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Australian slang - a story of Australian English

Slang can be seen as a demonstration of how experience shapes language and also how language shapes identity.

soldier in trench with gramophone

An unidentified Australian soldier, probably of the 10th Light Horse, on sentry duty with bayonet attached to his rifle, listening to music playing on the highly prized possession of a gramophone. Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: A05402.

Australia's every day language is rich with slang that reflects experiences from the country's history. From borrowings of Aboriginal language words, through convict sources, the gold rushes and bushranging to the First World War, words have emerged to describe essential aspects of the Australian character and identity.

Kangaroo was borrowed even prior to colonisation. The convicts gave us 'muster', 'bolter', 'rollup' and 'servants of the crown'. Bush rangers gave us the 'bush telegraph'. A key part of the Australian psyche, 'the digger', came out of the First World War, the term adapted from its use in the gold rushes.

Australian slang utilised humour, wit, rhymes, flash language, the bizarre experiences of the bush and the beach, the familiar and the personal to realise terms that could describe experiences that were often new or transforming. For example, 'having a bash' at something is similar to 'giving it a burl', and both phrases reflect a history of Australian improvisation and hard work as part of working in the bush.

The Australian idiom or vernacular

Section of a glossary of Australian terms, 1936.

Section of a glossary of Australian terms, 1936, Allan & Co. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia.

Sydney Baker, author of a number of works about slang, believed that the Australian's 'greatest talent is for idiomatic invention. It is a manifestation of our vitality and restless imagination'.

Amanda Laugesen, in her study of the slang of the First World War, reminds us of how slang reinforced a sense of national identity among Australian troops far away from home, fighting in countries where people spoke foreign languages. In the Second World War, 'Don't come the raw prawn' was used and is still used to warn off someone when they attempt to impose their will.

Australian slang contributes to a vocabulary that most Australians understand, and what could be called the Australian 'idiom' or 'vernacular'. There are a number of dictionaries devoted to documenting both past and present Australian slang or colloquialisms. Even so, determining the exact definition of an Australian colloquialism will always lead to a lively and interesting debate.

Substitutions, comparisons and abbreviations

One of the most common forms of slang is through substitution and comparison. One form of substitution is when rhyming slang removes one part of a phrase and replaces it with a word that rhymes. For example to 'have a Captain Cook' means to have a look. Substitution could also include a 'metaphor', where one word or idea stands in for another. There is no town in Australia called 'Woop Woop', however it has been a popular and evocative byword for a remote location, and has been in use since the 1900s.

barbecue

Barbecue at Kwinana siding, 1959. Photo by William Prince. Image courtesy of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Colloquialisms that take the form of a comparison often raise startling images, for example:

  • 'flat out like a lizard drinking' (working very hard on a task) or
  • 'standing like a bandicoot on a burnt ridge' (feeling lonely and vulnerable).
  • dazed and confused, someone will wander 'like a stunned mullet';
  • in a furious rage, they will be 'mad as a cut snake' and,
  • in a state of undeniable lifelessness they will be 'dead as a maggot'.

Australians also demonstrate a strong impulse to abbreviate and alter word endings, resulting in 'barbie' for barbecue, 'arvo' for afternoon, 'cossie' for swimming costume and 'blowie' for blowfly.

Aboriginal languages

a kangaroo

Kangaroo at Tidbinbilla. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia: NAA-A6135.

One of the most important influences on Australian English has been Aboriginal languages. There are a number of Aboriginal words that have been adopted colloquially within Australian English, for example 'boomerang', 'humpy' or 'corroboree'. One of the first words collected was kangaroo.

In 1770 Captain James Cook was forced to beach the Endeavour for repairs near present-day Cooktown, after the ship had been damaged on reefs. He and Joseph Banks collected a number of Aboriginal words from the local Guugu Yimidhirr people ... On 12 July 1770 Banks recorded in his journal 'Kill Kanguru', and on 4 August Cook wrote: 'the Animal which I have before mentioned called by the natives Kangooroo or Kanguru'.
Bruce Moore

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 there were some 250 distinct languages, and at least 600 dialects amongst Australian Aborigines. In the first 100 years of European colonisation about 400 words were borrowed into Australian English from some 80 languages.

an aboriginal camp

John Howard Preston, Aboriginal camp. Four figures and Gunyah in Queensland, 1893. Image courtesy of Queensland Library.

The Dharuk language was spoken in the area around Sydney, and this language provided a large number of words recorded between 1788 and 1803. They include: boomerang (1790), corroboree (1790), dingo (1789), gunyah (1803), koala (1798), nulla-nulla (1790), waddy (1790), wallaby (1798), waratah (1788), warrigal (1790), wombat (1798) and woomera (1793).

As exploration and settlement spread out, language borrowings from further afield included the Kamilaroi language of eastern New South Wales (NSW): brolga (1896), budgerigar (1840) and bora (1850). Borrowings from the Yuwaalaraay language of northern NSW include: bilby (1885) and galah (1862). Borrowings from the Wiradhuri languages of south-western NSW include: corella (1859), gang-gang (1833), kookaburra (1834) and quandong (1836).

Other hybrid words have emerged through a 'pidgin' or early adaptation of English words to describe aspects of Aboriginal that was spoken in the 1800s. Most of these have now disappeared, but two important words have survived. These are bung (1841) and yakka (1847), both borrowed from the Yagara language of the Brisbane region.

The phrase 'gone walkabout' was originally used in the early 1800s to describe the seasonal patterns of movement of Aborigines across their land or country. Now it is used in a more general, and sometimes inaccurate, way to describe a journey away from home. Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald even reported in 1981 that 'Lady Diana takes a Royal walkabout in her stride' (25 July 1981, p.10).

Major Mitchell, the Surveyor-General of NSW 1825–1855, surveyed vast tracts of land was one of the few surveyors who took an enlightened view of selecting Aboriginal place names for geographical features. Today, the Geographic Names Board NSW, established in 1966 as the official body for naming and recording details of places and geographical details in NSW, has a dual naming policy, acknowledging Aboriginal culture through place naming in NSW.

Convict sources

A drawing of chains, manacles, whips etc.

Relics of convict discipline. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia.

Following the settlement of Australia as a British penal colony, the language that emerged reflected the distinct conditions of settlement, authority and punishment.

'flash language' of the convicts

In 1793 Watkin Tench, in A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson , wrote of the 'flash language' of the convicts. A convict named James Hardy Vaux wrote his New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language in 1812. This was published in 1819 as an appendix to Vaux's Memoirs. While the dictionary was produced in Australia, it is largely a collection of early 1800s London underworld slang.

The term swag similarly has its origin in thieves' slang. It originally referred to a thief's booty or plunder. By the mid-1800s, swag was used to describe the collection of personal belongings wrapped up in a bedroll, as carried by a bush traveller. This is the beginning of the swagman tradition which later arose in gold-rush context. The well-known Australian song Waltzing Matilda has helped to cement the term 'swag' in the popular imagination.

The convict system

Most of the recorded convict slang had to do with the convict system. Many of these historically specific terms have now disappeared from common usage. For example, the word 'pebble' once referred to a convict who was difficult to deal with and had the hard qualities of stone. A 'paper man' was a convict who had been granted a conditional pardon, with documents as proof.

yellow and black convict uniform

Convict uniform and two caps, 1830–1849. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an6393471.

'Magpies' and 'canaries' described the black and yellow, or straight yellow uniforms worn by convicts. The intention by Governor Macquarie in 1814 in directing that convicts who committed further crimes should wear 'half black and half white' was to make the wearer stand out and thus deter escape attempts. Later in Van Diemen's Land convict men working on the gangs were ordered to wear the conspicuous 'magpie' outfit in yellow and grey (Peter Cox, 2000, Powerhouse Museum, Convict Jacket statement of significance).

Convict terms enduring through history

There are cases of convict words enduring through history to the conversations of Australians today. They include 'servant of the Crown' and 'public servant' (as opposed to the civil servants in Britain).

In 1826, P Cunningham noted that convicts were 'spoken of under the loyal designation of government-men, the term convict being erased by a sort of general tacit compact from our Botany Bay dictionary as a word too ticklish to be pronounced in these sensitive latitudes'.

In 1843 Charles Rowcroft, in Tales of the Colonies , wrote: 'I must warn you that we never speak of the convicts in this country by that term; we always call them 'government men'; or on some occasions, prisoners; but we never use the term 'convict', which is considered by them as an insulting term'.

And so a convict was often called a public servant ... and this was later applied to anyone who worked for the government.
Australian National Dictionary Centre, The convict era

The word 'muster' in the Australian convict colony was applied to an assembly of convicts, and by the mid-1800s it was being used to refer to the gathering together of livestock for counting and branding.

The gold rushes and bushranging

painting of two men talking

S. T. Gill, The Newly Arrived Enquiring, 1854, watercolour on paper. Image courtesy of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

The gold rushes provided Australian English with some lasting terms. The importance of the term 'digger' in Australian slang and myth derives from the First World War, but its use in that war was derived from the analogy drawn between the trenches which the soldiers had to dig and the often deep holes which had to be dug in the search for gold.

Similarly 'fossick', which now means 'to rummage or search around or about', has its origin on the goldfields. The word fossick comes from British dialect where it meant 'to obtain by asking, to ferret out'.

On the goldfields it had two meanings: ... 'to steal gold from other diggers, especially from an unattended claim' ...The transferred usage was often ironic: 'If one in want of a dinner called at his neighbour's tent at mutton time he would be a fossicker'. But it is the first meaning which has survived into contemporary Australian English.
Australian National Dictionary Centre, Gold

'Roll-up' in the sense of 'a mass meeting of miners to consider an individual grievance or an issue of common concern' was used in mining contexts well into the1900s, but by the end of the 1800s it had developed its transferred sense of 'an assembly', which is now its primary meaning in Australian English.

person sitting with back against a tree and a swag on the ground nearby

Archibald Campbell, On the wallaby c. 1895, Victoria. Image courtesy of Museum Victoria: 196712.

The phrase 'to hump one's swag' in the 1870s–1900 achieved its widespread use in gold mining contexts. All of the early citations (1851–1867) use the phrase in referring to diggers, and the diggings' phrase is the one which later gives rise to the phrases 'to hump one's drum' (1870), 'to hump one's bluey' (1891), and 'to hump one's Matilda' (1902).

The development of bushranging in Australia is an off-shoot of the convict system. The first bushrangers were convicts, escaping either from imprisonment or from bad masters when in assigned service. To them, we owe the terms 'bail-up' and 'stick-up'. The bushrangers of the post–gold rush era are the more familiar 'Ned Kelly' kind. To them we owe the development of such terms as 'bush telegraph', 'cattle duffing', 'gully raking', and 'poddy dodging'.

First World War

During the First World War, many new words entered the vocabularies of all nations who participated and it appears to have been a particularly rich source of word creation. Civilians were much more affected by the First World War than they had been by previous conflicts. Language was transformed with ideas, concepts and words as people—as civilians, as soldiers and at home—came to the terms with the experience.

man standing next to a gunyah

Sinai. A type of gunyah made of palm leaves in the desert at hod el fatia. It was used by the 2nd australian light horse (2alh) field ambulance instead of a tent for a dispensary. 1916-04 (donor F. H. Smith). Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: J02900.

Eric Partridge, a New Zealander who served in the Great War and a great authority on war slang, noted that jargon and slang need to be considered separately. Jargon is seen as technical terminology devised by a particular group and part of the continuity and integrity of the forces. Slang, on the other hand, is more likely to avoid technical terminology altogether, in favour of figurative, inventive and humorous allusions to the thing being described or referred to, and sometimes serves to make the unfamiliar more familiar.

Amanda Laugesen has observed that the First World War contributed much more to slang and language creation in Australia than the Boer War or the Second World War, and that the language creation had a more lasting impact.

Digger dialects and a glossary of AIF (Australian Imperial Forces) slang

W. H. Downing's Digger dialects was first published in December 1919. Downing enlisted in 1915, served in both Egypt and France, and was awarded the Military Medal after action at Polygon Wood. Downing wrote:

Australian slang is not a new thing; but in those iron years it was modified beyond recognition by the assimilation of foreign words, and the formul of novel or exotic ideas.

soldiers in a trench

A working party of the 16th Battalion, cleaning out a gird trench, France, 23 November 1916. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: E00579.

Downing also noted further about the digger dialects that, 'Neither is it definite, for there are divergencies within every division; even within every brigade. In the Flying Corps it is different from the speech of the Infantry.' Downing saw the new slang as 'a by-product of the collective imagination of the AIF'.

In the early 1920s, the proposed Australian War Memorial (AWM) librarians were collecting and organising the official documents and records of the war, and worked to collect a glossary of the AIF slang. This first draft of the AWM glossary is accompanied by a letter from Albert George Pretty, the AWM's chief librarian, to the Museum's director, John Linton Treloar, finally published online and annotated by the Australian National Dictionary Centre, 2002.

Australian Flying Corp

While aviation itself introduced new terms to the language, there were words and phrases that were specific to the First World War Australian Flying Corp. One of the most widely known and widespread terms was 'ace'. This was used to describe a pilot who was successful in shooting down large numbers of the enemy planes. Ace was thought to have originated from the ace in a pack of cards.

'How's your father' was a message known to have been sent from an Artillery machine when wanting something to do to keep him amused. The term 'Soupy' referred 'to weather conditions of low clouds or thick fog making flying impossible'.

What functions did the slang serve?

Humour was very important as a means of coping with the impact of war. Soldiers, through slang, were able to deflect the true horror of warfare, but the slang perhaps also allowed for an articulation of that horror that they might otherwise have suppressed. ... To be dead was to be 'hung on the wire', 'pushing up daisies ', to have 'gone west ', to be 'up in Annie's room ', to have been 'smudged ' or to be in 'cold storage '.
Amanda Laugesen

Will Dyson observed in 1918 that the slang was an expediency to allow the Digger to express but disguise deep feelings; 'they have evolved a language compound of blasphemy and catch phrases in which they can unpack their hearts without seeming to be guilty of the weakness of emotion'. (W. Dyson, Australia at war: a winter record, London: Cecil Palmer and Hayward, 1918)

A lasting impact

gunyah?

Soputa Papua 1942. The gunyah occupied by Captain Alan Oliver Watson, Dental Officer with the 2/4th Field Ambulance. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P02424.117.

The use of distinctive Australian slang 'helped to forge a bond that in the years after the war fed into a distinctive national myth which emphasised mateship, masculinity and other values that had been forged on the battlefield'. (Amanda Laugesen)

Some of the slang words and phrases from the First World War remain with us today. These slang terms, include 'cobber', 'digger', 'dinkum', 'mate', 'dinky-di', 'furphy', 'Aussie' and 'the good oil'. 'Furphy' (a rumour) was an Australianism coined to reflect the cynicism of the Australian troops with the information they received about the fighting in which they participated. 'Aussie' (meaning both Australia and an Australian) was first recorded during the Great War. 'ANZAC' was created in 1915 and became seminal to Australian identity, redefined as the ANZAC spirit.

Gentle Insults

A significant number of Australian colloquialisms are affectionate insults or backhanded compliments. A clumsy friend or colleague may be called a 'dag', 'galah', 'drongo' or 'boofhead'. There are also many ways of saying that someone is not very useful, for example:

  • 'couldn't find a grand piano in a one-roomed house'
  • 'couldn't blow the froth off a glass of beer'
  • 'a chop short of a barbie'
  • 'useless as an ashtray on a motorbike'.

Perverse reversals

A photograph of Max Harris

Albert Tucker, Max Harris & Joy Hester, Tarax Bar, Flinders Station, [Melbourne], c. 1943, photograph: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia.

As writer, poet and member of the modernist literary and artistic movement the Angry Penguins, Max Harris points out in his book The Australian Way with Words , 'one of the Australian ratbag traditions is to take a word and perversely use it as the opposite of its intended meaning.' A well-known illustration of this is the word 'bluey', a nickname for someone with red hair.

Nicknames describing Australian States

In the spirit of friendly rivalry, Australian states and territories are identified through nicknames. For example, Queensland, where the northern climate encourages tropical fruit growing, is the land of 'banana benders', and Western Australia, home to some of Australia's most magnificent beaches, is populated by 'Sandgropers'. Some terms are less established, for example Victorians were once called 'gum-suckers' when the resin from gum trees (type of Australian tree also known as a Eucalypt) was used as an early substitute for chewing gum.

Interestingly, while certain distinct phrases are limited by geography, there is very little regional variation in Australian colloquialisms considering the distance between the main population centres.

Lost phrases

It is important to remember that a key feature of colloquialisms, slang or 'Australianisms' are that they are never static and often shift meaning or spelling over time. Inevitably, Australian English is constantly shedding colloquial phrases.

It is unlikely that someone will ask you to share a 'puftaloon' (a fried scone) at a 'shivoo' (party). Even in the colder, southern regions of Australia, it is rare to hear the phrase 'cold as a polar bear's bum'. However, browsing through current and historical dictionaries can offer a fascinating map reflecting the changing economic, political and cultural influences in Australian society.

Useful links

Studies of Australian English

Listen, look and play

Other

References used in preparing this story

  • Baker, S 1983, A dictionary of Australian slang, 3rd Edition, Currey O'Neil, Melbourne
  • Johansen, Lenie 'Midge' 1988, The Penguin book of Australian slang: a dinkum guide to Oz English, Penguin Books Australia, Melbourne
  • Laugesen, Amanda 2002, Convict words: language in early colonial Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne
  • Wilkes, G A 1996, A dictionary of Australian colloquialisms, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne
  • Wilkes, G A 1993, Exploring Australian English: an expert humorous look at uniquely Australian idiom, ABC Books , Sydney

Last updated: 13 April 2010
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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