As Aussie As

A couple of weeks ago I was trying to find the definitive spelling of strewth (for here), which turns out to have the edge over struth and my preferred streuth. In the process, I came across a 2004 article by Bruce Elder on the decline of the Aussie vernacular, and by cripes it had me spitting chips. (In a mellow kind of way.)

Bruce Elder appears to be approaching his eponymous role as the elder Bruce a bit too enthusiastically. Can he really be so sure that all those words and phrases are dead? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one brought up short to hear that not a patch on and bend over backwards have carked it, because I use them all the time. Similarly boofhead, drongo, jif/jiffy, give it a burl, clapped out, moolah, stone the crows, donkey’s years (and its offshoot yonks), Buckley’s, bags that one, and ratbag.

Yeah, but I’m an old bastard, you say. Maybe, but not as old as Bruce; I remember reading his stuff in The Age when I was a mere yoof. Thirty-eight isn’t that old, anyway. And even though I’m an expat, I’d only been out of the country two and a half years when this article was published—the whole bloody language doesn’t turn upside down in that time.

Elder’s examples of Americanisms are similarly uncompelling. The U.S. spelling of jail and the use of guys have been around since my childhood—so what? A few prominent examples don’t mean that the whole language has been rewritten. And the usage he mentions of you guys to refer to groups of men and women collectively is distinctively Australian: saying guys and gals is what would mark you out as a yank.

He talks about youse as if it’s new, when in fact as the Irish plural of you it was almost certainly part of Australian English from the beginning. It was commonplace in Anglo-Irish Tasmania in the 1970s and ’80s.

Examples that were always clearly tied to a particular time don’t prove much, either; if we were talking about teenage trends of the 1950s we would still talk about bodgies and widgies, same as we’d talk about the mods and hippies of a decade later.

So many of Elder’s complaints make me wonder who he talks to; they smack of the urban upper middle-class. Yes, inner-city urbanites knock the parochialism out of their own language, because they tend to travel overseas, embrace foreign influences and deal with people from all over the world. I don’t lay it on thick here on my own site because I hope to be read by English-speakers from anywhere, and use words and phrases from other branches of English because I enjoy mucking around with words.

But one thing that writing for an international audience has taught me (as has reading others who do the same) is that I use all sorts of words and phrases that I hadn’t been aware were distinctively Australian. Even if I wanted to tone down the obvious Aussie-isms, the crikeys and strewths, I’d inevitably miss all the ones I wasn’t aware of. It isn’t just words, either, but how we say them and use them. Two years on the OEDILF has made me aware of stress patterns and details in words and phrases that are as distinctively ours as any of those Elder quotes: the Australian instinct to stress the second syllable in certain words, for example—most famously in recent years in the words harrass and harrassment, which led to an ABC directive to its newsreaders to use the English pronunciations. Up yours, ABC management: I’m saying har-RASS until I die.

I use other Aussie-isms both consciously and unconsciously, and have done ever since I stopped being a self-conscious yoof about it. Partly because they remind me of my family—my Mum’s, in particular, was a rich source of finest Sydney; partly because they remind me of when and where I grew up, in rural, working class Tassie; and partly because it’s fun, and feels like I’m keeping something alive that’s worth keeping. I was never prouder than when I taught my teenage brothers-in-law the phrase fair suck of the sav (saveloy = frankfurter; see also fair suck of the sauce bottle). But obviously I’m not going to use that in an academic paper, or a serious article for the SMH, or at an international conference on an international subject. There’s a time and a place; but as long as it’s in somebody’s head waiting for its moment to be spoken, a word is never truly dead.

Elder finishes by saying that “you can bet there are no ‘Blokes and coves and coots’ driving those Balmain bulldozers around town”. Even older slang like cove and coot can survive in pairings like good cove and silly coot, and to say that bloke is dead is ridiculous. The word has even been picked up by young Americans, so how long before Aussies start hailing it as a long-lost son?

There are plenty who would still look down their noses at it, of course. They’ve been telling us that mate is dead, except in a sarcastic sense, since the late ’80s. My mates and I would disagree.

24 September 2006 · Whatever

I was wondering about moola/moolah, and just checked my Chambers dictionary (UK), the Macquarie (Oz), and Merriam-Webster’s (US): they all have it, and all say it’s “origin unknown”. Not even an Australianism, then.

Added by Rory on 24 September 2006.

What struck me about this was the number of expressions I didn't know were Australian: "not a patch on", "bend over backward", "donkey's years", "bags" (which I associate more with Enid Blyton books. My sister almost always refers to money as "moolah" just because she likes the word.

I know there are others who disagree, but I'd say you have the correct pronunciation of "harass" (etc) there. The other way always sounds wrong to me.

Added by K on 25 September 2006.

That may mean that they aren’t distinctly Australian, and that Elder’s article is on even shakier ground! Plenty of Australian slang is just old British slang, even “mate” and “strewth”. Barry Humphries and Neighbours have helped bring some Oz slang over here, but the influence was always stronger in the other direction.

Added by Rory on 26 September 2006.

Yep, the OED has “bags” from 1914 onwards, “donkey's years” from around the same time, and “not a patch on” from 1860 onwards—none of them noted as Austral., so presumably they're all British. And “bend over backwards”, from the 1920s, is American. So much for his version of our authentically Australian vernacular.

Added by Rory on 26 September 2006.

In NZ, it's pronounced Meight. And that sucker is pushing up daisies. Yeah, right.

Added by Nomes on 2 October 2006.

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