Oxford Word of the Month: March – Corflute

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noun: a temporary sign or poster made of corrugated plastic sheeting.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

Another election and another spate of corflute crimes in Gladstone. (Gladstone Observer, 31 May 2016)

2016 was a year of elections, here and elsewhere. It was also a year in which the corflute gained extra traction in our vocabulary.

The corflute is an essential campaign tool. It is a lightweight waterproof sign, usually printed with a candidate’s image, name, and party affiliation (if any). It can be found in shopping centres as a billboard, or cable-tied to trees and fences, or attached to a stake and stuck into the ground alongside roads and highways for the attention of passing motorists.

The word corflute derives from a proprietary name for the corrugated plastic sheeting used for temporary signage, and signs made from this have been a feature of Australian campaigns for many years. However, evidence of corflute in the sense of ‘a temporary sign’ is relatively recent, and dates from about 2000. It occurs chiefly in election contexts.

An early use of the word refers to a couple of disappointed Queensland car thieves:

The thieves, trying to find something of value, had pulled out the back seat to see what was in the boot. … All it contained was two corflutes the car’s owner had souvenired from Premier Peter Beattie and Member for Woodridge Mike Kaiser’s campaigns. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 17 July 2000)

This item points to a problem associated with the use of corflutes—the ease with which they may be stolen. It is a recurring headache for political candidates. In 2004 the Cairns Post noted that:

Cairns candidates are counting the cost of stolen election signs, with some runners out of pocket more than $500. With still four days to go until the local government polls, corflutes across the city are disappearing daily by the dozen. (24 March)

Partisan vandalism is often suspected: ‘Member for Fisher Peter Slipper released a statement yesterday accusing the LNP and its supporters of conspiring against him by stealing and destroying corflutes.’ (Sunshine Coast Daily, 31 August 2013)

More recently the overuse of campaign corflutes has been regarded as a blot on the landscape:

The Hills Shire Times wants your help to clean up our district. It’s been more than a week since the election but political advertising boards, or corflutes, are still strewn across the Hills. (Hills Shire Times, 5 April 2011)

In the 2016 ACT election voters had to choose from a record number of candidates for an expanded Legislative Assembly. This meant many more signs were put up than usual, and public tolerance was pushed to the limit. It was described as ‘a war of corflutes’ and, post-election, an outlet for public frustration was planned:

In what had been billed as ‘the first ever post-election stomping of the corflutes’, the Like Canberra party called on Canberrans to gather their ‘legally obtained surplus corflutes’ to destroy them in what would be a cathartic experience for many people. Corflute whacking party organiser … Richard Tuffin said there had been a lot of anger about the density of corflutes. (Canberra Times, 16 October 2016)

Not surprisingly, evidence for the word corflute spiked significantly in 2016. With more elections ahead, the ‘stomping of the corflutes’ may catch on.

Corflute will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Oxford Word of the Month: February – Black Caviar odds

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nounvery short odds; strong favouritism.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

Black Caviar odds first appears in print in 2011 referring to a possible Reserve Bank cut in the official interest rate on Melbourne Cup Day:

We are now headed for a Cup Day official interest rate cut and the banks will pass it on in full and quickly to borrowers. Both these predictions are at Black Caviar odds and just as certain. (Melbourne Herald Sun, 7 October)

The term refers to the champion racehorse Black Caviar, undefeated in 25 races between 2008 and 2013. Betting on Black Caviar entailed very short odds. This first evidence clearly links the transfer of the literal odds on a horse to anything that is likely to be strongly favoured, and hence not likely to bring in a good return on a bet.

In 2013 the Coalition was seen as the likely winner of the Australian federal election, with the Gold Coast Bulletin reporting that the Coalition was ‘getting into Black Caviar odds of $1.16 to take government in September’. (19 February) Although the term appears here in reference to an election—many Australians are keen to bet on the outcome of any contest—it is more often found in the sporting and horse racing worlds, as in the following examples.

In 2015, Australia faced Afghanistan in a World Cup cricket match and were strongly favoured to win:

Australia will start at Black Caviar odds but have been impressed by Afghanistan’s performances this tournament, most notably pace duo Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran. (Canberra Times, 4 March)

And in 2016 we see it in a horse racing context:

[Trainer Stephen] Lee would be Black Caviar odds to lead in at least one winner from his five starters at his home meeting with every chance the triumph will come early. (Sydney Daily Telegraph 30 April)

Black Caviar odds is a variation of an older Australian English term with the same meaning, Phar Lap odds: ‘Whichever is successful will carry the proverbial ton of money and start at “Phar Lap” odds.’ (Cessnock Eagle, 23 November 1933). Phar Lap is Australia’s most famous racehorse. He won numerous races including the Melbourne Cup, and his success captured Australia’s imagination during the Great Depression. We will have to wait and see if the term Black Caviar odds has the staying power of Phar Lap.

Black Caviar odds will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Oxford Word of the Month: January – turbo chook

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noun: a jocular name for the Tasmanian native hen, Tribonyx mortierii.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

The Tasmanian native hen is a flightless moorhen endemic to the island of Tasmania. Although it is unrelated to the domestic hen, it was named a ‘native hen’ by the early European settlers, who applied the epithet ‘native’ to many Australian indigenous animals where they saw a resemblance to a familiar European species—hence terms such as native bear (koala), native hedgehog (echidna), and native pheasant (lyrebird).

In 1924 a scientific work gave this description of the Tasmanian native hen: ‘Runs exceeding fast, and many native dogs cannot catch a native hen even in open country.’ (Lord & Scott, A Synopsis of the Vertebrate Animals of Tasmania, 1924) A similar observation was made in 2004: ‘Despite their plump, chicken-like appearance, the Tasmanian Native Hen is estimated to reach speeds up to 50 kmh when its little legs wind up.’ (Launceston Examiner, 17 July) The comments about its speed and appearance suggest why it has recently been given the colloquial name turbo chook.

The first evidence for turbo chook occurs in a 2003 travel article about Maria Island, Tasmania, in which the writer mentions that native hens are called turbo chooks, ‘though these ones seem to have lost a few revs’. (Australian, 1 March) The turbo element of turbo chook is an abbreviation of turbocharged, referring to something that operates at an accelerated speed or goes at a fast pace. The second element, chook, is an Australian colloquial term for a domestic fowl dating from the 1850s. It is derived from a British dialect word, chuck(y), with the same meaning. There is some evidence from the early 20th century of the term chook being applied to other birds, including the emu, but this is rare.

In recent years the term turbo chook has become more widely known in Tasmania, as these examples show:

Tasmania now has its own official flower and animal emblems. May I suggest the black currawong as our bird. It is large and robust, a great image, but also friendly. The only other contender in my opinion is the native hen or ‘turbo chook’ but it hasn’t quite got the image or what it takes. (Launceston Examiner, 15 June 2015)

I just dodged a turbo chook and hit a telegraph pole after eating some crayfish and flatties. (Hobart Mercury, 4 September 2016)

Turbo chook was probably used informally in Tasmania for some time before it occurred in the written record in the early 2000s. Although usage is largely confined to Tasmania where the bird is found, its appearance in the title of a popular 2013 children’s picture book, Sonia Strong’s Tazzie the Turbo Chook Finds Her Feet, indicates that the term may become more generally known in Australian English.

Turbo chook will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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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

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Oxford Word of the Month: December – koala diplomacy

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noun: Australia’s use of koalas as diplomatic gifts to other countries; a form of Australian soft power diplomacy.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

In May 1994, Australia arranged for a koala called Blinky Bill (named after a famous koala in Australian children’s fiction) and his younger half-brother, Kupala, to spend some time on extended loan at a zoo in the German city of Bonn. The koalas came from San Diego Zoo (rather than Australia), but were nevertheless Australian ambassadors. Their display in Bonn Zoo was complemented by the broadcasting of the Australian television show Blinky Bill, the sale of koala t-shirts, and the chance to win a trip to Australia.

An Australian embassy representative said: ‘Australia could benefit from the koala diplomacy.’ (Canberra Times, 18 May 1994) The koala visit would raise Australia’s profile in Germany and encourage German tourism to Australia. It also had an unexpected result: the Australian embassy received unsolicited donations to support organisations helping injured wildlife after a recent Sydney bushfire. As it turned out, when the media events took place at the zoo, a didgeridoo performance upset the koalas:

Zaine Flynn, an Aborigine who is playing a didgeridoo in a modern production of Hamlet in Stuttgart, provided an additional Australian flavour to the koala diplomacy. He played inside the koala house until zoo authorities asked him to leave because the noise seemed to be upsetting the residents. (Canberra Times, 29 May 1994)

One of the first instances of koala diplomacy occurred in 1984 with the gifting of two koalas to Japan by the Queensland Premier; several other instances have occurred since, including the 1994 German event. The term is modelled on China’s panda diplomacy—where pandas are sent to other countries to facilitate diplomatic relations between China and other countries (starting in the modern era in the 1950s).

One of the most notable recent instances of koala diplomacy was during the G20 summit in Brisbane in 2014 when world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were photographed cuddling koalas. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop commented that:

koala diplomacy should not be underestimated as ‘it portrays Australia in a soft light and promotes our values as an open, free, tolerant democracy’. The koala’s diplomatic sway was crystallised for Ms Bishop at a retreat she held this year for a number of foreign ambassadors in West Australia. During a visit to the Sandalford Winery native animals were brought from a nearby wildlife sanctuary for the diplomats to meet, with a koala proving the most popular. (Melbourne Age, 27 December 2014)

The effectiveness of koala diplomacy as a form of soft diplomacy has seen the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade producing what is referred to as a ‘koala diplomacy manual’. The approach has been criticised by some commentators:

In historical efforts at cultivating soft power—Australia’s public image overseas—we’ve leaned pretty heavily on wildlife (DFAT has reportedly produced a 600-page koala diplomacy manual). It’s hard not to see the koalas as another outing in the line of dumbed-down Paul Hogan-inspired Australiana kitsch we’ve been flogging to the world for decades: g’arn maaate, c’mon down unda! (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2015)

Despite this criticism, it seems very likely that Australia will continue to engage in koala diplomacy in the future.

Koala diplomacy will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Oxford Word of the Month: November – Melbourne Cup field

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noun: 1. a very large and open field of applicants for a job, contract, etc. 2. a pool of highly-qualified competitors.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s most famous horse race, run annually on the first Tuesday in November at the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne. The large amount of prize money, massive crowds, and long history of the event have made it a special part of the Australian sporting and cultural landscape—it is quite literally the race that stops a nation.

Since 1861 the Melbourne Cup has been a handicap race run over two miles (now 3,200m) for horses aged three years and over. The handicap nature of the race sees horses allocated particular weights based on the combined weight of the horse and jockey, the age of the horse, and its previous performance. The allocation of weights aims at evening out the field of entrants so that, theoretically, any horse can win the race.

The first evidence for the term Melbourne Cup field is descriptive, meaning ‘the field of horses participating in the Melbourne Cup’. This literal sense is found in records soon after the inaugural event:

I cannot have the little horse in a Melbourne Cup field, seeing that a numerous company is not to his liking. Were there but a dozen at the post we should see the little horse in the first flight at the finish; but as the probability is that there will be nearer forty starters than twelve, I feel compelled to overlook the pretentions of the good little son of Boiardo. (Melbourne Australasian, 10 October 1868)

This report also points to the large field of entrants in the race, although in recent times the number is nearer twenty than forty.

The first evidence for the transferred meaning of Melbourne Cup field from equine to human competitors is found in the 1930s:

The number of candidates who have announced their intention to nominate for the Coburg Council has been described as a ‘Melbourne Cup field’. The total so far is 27. (Melbourne Argus, 27 July 1938)

Here the writer highlights the large number of nominees for the council election with no reference to the quality of the candidates. This sense of Melbourne Cup field, ‘a very large and open field of applicants’, is often found in a political context, sometimes with the implication that many applicants are keen to get their snouts in the trough:

Any vacancy that occurs for a Federal seat of Parliament will always attract a Melbourne Cup field of candidates. But is the field full of moderate handicappers with not too many entries from weight-for-age performers? (Chipp and Larkin, Chipp, 1987)

While the transferred use of Melbourne Cup field usually refers to the large number of applicants for a position, there is also recent evidence for a more positive meaning, ‘a pool of highly-qualified competitors’:

The contract to renew the NSW Government’s telecommunications systems was won against a ‘Melbourne Cup field’ of Australian and overseas bidders … Telecom did not even run second. (Canberra Times, 25 July 1990)

‘A large number of applicants’ remains the central meaning of the transferred use of Melbourne Cup field.

Both senses of Melbourne Cup field are included in the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary (2016).

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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.

Oxford Word of the Month: October – baggy green

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noun: (also baggy green cap) 1. the cap worn by an Australian Test cricketer. 2. this cap as a symbol of selection in an Australian Test cricket team. 3. an Australian Test cricketer.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

The baggy green cap is an emblem of this nation. (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 2003)

The cap worn by Australian Test cricketers, the baggy green, is now a national sporting icon. Originally it was not called the baggy green and nor was it baggy (the baggy cap replaced a more fitted cap in 1921). The veneration of the baggy green is relatively recent, as confirmed by the recollections of former Test players in an article by sports journalist Russell Jackson:

Former Australian fast bowler Frank Misson told Fahey and Coward that in the early 1960s it was still known simply as ‘the cap’ and that its ‘flouncy’ aesthetic qualities were deemed a little outdated by his team-mates of that era. Ian Chappell maintains that it was rarely spoken of by he or his 1970s team-mates. (Guardian Australia, 23 December 2015)

Evidence for the term appears late in the written record. Apart from the odd mention of the baggy green cap in the 1950s, it is not until the 1980s that the cap becomes a commonplace in reports on the Australian Test cricket team:

The Aussies went out hell bent on enjoying their cricket. Enthusiasm was high, pride at a premium and baggy greens firmly fixed on heads held high. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 11 April 1984)

The association of the cap with the pinnacle of cricketing success was well established by the late 1980s: ‘There are still too many willing to die to wear the baggy green cap.’ (Hobart Mercury, 25 March 1989)

During the 1990s the awarding of the cap became a ritual. In solemn pre-match ceremonies new players received their baggy green from the hands of the captain or a former Test great, and for players it became a tangible link to their predecessors in a long tradition of Australian Test cricket. Its elevation to mythical status in Australian sporting history occurred especially under the stewardship of Test captains Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, and Ricky Ponting.

Although the cap looks somewhat antediluvian in the modern era of international cricket, and offers very little protection from the sun, it is now an object of reverence: ‘Stars sing an ode to the baggy green.’ (Hobart Mercury, 17 November 1999) The cap has become such a potent symbol that in recent years even the players are sometimes called baggy greens:

With any luck the baggy greens are in a position to wipe the smugness from the Barmy Army’s faces. (Melbourne Age, 23 November 2013)

Baggy green is included in the recently released second edition of the Australian National Dictionary (2016).

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Oxford Word of the Month: September – hip-pocket nerve

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noun: an imaginary nerve that reacts whenever demands are made on one’s money (especially in contexts such as government proposals to increase taxes).

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

The first evidence of the term hip-pocket nerve occurs in a speech by Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1947. In May of that year, during a tax debate in the House of Representatives, Chifley responded to a comment on aggregate taxation by the member for Fawkner:

The average citizen is not interested in what the whole of the community pays; his sole interest is in what he pays. Accordingly, I shall bring the honourable member for Fawkner right down to earth. As members of Parliament receive an allowance of £1000 a year, I propose to examine the case of a man in receipt of that income, because it will bring home the facts to a very sensitive nerve in the human constitution—the ‘hip-pocket nerve’. (Reported in The Australian Worker, 21 May 1947)

The hip-pocket nerve gets its name from the pocket in the back of a pair of trousers, just behind the hip, that traditionally contains a wallet. Chifley’s point is that we are all sensitive to demands on our wallet, especially those coming from government. Australian governments of all persuasions are acutely aware of this around the time of the annual Federal Budget:

While this year’s Budget will be hitting the hip-pocket nerve, the Government is taking solace in the knowledge that it has up to two years to win over the electorate. (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August 1986)

Did Ben Chifley coin the term hip-pocket nerve, or was he using a term he already knew? In the absence of earlier evidence we can’t rule out the possibility that it is Chifley’s coinage. What is clear is that its first recorded outing in a tax debate foreshadowed the context of bureaucratic impost in which this Australian term is still chiefly used:

This week’s Geelong city council decision to lift rates an average 8 per cent will leave ratepayers, whacked heavily about the hip pocket nerve in recent years, even more disillusioned. (Geelong Advertiser, 4 June 2005)

Hip-pocket nerve is included in the recently released second edition of the Australian National Dictionary (2016).

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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.

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Image source: John O’Neill, Wikipedia Commons