lead guitarist of the Strangers commenting in the lingo of the time: ‘I could live on Chinese food. … Fried rice and short soup are rather groovy.’ (14 May 1969)

But what is ‘short’ about short soup? It is not the most obvious way to describe a wonton. Is short soup perhaps a calque—that is, a literal translation from Chinese?

Australian long soup and short soup are dishes in the style of southern China, because most Chinese immigrants who came to Australia in the 19th century came from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, either directly or via Singapore. Chinese linguist colleagues tell us there are no corresponding terms in Mandarin or Cantonese for long soup or short soup, but one scholar who is familiar with southern dialects has anecdotal evidence from Fujian of a term for wonton soup that translates literally as ‘flat food soup’. She notes that although the word for ‘flat’ may imply ‘thin’ and ‘small’, it does not directly correspond to ‘short’.*

Short soup does not appear to be a translation from Chinese, even from the most likely southern dialectal regions. In Guangdong province there is a term for soup containing long noodles that translates as ‘long noodle soup’. But this is descriptive, and does not precisely correspond to long soup. We think that these Australian English terms are a binary pair, and that short soup was named in contrast to long soup, in order to distinguish one from the other. Thus short soup does not really describe its ingredients, but rather tells us it is not long soup.

*With thanks to Wendi Xue and Dr Zhengdao Ye for their help. All errors are my own.

Julia-RobinsonJulia Robinson is a researcher and editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC). She has contributed to a number of Australian Oxford dictionaries and ANDC publications, and is one of the editorial team currently working on the second edition of The Australian National Dictionary (forthcoming 2016).

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?

Read this edition of OzWords and find previous volumes here.