The colloquialism • The term 'slang describes a characteristic of speech (or writing) where a speaker (or writer) feels free to express themselves informally and often outside the confines of correct grammar or social niceties. These expressions are usually cheeky, personal and amusing. • A significant proportion of slang refers to vulgar or 'taboo' concepts and events. But not all humorous or memorable phrases can be classified as slang; it is important to consider how frequent and widespread the use and recognition of the term is among the general population.
Colloquialisms in dictionaries and language guides • Examples of slang are usually found in everyday speech, however, they are also collected from the radio, television, newspapers, books and advertising.There are a number of dictionaries devoted to documenting both past and present Australian colloquialisms.
The Australian idiom • Linguists and other cultural theorists value the study of Australian colloquialisms as a way of observing how the Australian character has developed through language. 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. 'Don't come the raw prawn' began its life as slang used by Australian service personnel in World War II, and is still used to warn off someone when they attempt to impose their will. • Sydney Baker, author of a number of important 20th century works about slang, believed that the Australian's 'greatest talent is for idiomatic invention. It is a manifestation of our vitality and restless imagination'. • The Australian fondness for continually adapting English through shortening, substituting and combining words contributes to a vocabulary that most Australians understand, and what could be called the Australian 'idiom' or 'vernacular'.
Substitutions, abbreviations and comparisons • Colloquialisms can be incorporated into language in a number of ways; the most common of which are substitution and comparison. A common 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 'WoopWoop', however it has been a popular and evocative byword for a backward and remote location, and has been in use throughout the 20th century. • 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
Convict sources • Following the settlement of Australia as a British penal colony, the language that emerged reflected the distinct conditions of settlement, authority and punishment. • Author Amanda Laugesen, in her book Convict Words: Language in Early Colonial Australia, explains how a 'pure Merino' was a sly way of describing settlers 'who pride themselves on being of the purest blood in the Colony'. • In another example, Laugesen explains how ex-convicts who took up airs and graces on their release were dismissed as 'felon-swells' or 'legitimate exquisites'. • 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 their documents proving a conditional pardon. 'Magpies' and 'canaries' were not only birds; they also were words that described the black and yellow, or straight yellow uniforms worn by convicts. • However, there are cases of words emerging from the convict underworld, enduring through history and remaining peppered through the conversation of Australians today. The term 'swag', which once referred to the booty stolen by a thief, has become a way of describing a valued bundle of items carried by a traveller. The well-known Australian song Waltzing Matilda has helped to cement this term in the popular imagination
Aboriginal languages • 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'. • Other hybrid words have emerged through a 'pidgin' or early adaptation of English words to describe aspects of Aboriginal life. The phrase 'gone walkabout' was originally used in the early 19th century to describe the migratory movement of Aboriginals across Australia. 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).
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 • 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.
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.