Making the dictionary ‘fair dinkum’

By Mark Gwynn, Researcher and Editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, @ozworders

As a primary school student in the mid-1980s one of my favourite in-class activities was the ‘Dictionary Game’. My teacher, Mr Brenchley, would read out the definition of a word, and ask us to find the word that matched the definition in our dictionaries. There is one word that stands out in my memory, partly because I was the first to correctly guess it. Mr Brenchley read out the following definition: ‘false; pretended’, and gave us a clue that the word was also in the name of an Australian rock band (he always liked to add a bit of popular culture into the question). The answer was ‘pseudo’, and the band in the clue was of course Pseudo Echo. I can’t remember any of Pseudo Echo’s songs now, but as a lexicographer I’ve become familiar with the prefix pseudo-, and some of the words formed from it such as pseudonym. Back then, I also learnt from my dictionary that pseudo is derived from ancient Greek, as are many of the words in English beginning with ‘ps’. Dictionaries can teach us all kinds of information about words, language, and history, and Mr Brenchley introduced us to the riches of the dictionary.

If in the ‘Dictionary Game’ the question had been to guess what the words bludge, cooee, dinkum, or ute meant, we wouldn’t have been able to find them in our school dictionaries, because back in the early 1980s they contained almost no Australian words. The current edition of the Australian Schoolmate Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus has several hundred Australian words and meanings. Learning about Australian English is essential to understanding how English is spoken and written in Australia, and underlines the importance of having Australian dictionaries. It’s not just the obvious words like bogan and tradie that are Australian, but particular senses of standard English words. For instance, in this dictionary paddock has two senses: an Australian sense defined as ‘an enclosed piece of land, usually part of a rural property’, and a British sense defined as ‘a small field where horses are kept’. These distinctions across the dictionary are fundamental for understanding the variety of English we use in Australia.

In the sixth edition of the Australian Schoolmate Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus over 120 new words have been added, as well as a similar number of new senses, and many revisions have been made to existing entries. However, the addition of new material into a school dictionary is not necessarily the most important aspect of a new edition. As editor, it is my responsibility to make sure the core vocabulary that students need to be familiar with is up-to-date, and to provide guidance on usage. An interesting way of thinking about this core vocabulary is through the tool of a language corpus (a large set of texts that can be analysed for things such as word frequency and common word forms and grammatical features). The Oxford English Corpus, which we consult in our dictionary editing, contains over two billion words with just over a million of these representing lemmas (that is, the base form of word; jumps, jumping, and jumped are all example of the lemma jump). Amazingly only ten of these lemmas account for 25% of all the words in the Oxford English Corpus. These lemmas are: the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I. The 100 most common lemmas account for 50% of the corpus; the 1000 most common lemmas account for 75% and so on. As my colleagues at Oxford Dictionaries succinctly put it: English consists of a small number of very common words, a larger number of intermediate ones, and then a long ‘tail’ of much rarer terms. It is these common and intermediate words that are the most important for students’ literacy education.

While new words like 3-D printing, crowdfunding, selfie, and skype have been added – and these additions are important to reflect our changing society – it is the updates to existing entries that form a substantial part of the editing process. For example, in this edition of the Australian Schoolmate Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, a new sense of cloud has been added: ‘(in computing) a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet and used to store, manage, and process data in place of local servers or personal computers’. The dictionary also contains a large number of usage boxes that provide guidance and clarification for words that can present difficulties with pronunciation, spelling, grammar, or their use in Australia. These are kept up-to-date to reflect changing attitudes to language, but also contain cautionary information that provides guidance to students about words that may no longer be appropriate to use, or where there is some confusion about the use of a word in particular contexts (e.g. alternate vs alternative). We aim for the Australian Schoolmate Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus to be an authoritative reference work for students to continue their journey of literacy learning and to discover the richness of English in Australia.

The Australian Schoolmate Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus has been placed on the shortlist for the Educational Publishing Awards Australia, to be announced in September.

Schoolmate dictionary

Move over, tennis mums, a new breed of tennis mom has arrived in the updated Oxford English Dictionary

You might remember the term tennis mum being used to describe women who returned to tennis after becoming mothers.

Now, tennis mom and tennis dad refer to parents who actively and enthusiastically support their child’s participation in the sport.

They are among the tennis-related, lifestyle, current affairs and educational terms included in the latest update of the Oxford English Dictionary.

More than 50 new words and 30 new senses related to tennis were added to the dictionary, after consultation with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

They included bagel, tennis slang coined by player Eddie Dibbs in the 1970’s, referring to a score in a set of six games to love due to the similarity of the numeral 0 to the shape of a bagel. Superbrat is also a word which is used in contexts other than tennis, but was famously applied to the tennis player John McEnroe by the British press in response to outbursts on court.

Forced error is used to describe a mistake in play which is attributed to the sill of one’s opponent rather than the player’s own misjudgment, while chip and charge refers to an attacking style of play, in which the player approaches the net behind a sliced shot.

What else is new to the OED?

A new usage of thing was introduced in the dictionary update, used in questions conveying surprise or incredulity, such as ‘how can that be a thing?’ This has been traced back to an early episode of television series The West Wing.

The new sense of woke, meaning ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’ has also been included. Its use by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in particular the phrase ‘stay woke’ is thought to have introduced the word to a broader audience, especially on social media.

Old sayings have also been tweaked, with footless (as in, footless drunk, an alternative to the more familiar ‘legless’) and son of a bachelor (a euphemistic alternative to ‘son of a bitch’).

Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth as its 2016 Word of the Year, and since then, the huge increase in its usage has given the lexicographers enough evidence to add it to the OED.

In the educational sphere, the OED update included MOOC, an acronym for massive open online course, which you might have spotted on your social media feed and wondered about its meaning.

A range of words for wedding veils were added to the dictionary, including a birdcage veil, blusher veil, cathedral veil and fingertip veil.

Another lifestyle addition was the Danish trend and culture reference hygge, defined as ‘a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being’.

Finally, ZYZZYVA, referring to a genus of tropical weevils native to South America and typically found on or near palm trees became the new ‘last word’ in the OED.

You can find all the new new word entries, sub-entries and senses on the OED website.

For more on Australian dictionaries, visit the Australian National Dictionary.

 

 

Australian Word of the Year 2016

Democracy sausage has been named Australian Word of the Year 2016.
he_word_of_the_year_infograpihc_sausageDemocracy sausage: A barbecued sausage served on a slice of bread, bought at a polling booth sausage sizzle on election day.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre, based at The Australian National University, selected democracy sausage because of its increased prominence in Australia in a year of election campaigns.

Democracy sausage was chosen from a shortlist which included census fail, smashed avo, shoey, deplorables and Ausexit.

For more information on the Australian Word of the Year click here.

The 2016 Word of the Year and shortlist are selected by the editorial staff of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, who with Oxford University Press publishes the Australian National Dictionary of words and phrases unique to Australia.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre undertakes research into Australian English in partnership with Oxford University Press, and edits Australian dictionaries for Oxford University Press.

The Word of the Year is based on extensive research as well as public suggestions. Vote for your 2016 Australian Word of the Year:


Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth. For more information read their blog post.

View the previous Words of the Year on the ANDC blog page:

2015 – sharing economy
2014 – shirtfront
2013 – bitcoin
2012 – green-on-blue

he_word_of_the_year_infographic_shortlist

Spanner crabs, platform 27, and a one-duck duck farm

We had some interesting and entertaining correspondence from readers in response to our articles on Australian idioms in the last issue. In her article, Julia Miller was puzzled about the logic of the idiom mad as a box of spanners, asking ‘how can an inanimate spanner be angry or crazy?’ One reader, C. Roe (Qld), has an ingenious theory: perhaps spanners is an abbreviation of spanner crabs, the edible crustacean Ranina ranina. We haven’t seen a box of spanner crabs, but it’s possible they would be more than a little annoyed about being thus detained. T. Bowden (NSW) is also concerned about crustaceans: ‘Off like a bucket of prawns makes no real sense. I always knew it as off like a bucket of prawns in the sun.’

Some of the expressions sent to us were variants on established Australian English idioms. C. Papps tweeted: ‘My dad used to say he was so unlucky he couldn’t win a kick in a street fight.’ This is one of a number of similar Australian expressions on the theme of bad luck or incompetence, such as couldn’t win a chook raffle, couldn’t train a choko vine over a country dunny, and, used chiefly in AFL contexts, couldn’t get a kick in a stampede. T. Brook left a message on Facebook along the same lines: ‘It was an excellent article in the most recent
Ozwords. My favourite [idiom] was missing, but it came and went so quickly in the 1990s it was easy to miss: He’s so stupid he couldn’t run a one-duck duck farm. I can’t explain the appeal.’

Blind Freddy is familiar to many of us as an allusion to something extremely obvious, as in ‘Blind Freddy could see that the deal was shonky’ and ‘Blind Freddy himself could have picked the winner’. One reader, J. Smith (NSW) had a twist on this: Blind Freddy without his guide dog could see that. The inclusion of the guide dog, perhaps a logical extension of the idiom, was new to us. In Amanda Laugesen’s lead article on idioms, she mentioned the special place the bandicoot has in Australia as an emblem of deprivation or desolation. J. Smith added to our stock of bandicoot expressions: the country was so poor that even the bandicoots had to take cut lunches.

One reader sent us some early anecdotal evidence of the Australian term more arse than class (‘to be very cheeky; to be very lucky’). Our own evidence in the new Australian National Dictionary dates from the title of the 1974 album ‘More Arse Than Class’ by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. However D. Aitkin (ACT) remembers the expression being ‘common in (male) squash-playing circles in Canberra in the early 1960s’, in reference to ‘a brilliant shot that was not intended at all’.

There are a number of idioms based on the formula an X short of a Y that mean ‘very foolish’ or ‘mad’. Some of the better-known are a stubby short of a six-pack, a sandwich short of a picnic, and a sausage short of a barbie. T. Hackett (SA) sent us two dogs short of a dingo, and two bob short of a quid, the latter known to him from pub talk in the 1950s. Of course two bob (two shillings), the predecimal equivalent of twenty cents, has form in Australian idioms. Not the full two bob means ‘not in full possession of one’s faculties’ or ‘not the genuine article’. Two-bob is also used to refer to something cheap, inferior, or of little consequence, as in ‘it’s a two-bob hamburger joint masquerading as fine dining’.

Burke (NSW) sent us an expression with a very local application. Some years ago at Central Station, Sydney, a query to a railway worker as to someone’s whereabouts might elicit the response ‘he’s gone to platform 27’. There was no platform 27. Our reader tells us that the last platform was number 26, and that the answer was code for ‘he’s gone to the pub’ (there was a hotel nearby). A current map of Central Station now shows only 25 railway platforms. Has the pub been extended?

Another response to a question was sent in by A. Horsfield (Qld). ‘In the 1940s whenever we asked what’s for tea (now called dinner) Dad would say bread and duck under the table. Took me ages to work that one out.’ Presumably Dad was exploiting two meanings of duck for comic effect. There is some evidence for this saying, the earliest in a letter published in March 1917 in the Don Dorrigo Gazette & Guy Fawkes Advocate. Nancy Keesing also notes it in her book on Australian domestic slang, Lily on the Dustbin, published in 1982. She writes: ‘“What’s for lunch/dinner/tea?” “Stewed roodleums”, “Bread and duck under the table—or duck under the table and bread and pullet”.’ Other Ozworders will have their own family expressions for this. W & S (for wait and see) was my own mother’s invariable reply.

Finally, we enjoyed this story, also from A. Horsfield, about the origin of his family’s catchphrase good thinking Mary, used when ‘someone said something simply obvious or far out. Many years ago a teaching friend was working hard to put on a Nativity play for a school concert … . The actors with limited recall tended to improvise a lot. On the night of the solemn production Mary and Joseph looked for a place for the birth of baby Jesus and found there was no room at the inn. Joseph: “What shall we do?” Mary: “We could use the stable.” To which Joseph replied very thoughtfully: “Good thinking Mary.” We have used this ad nauseam as a point of mild ridicule.’

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 who worked on the second edition of The Australian National Dictionary.

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?

Find previous volumes of OzWords here.

Words for pie (and why they’re all unappetising)

The humble meat pie is as Aussie as it gets. The iconic fist-sized pastry is light, flaky and golden on the outside, and filled with piping hot minced meat and gravy on the inside – perfect as a frosty winter’s day meal at the footy or a cheap, tasty snack from the servo.

In the 2014 season of The Bachelor Australia, contestant Laurina Fleure precipitated a hashtag frenzy on social media when she bemoaned a date that involved eating a ‘dirty street pie’ from a Sydney pie-cart. Her remark alluded to the pie’s status as food for the working class, and the stereotypical connotations of crudeness and boorishness that come along with it. A pie-eater is a derogatory Australian term used to refer to a small-time or second-rate person, originally of the criminal persuasion:

[The term] arose from the fact that most crims were unwillingly conscripted into the army & at the first opportunity deserted. Having no coupons & identity card & prevented from getting work they managed to live by getting free pies from the army buffet in Hyde Park … so to call a person a pie eater was an assertion that they pretended to have a special status & knowledge when they had neither the qualifications nor the knowledge to justify it. (Ted Hartley in Gary Simes, Dictionary of Australian Underworld Slang, 1993)

It’s no surprise then that slang terms that refer to pies themselves can come across as unrefined. In fact, a number of them are downright nauseating in their association with pests, vermin, and unsavoury animal parts; we have never trusted the dubious contents of a pie. Take maggot bag, for instance. As Kel Richards wrote, ‘to ask the nice lady at the canteen for a “maggot bag and blood, thanks, love” is to ask for a meat pie and tomato sauce’ (Dictionary of Australian Phrase and Fable, 2013). In a similar vein, to ask for a ‘dog’s eye with dead ‘orse’ is to ask for a meat pie with sauce.

Rounding up the animal trifecta is rat coffin, described in a slightly dubious tone by the Sydney Morning Herald as:

A tasteless term for a meat pie that is strangely evocative even though it is completely inaccurate these days. We hope. (Sydney Morning Herald, August 25, 2005)

Interestingly, in their original form in medieval Europe, pies were called ‘coffins’, or ‘coffyns’, simply meaning a box or container. Food historian Janet Clarkson, in her book Pie: A Global History, noted that pie shells were made of thick pastry and were used as cooking vessels for the meat filling. The shell was made of hard, coarse rye flour, and was often several inches thick. Back in a time when refrigerators hadn’t been invented, this sturdy crust had the added benefit of preserving the contents within.

The word ‘pie’ is probably the same word as the archaic term ‘pie’, a name for the Eurasian magpie: the various iingredients of a meat pie being compared to objects randomly collected by a (Eurasian) magpie. It certainly reflects both historical and contemporary meat pie-manufacturing processes, in which fillings are typically minced and derived from multiple animal parts. In medieval times, pies and pasties contained beef, mutton, venison, fowl (or a combination thereof) and in some cases even porpoise meat (Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food).

While modern-day Australians are unlikely to grind up sea mammals for food, the ‘mixed bag’ approach to meat still applies. According to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, meat pies are only required to contain 25% ‘meat flesh’, defined as ‘the skeletal muscle of the carcass of any buffalo, camel, cattle, deer, goat, hare, pig, poultry, rabbit or sheep … plus any attached animal rind fat, connective tissue, nerve, blood and blood vessels’. The manufacturer is not required to label the type of meat used in the pie, as long as it meets the criteria above. If that’s not enough to make you toy with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, tongue roots, liver, spleen and tripe are also permissible parts to include in a pie (as long as these parts are declared on the label).

With the pie manufacturing process the way it is, it’s no wonder that the Australian slang terms for meat pie are all pretty unpalatable. Just as Aussies have put our own culinary stamp on the dish, we’ve done the same in a linguistic sense too. Maggot bag, dog’s eye and rat coffin, in true Aussie style, are terms that are sardonic, irreverent and doused with a dollop of saucy humour.

Alicia Cheah is a Primary Publisher. Once, in a feeble attempt to increase her vitamin A, iron and selenium intake, she cooked a massive batch of fried chicken livers, sautéed lamb liver and crumbed lamb kidneys. It could only be described as an offal affair.

9780195550269This article was inspired by entries from the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. This dictionary is the only comprehensive, historically-based record of the words and meanings that make up Australian English. It is a unique lexical map of Australian history and culture.

The dictionary was produced at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University. The Centre, established in 1988, is a joint venture of theAustralian National University and Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand.

Chief Editor: Dr Bruce Moore is a former Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre (1994–2011). He has edited a number of OUP dictionaries, including the Australian Oxford Dictionary.
Managing Editor: Dr Amanda Laugesen
Editors: Mark Gwynn, Julia Robinson

[Image source: Shutterstock ID 3090849]

Upcoming events for the Australian National Dictionary Second Edition

To celebrate the publication of the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, there will be events in Sydney and Melbourne this September.

AND2e

Starting on Thursday September 8 at 6 pm Abbey’s Bookshop in Sydney will be hosting an event with AND 2e editors Bruce Moore (former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre) and Amanda Laugesen (current director), along with Abbey’s bookseller Lindy West as moderator and Kel Richards (broadcaster and author of The Story of Australian English) as guest speaker.

This is a free event but you will need to RSVP to attend. Follow the link to RSVP and for more information.

On Tuesday September 13 at 6.30 pm Readings Hawthorn in Melbourne will be hosting Bruce Moore and Amanda Laugesen for a free panel discussion moderated by cryptic crossword maestro David Astle.

Please follow the link to RSVP.

 

We hope to see you there!

WotM signature

Australian food and drink quiz

Think you know your long blacks from your babyccinos or your cheerios from your chiko rolls? Australian cuisine, as food critic John Newton once wrote, is a bit of a ‘mongrel’, incorporating British, Mediterranean, Asian and native Australian cooking styles and ingredients. The Australian National Dictionary 2e contains a multitude of food-related slang terms, many of which are irreverent and as unpretentious as the fare they describe. To celebrate the release of this new edition, we bring you this quiz to test your knowledge of Australian food and drink.


Alicia Cheah is a Primary Publisher at Oxford University Press Australia. When it comes to food, she is a ‘try-anything-once’ sort of person. She has sampled pig’s stomach, beef pizzle, raw horse meat and fugu (puffer fish) and lives to tell the tale.

9780195550269This quiz was inspired by entries from the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. This dictionary is the only comprehensive, historically-based record of the words and meanings that make up Australian English. It is a unique lexical map of Australian history and culture.

The dictionary was produced at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University. The Centre, established in 1988, is a joint venture of the Australian National University and Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand.

Chief Editor: Dr Bruce Moore is a former Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre (1994–2011). He has edited a number of OUP dictionaries, including the Australian Oxford Dictionary.
Managing Editor: Dr Amanda Laugesen
Editors: Mark Gwynn, Julia Robinson

Rhyming slang in the Australian National Dictionary

9780195550269The recent publication of the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary is the culmination of more than 20 years of research into the history of our unique Australian lexicon. The scope of the dictionary, as defined in the first edition by editor W.S. Ramson, includes ‘words and meanings which have originated in Australia, which have a greater currency here than elsewhere, or which have a special significance in Australia because of their connection with an aspect of the history of the country’. Instead of limiting entries to formal Australian language, the AND embraces a huge variety of colloquialisms from all parts of Australian society. One of the more interesting types of this informal language is Australian rhyming slang.

Rhyming slang is ‘a type of slang that replaces words with rhyming words or phrases, typically with the rhyming element omitted’.[1] It was supposedly first used by cockney East Londoners in the early 19th century, with early examples including joanna (piano) and barnet (from barnet fair, hair). In the late 19th century, this inventive form of slang arrived in Australia and the locals took to it with enthusiasm. John Ayto, in the Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang, notes that rather than just reusing cockney terms, Australians ‘concocted an impressive rhyming vocabulary of their own’. When I was asked to do this blog post, I decided that the best way to find out about Australian rhyming slang would be to talk to the only expert I know on the subject: my grandfather, Morris Chambers. Terms listed in the AND are in bold.

Did your parents use rhyming slang? What about other children at school?

No. My only experience of it was when I went to work at the Forests Commission [a state-run department that managed Victoria’s forests – Morris worked for them as a surveyor]. It was sort of a ‘class distinction signal’, in other words, ‘I’m not going to use the Queen’s English in an appropriate manner; I’m going to do something entirely different.’ It was something that my fellow workers appreciated, the cleverness of it.

You wouldn’t use it with your boss though.

No, you wouldn’t use it with your boss. I didn’t actually use it at work because I was in a position of authority where I had a staff of people working for me.

I’ve read that the original purpose of rhyming slang might have been to get away with saying something rude in polite company.

We just used it for everyday events. If somebody had died, they’d say: ‘Old Joe’s brown bread now’.[2] I don’t know what was so clever about that, instead of saying he was dead. And they referred to the boss as the ‘pitch and toss’.[3]

There’s a bit of humour there, isn’t there?

Yes, there’s a bit of humour and cleverness with language.

Do you have any favourite slang terms?

If someone got sacked, they used to say they’d been ‘tramped’.[4] Englishmen were called ‘to-and-froms’,[5] rhyming with ‘poms’.

Some of the other ones I remember you telling me were ‘Noah’ [Noah’s ark, shark] and ‘butcher’s’.

‘Have a butcher’s hook at this.’ Have a look at it.

Doesn’t it also mean ‘crook’?

Yes, ‘I’m not feeling well, I’m butcher’s.’

Are these terms that came from England or are they specifically Australian?

Even when I was brought up – I was born in 1927 – the things I was taught and the people I was involved with in a lot of instances came from England. My maternal grandma and grandpa were born in England and came out to Australia. In dealing with them [however], I didn’t speak any rhyming slang. And my paternal grandmother – she never spoke in rhyming slang.

Do you think that was to do with class?

I think it was. I think it was the environment in which they were brought up. Rhyming slang was more of a cockney thing. You can take it as an escape mechanism – you don’t have to abide by a set of social rules used by others.

Morris doesn’t use rhyming slang now – he doesn’t talk to people who use it. I reckon it might be time to bring it back. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Australian rhyming slang and the Australian lexicon in general, the Australian National Dictionary is a great place to start.

Alex Chambers is the Editorial Coordinator in Higher Education. He is a keen supporter of the Melbourne Demons, well-placed commas and the communal sweet jar.


[1] Definition from Oxford Dictionaries Online

[2] This is was originally a cockney rhyming slang term, defined in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: brown bread adj. Dead. 1969 S.T. Kendall Up the Frog 22: I opened the Rory and standing there / Was me one ‘n’ t’other called Ted. / ‘E says ‘I’m back from Australia.’ Says I ‘we thought you was brahn bread’.

[3] Again, this may have originally been cockney rhyming slang. Green’s Dictionary of Slang: pitch and toss n. The boss. 1942 Sidney Mirror 14 Oct. in Baker (1945) 269: The pitch and toss has gone down th’ field of wheat.

[4] In the Australian National Dictionary as: tramp v. trans. [Figurative use of tramp ‘to stamp (upon)’ (OED).] To dismiss (a person) from employment. 1914 Bendigo Advertiser 17 July 8/4 There were numerous instances in which men had been sent away to these construction works, but not given a start, while those who had been ‘tramped’—often very good men—after working a day or so, were very many.

[5] In the AND as: to-and-from n. Rhyming slang for pom. 1963 R. McGregor-Hastie Compleat Migrant 16 ‘You a to and from?’ ‘I’m English,’ you say, guessing rightly that a to and from is Aussia [sic] rhyming slang for Pom.

Straight to the poolroom with these Australian idioms

9780195550269The 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.

Southern Brown Bandicoot

The Southern Brown Bandicoot: Silly, Miserable, Lonely?

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.

Amanda-LaugesenDr 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.

Our 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?

Image source: John O’Neill, Wikipedia Commons

Did you know?

Platypus

The platypus, a.k.a. duck-mole, paradox, water-mole, duck-bill, is the outcast of the Australian animal kingdom: ‘it is like a puppy in the body, with four webbed duck’s feet, two wings, a beaver’s tail, and a goose’s head and bill; now a country that can produce such a monstrosity as this can produce anything’ (J.A. Edwards, Gilbert Gogger, 1876). For centuries, this awkward-looking creature has suffered the jibes of the public while the kangaroo and koala are lauded as national icons. The platypus’s mere existence was questioned, and was considered a taxidermy hoax when naturalists back in England attempted to demonstrate its existence in a far-off land. This ‘half-bird, half-beast’ (F. Cowan, Australia, 1886) ‘has long excited the scepticism and astonishment of naturalists’ (C. Lyon, Narrative and Recollections of Van Dieman’s Land, 1844) for its seemingly impossible amalgamative physical make-up – otter, mole, duck and beaver – that seems to defy the laws of biology.

August is Platypus Month, the time of year when the platypus is most likely to be seen. For too long the unpretentious platypus has been ridiculed with names that read more like insults! Today, the reputation of this exceptional creature has been tarnished across the globe, with some countries singling out the elusive platypus as one of Australia’s dangerous animals (Luke Royes, ‘Australian travel advice and warnings issued by foreign governments’, ABC News, 2016). In 1976, it was noted that ‘it is not generally known that such a delightful animal as a Platypus is venomous’ (E. Worrell, Things that Sting) – a fact that remains today. The male platypus possesses a venomous spur, which can cause those stung some pain and swelling. However, there is really nothing to worry about; the venom is non-lethal, is only present during summer months, and is used to defend against competition during mating season, not as a general protection method – hardly the terrifying creature some would have you believe. So this August, rather than sneering at its peculiarities, let’s take a moment to celebrate the wonder that is the platypus.

 Amanda Louey is an Editor (Secondary Division) at Oxford University Press Australia. She can be identified by the following traits: drinks lots of tea; is a cat person (owns two); and has an indiscriminate love of all things sweet. Unsurprisingly, the latter puts her at odds with her dentist.

9780195550269This article was inspired by entries from the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. This dictionary is the only comprehensive, historically-based record of the words and meanings that make up Australian English. It is a unique lexical map of Australian history and culture.

The dictionary was produced at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University. The Centre, established in 1988, is a joint venture of theAustralian National University and Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand.

Chief Editor: Dr Bruce Moore is a former Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre (1994–2011). He has edited a number of OUP dictionaries, including the Australian Oxford Dictionary.
Managing Editor: Dr Amanda Laugesen
Editors: Mark Gwynn, Julia Robinson

platypus