On the Australian National Dictionary
In his path-breaking book The Australian Language (1945), New Zealand–born lexicographer Sidney Baker wrote that ‘there is no watertight compartment between outback slang and city slang; they had broken their banks and had begun to merge into the vast sea of words which is our language today’. He added: ‘the first term of significance in the bush vernacular was, of course, the word bush itself’. From the Dutch word bosch, it arrived in the Australian colonies at the beginning of the nineteenth century, via the Cape of Good Hope. The second edition of one of the greatest collective achievements of Australian scholarship, the Australian National Dictionary: Australian Words and Their Origins, edited by Bruce Moore (the first, edited by W.S. Ramson, appeared in 1988), has almost 40 pages of references to ‘the bush’, including the headword and its ‘compounds, idioms and derivatives’. The first edition of AND had 10,000 of these, supported by 57,000 citations; the second has 16,000, ‘illustrated by 123,000 citations’. The Select Bibliography for those citations runs to 60 pages.
The Oxford English Dictionary, ‘based on historical principles’, is the exemplar for the AND project. That being so, as the first sentence of Moore’s introduction indicates, ‘it is therefore concerned with the way the words that make up the lexicon of Australian English have evolved through time’. Just as Baker remarked the breaching of an imaginary dam between rural and urban Australian slang, so the AND traces the shifts in the meanings of words across time, as these are refreshed or—in many melancholy instances—vanish from use. The citations record the written usages of words from their earliest printed occurrence, but who now reads, let alone hears of a ‘Lygon Street log’ or a ‘maggot bag’? The former is the second last entry in AND volume one A–L, which closes with ‘lyrebird’. While at first glance indecorous, a ‘Lygon Street log’ refers to trade union claims, by association with the Trades Hall in Lygon Street, Melbourne. For those seeking nourishment, a ‘maggot bag’ can be either a sausage roll or a meat pie.
Each edition of the AND has drawn extensively and gratefully from Baker. In turn, other publications spun out of the first edition, for instance ‘a series of linguistic monographs’ that included such studies of regional Australian English as Tassie Terms and Words from the West (both 1995); Moore’s Gold! Gold! Gold! (a dictionary of nineteenth-century gold rush language, rather than a tribute to Norman May, 2000) and Convict Words (2002) and Diggerspeak (2005), edited by Amanda Laugesen, who is managing editor of the AND project. Other compilations have been used, for instance Jack Hibberd and Garrie Hutchinson’s The Barracker’s Bible (1983), a compilation of sporting slang launched long ago at the Western Oval, Footscray, and Gary Simes’ A Dictionary of Australian Underworld Slang (1993), which provided—along with much else—the majestic term ‘flipwreck’ for a habitual masturbator. Moore’s more specialised dictionary, A Lexicon of Cadet Language: Royal Military College, Duntroon in the Period 1983–85 (1993) is also put to use, although some of the fouler terms—‘lana’ and ‘squid’ for instance—do not find their way into the AND.
The OED reflected many and often surprising transformations in the usage and meaning of words: ‘buxom’ started life meaning obedient, while ‘sophisticated’ meant diluted (an alchemist’s malpractice; falling away from the natural). Words go on strange journeys in the AND as well. Thus ‘drongo’, originally the name of a spangled bird, was bestowed on a racehorse in the 1920s. Though placed in the Victoria Derby, the horse never won a race. Somewhat unfairly, the signification of the word came to mean no-hoper, thence, more recently, ‘a fool, a simpleton, an idiot’. Or consider ‘morning glory’. Originally this referred to ‘a large dark cloud that covers the morning sky in the Gulf Country’. That poetic flourish has been lost. Now (or should we say, until recently?) the phrase means ‘sex soon after one wakes up in the morning’. Without dwelling on that instance, a larger question is implied: how quickly and for what reasons do words come into and depart from the Australian lexicon? Consider this sequence: ‘heading them’ (first recorded usage 1971) refers to two-up and must be intelligible at least to older generations. Likewise ‘headkicker’, the first instance of which was as recent as 1987. But does anyone care to remember ‘headland speech[es]’ as delivered in 1995 by John Howard? And has ‘headless chook’ (from 1957) had its last spurting run round the back yard?
What then of ‘razoo’ and ‘zac’? These words died with decimal currency, if not before. The former—for a non-existent coin of trivial value—probably comes from the French sou. The latter (meaning sixpence, or ‘a trifling sum’—to some) comes either from Scots dialect ‘saxpence’ or from the German sechs. Many of the words in the AND are Aboriginal in origin. A map references 103 Aboriginal languages, the last in the sequence being Tasmanian, with this note: ‘there were probably at least eight distinct languages, but little information is available about them’. For a number of words their origin is either unknown, as in ‘shiralee’ (for swag, first mentioned in 1892) or obscure, doubtful. Two familiar but unexpected words are in that category. One is ‘bogan’, originally from a river in western New South Wales that yielded the compounds ‘bogan flea’ (an annual plant ‘regarded with disfavour by sheep owners’), ‘bogan gate’ (makeshift), ‘bogan shower’—ironical, a dust storm. The process of transference to the current usage (upper middle or not) of ‘an uncultured and unsophisticated person; a boorish and uncouth person’ is one of the mysteries. ‘Boong’ (marked ‘offensive’ by AND) is also a puzzle: ‘there is no evidence that this word is from an Aboriginal language’. ‘Bung’, elder brother, from Jakarta dialect, is the best, though not altogether persuasive suggestion.
Compounds beginning with adjectives of colour comprise rich lodes. The headword ‘black’ (alphabetically preceded by ‘Bjelkemander’) summons a rich variety of historical reference: ‘black line’ (from the initially failed attempt to round up the Aboriginal Tasmanians in 1829–30), ‘blackbird[er] (from the traders in Kanaka labour from the Pacific Islands to work in the cane fields of Queensland), to Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘black armband view of history’. We find also ‘black-eyed Susan’, ‘black-breasted plover’ and ‘black soil plain’, in addition to Black Friday and Saturday and Thursday and Wednesday (although the fourth was not a bush fire but a mass dismissal of Victorian public servants in 1879). ‘Red’ and its compounds encompass kangaroos, plants, trees, birds, fish and the frightening apparitions of the ‘red-back’ (spider) and the ‘red ragger’ (since 1910, if no longer, a communist agitator). Some other phrases deeply resonate: ‘the red centre’ first appeared in print as late as 1935, ‘red hots’ (for trotting races) in 1914, while less familiar will be ‘red penny’—money earned from the proceeds of prostitution. The phrase ‘red steer’ (setting fire to the crops of a farmer hated for whatever good or ill reasons) was still in use in recent years in my Tasmanian experience.
Successions of disparate words afford delights. Thus ‘forty-spotted pardalote’ (1838—who counted?) is followed by ‘forward pocket’ (1924, when Australian football players still stayed in position), ‘fossick’ (from the Cornish, 1852) and ‘Fosterphone’ (1987—the preferred musical instrument of Ted Egan). Q concludes with ‘Quinkan’ (from the Aboriginal, ‘a category of spirit people depicted in rock paintings of northern Queenland’); ‘quoit’—the ring-shaped object of iron, rope or rubber used in the game, but also ‘the backside, anus’; and two more words from Aboriginal languages—‘quokka’ and ‘quoll’—for creatures of the natural world. Some of the headwords generate chains of similes, none richer than ‘full’, as sampled now and usually referring—not without fondness—to the state of inebriation: full as a boot … as a bull … as a Catholic school … as a fairy’s phonebook … as a goog … as a pommy complaint box (see ‘whingeing Pom’, first recorded 1962) … as a state school (a usage repopularised by Barry Humphries, though not his invention).
In a book of such historical, lexical and imaginative span as the AND, the reader is tempted avidly to browse, passing enlightening hours in a fashion no doubt already out of date. Arguments can be more briskly settled: see the editors’ no-nonsense decision about the origins of ‘pom’. The citations, taken slowly, show the riches of metropolitan and provincial print cultures, at least in the first two centuries of the European settlement of Australia. Entries, examples of usage, tell vivid stories in miniature, ventilating comic and mordant addresses to the social world. Language has been alive and evolving throughout human occupation of the continent. The AND has the heft of a memorial volume, and indeed much of what it includes has disappeared from common usage, to be preserved here. Is the corollary a shrinking of individual vocabularies, hitherto the store houses of the Australian language, if in more limited and idiosyncratic ways than a dictionary? Where once complete sets of Walter Scott’s novels adorned Australian book shelves (their titles now dwindled to the names of suburbs), the magnificently produced and researched Australian National Dictionary ought to find a central place. After all, it is out of such hopeful dreaming that dictionaries—along with much else in the national life—have been made.
Follow us for more: