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Diabolically Arcane

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December 02, 2010

Starve the lizards – the small world of Australian letters is in a lather this week, a dinkum stoush in fact, with The Monthly critic Peter Conrad chucking the kitchen sink at author Hugh Lunn.

The gist of the barney is Australian slang. In Conrad’s mind, Lunn’s latest book – Words Fail Me – is a veiled attempt to preserve this nation’s parochial values, going so far as accusing the Queensland writer as adopting “the persona of a philological Pauline Hanson.‘ Like, ouch.


Lunn for his part has deplored the accusations. ‘'Peter Conrad has a bee in his bonnet without knowing anything about me,” he told Susan Wyndham in today’s Age. And yes, The Monthly can expect a defamation suit on its bull-nosed veranda soon.

The debate, as far as I can make out, dwells on the notion that old-time Aussie speak is either seen as:

(a) an important entity and identifier we’d be wise to preserve in a ever-homogenous village;

or (b) an embarrassing colonial hangover.

So where do you fall? Let’s not swap diatribes, or post-grad doctorates, but rather impressions in brief. Leaving behind the stances of Lunn and Conrad, how do you see homegrown idiom, and which phrases do you use – or hate to see lost?

Myself, I’m a sucker for saying ‘big woop’ and ‘rat’s arse’ – both legacies of the schoolyard – while this Chrissie, taking prezzies to Sydney, I’ll be dropping by the odd servo for a sanga. At least that’s the plan.

But I’m equally prone to utter such terms as no-brainer, go figure, guy for bloke, or yada-yada. Not that there’s wrong with that – or the other. Can’t the two coexist? Of course they bloody can, but which linguistic way do you lean – and what are your own pet dialects?

Carn mate, don’t be shy.



02 December at 01:41PM

Interesting topic. My day job requires me to regularly "sell" investment in Australia (as an advanced, strong, progressive economy etc etc) to an international audience. Our quirky sayings and "she'll be right" attitude do paint us as being a backwater in the eyes of many, yet others see it as endearing. Jury is out.

But after "The Castle" was released in the US, I loved the fact that they had to spell it out (slowly) to American audiences the phrase "Suffer in yer jocks". Classic stuff.

Mr X

02 December at 02:25PM

It is an interesting topic. I don't think it's a simple dichotomy of "classic" Australianisms from our bushie background vs the globalised English of Hollywood and the internet. Australian-specific slang changes and evolves like every other - I don't think you have to hang on to a Bazza McKenzie vocab to be distinctively Australian. It's sometimes hard to know whether a particular term is a local one or not. One I was overeas once I described a dodgy looking character as being a bit "suss". The Americans I was with had never heard the term,loved it and immediately adopted it. I understand it's now widely used in Minneapolis.


02 December at 02:37PM

The other side of the razoo is how Australians tailor imported phrases and globish to suit our style anyway.

Never seems to take too long for a croquembouche to be a crock, say, or a TV catchphrase to get a parochial tweak, much like kids say 'devo' (rhymes with Kevo) for devastated.

For every Coolgardie safe we lose, a muffin top springs up.


02 December at 03:52PM

Too often, these arguments talk about these words in isolation, without reference to how words mark out people and are attached to a form of life.

So, what I'm getting at, is that I love to hear someone like Bob Katter talk about galahs, cobbers and cut snakes, but those words out of an inner-city sophisticate just comes off as ironic because the more traditional words don't belong to the inner-city sophisticate's form of life. An inner-city sophisticate just can't say those words without looking out of place or ironic.

And I would say that the slow death of the more colourful expressions of the Aussie slang lexicon is just a reflection of the urban push resulting from people moving from the country to the city, where certain words and expressions don't match the new environment. I have mates or friends because I'm one of those inner-city sophisticates, but I love that Bob Katter still has cobbers, and unless a whole bunch of things start to change in my social circles, I can't have cobbers without looking like a bit of an idiot.

And I've always liked "same dog, different balls" as a variant of "two sides of the same coin".


02 December at 10:26PM

The ex-Pom half of Gymbunnies thinks "I'm just gunna drop the kids off at the pool" (euphemism) is a distinctively Australian and hilariously funny piece of vernacular that needs to be preserved, but he does love a bit of toilet humour.

The Aussie half reckons that "grouse" (when used to mean "very good or excellent") is under used and should be brought back into common usage, so if DA could work it into a crossword...we'd be happy to see it replace an earlier suggestion. Just kidding, not off the hook that easily.


02 December at 11:53PM

I have found in my experiences with people from South Africa, UK, Canada and the US that noticing and exchanging local vernacular is a fun and insightful process. The origins of many expressions usually holds an interesting story or meaning behind them, so I tend to slot them into the category of novel vintage collector items to pluck out and show off in social settings.

Still, I come across Slang Dictionaries now and then and have a flick through and think "I have only ever heard about 10% of these."


03 December at 07:56AM

Apart from "crikey" which, to my kids disgust, I find peerless when observing bizarre or unexpectedly odd phenomena, I don't like over-used slang. You would never use it when writing for instance because it's too lazy (unless its very overuse was the point), so I tend to only use slang if I'm a sudden fan of its originality and cleverness. I guess that's an important early stage of the slang life-cycle.
As such, my family is gunna be hearing a lot of "I'm just gunna drop the kids off at the pool"


03 December at 08:27AM

Just make sure you know what it means, Mauve, before you develop the habit.

My current piece of pet idiom is 'didn't get the memo' [a lovely 15 as well] - the ideal phrase for when you realise you're standing outside the loop [14].

03 December at 09:18AM

If it didn't mean that, it wouldn't be so funny DA


03 December at 01:56PM

'Dinking' is one of my favourites - and kept American friends amused; and 'chuck a u-ey' is also not one to suggest to a driver overseas... where does 'dinking' come from?


03 December at 04:01PM

Some time ago and probably as we speak, various persons in authority had a habit of dunking their snouts in The Trough, some even more deviously, and successfully, than others.
I call these people Troughrorters.


03 December at 06:31PM

DINK: –noun 1. a ride obtained from being dinked.
–verb (t) 2. to convey as a second person on a horse, bicycle, or motorcycle.

[? British dialect dink to dandle a baby]

Macq V5.


03 December at 07:45PM

Thanks DA - so Australian, but probably from a British origin? We only used it in relation to bikes.

John Tranter

05 December at 07:24PM

You type "But I’m equally prone for uttering such terms as..."

It should be "prone to utter".




06 December at 08:04AM

Never wrong for long - the online motto.

Thanks JT - the solecism is now sorted. Good to hear from you.

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