What’s their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.
Bruce Moore is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, who is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. The following is an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words (published by Oxford University Press Australia, 2010).
Anzac is a central word in the expression of Australian attitudes and values, and it carries its history more overtly than any other Australian word. It had humble beginnings: it is an acronym formed from the initial letters of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, originally used as a telegraphic code name for the Corps when it was in Egypt in 1915, just prior to the landing at Gallipoli. It first appears in writing in the Australian war historian C.E.W. Bean’s Diary on 25 April 1915: ‘Col. Knox to Anzac. “Ammunition required at once.”’1 Two weeks later Bean writes: ‘Anzac has become the sort of code word for the Army Corps’ (6 May).2 It was eventually to become ‘a sort of code word’ for Australia and its beliefs and values. Continue reading →
This is the first update for 2016 on contributions to our Word Box, the website feature you can use to alert us to new or unfamiliar words and phrases. These contributions allow us to identify new material for our archive of Australian words, and also for our general Australian Oxford dictionaries. We encourage you to contribute—just click on the Word Box image to the left to post your word. A few of the more interesting contributions from the last three months are discussed below; some are new to us, and some we already know. We welcome any comments about your understanding or experience of these words, and look forward to your contributions to Word Box. Continue reading →
Lexicographer Bruce Moore is editor of the forthcoming (2016) second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, a historical dictionary that tells the story of Australian English. It contains the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s latest research into Australian words, and this blog illustrates the kind of research undertaken for the dictionary, in a new investigation of the history of a well-known word.
Sheila in the sense ‘a woman, a girl’ became established in Australian English towards the end of the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century it had become a fairly problematic term, mainly as a result of being burdened with many negative and derogatory male attitudes towards women. The pejorative connotations are present in such compounds as sheila talk for ‘trivial gossip’, or in such uses as football coaches berating their teams for ‘playing like a bunch of sheilas’. Continue reading →
‘Equally annoying with the dust was the loud, incessant, and indescribable noise of myriads of large and curious winged insects, commonly and incorrectly called locusts, but which are totally different from any kind of locusts I ever saw.’ (Mrs C. Meredith, Notes and Sketches of New South Wales, 1844)
In early summer I enjoyed a weekend walk with friends on a favourite walking trail on the edge of suburban Canberra. On our way back we paused in a pocket of bush where cicadas in their hundreds were clustered thickly on tree trunks. The air was full of their noise, and a single kestrel looked on from a high branch, considering its next mouthful at the insect buffet.
14 February 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of decimal currency in Australia when pounds, shillings, and pence were replaced with dollars and cents. While various names were proposed for the new currency including austral, digger, dinkum, roo, and royal, it was the prosaic dollar that won the day. In this article I look at some of the colloquial terms in Australian English that refer to particular coins and banknotes.*
Australian decimal banknotes including the pineapple, lobster, blue swimmer, and prawn
If you had a pineapple, added a lobster, two blue swimmers, and two prawns, what would you get? A grey nurse, of course! While this equation may look like a seafood recipe, these are actually Australian slang terms for banknotes. There is a good chance that you have not heard of them because they don’t appear to be in common use, although we have some evidence for them from the 1980s. The terms allude to the colour of the banknotes: the $50 note is yellow (a pineapple), the $20 note is red (a lobster), the $10 note is blue (a blue swimmer, a type of crab), and the $5 note is pink (a prawn). The $100 note is currently green, but between 1984 and 1996 it was grey, and was called a grey nurse (a type of shark). While terms for our decimal banknotes do not have a strong hold in the Australian vernacular, the pre-decimal currency did produce words and idioms that were well-known in Australian English in years past.
A holey dollar and dump
The earliest nickname for an Australian coin was holey dollar – a modified Spanish coin used in New South Wales between 1814 and 1828, when there was a shortage of currency in the colony. The holey dollar was what remained of a Spanish dollar when the centre of the coin (the dump) had been struck out of it. The holey dollar was worth five shillings, and the dump fifteen pence. The words caser (‘five shillings or a crown’), and deener (‘a shilling’), were used in Britain but were also widely used in Australia from the early colonial period. Caser derives from the Yiddish and Hebrew word for ‘silver’, and deener probably derives from Latin ‘denarius’ for a silver coin. Thrummer in the colonial period referred to a threepence. It derived from British slang thrums or thrum, a colloquial or dialect pronunciation of thruppence mainly evident in the British underworld. Thrum also generated the Australian rhyming slang scrum for the same coin, recorded from the late nineteenth century. Other Australian terms for a threepenny bit from this time include trey and trey-bit. Trey was used in Britain for many centuries to mean ‘three’, and derives from trois (French for ‘three’). Trey was also altered in Australian English to trizzie in the twentieth century. From the late nineteenth century the sixpenny coin was often called a zac, and probably derives from Scottish ‘saxpence’. Zac was also used to refer to a ‘trifling sum of money’, and in the phrase not worth a zac (‘worth very little’).
Australian pre-decimal banknotes also had nicknames. The ten-shilling note was a half (half a pound), the one-pound note was a flag (perhaps from a resemblance in shape), the five-pound note was a spinnaker or a spin (origin unknown), and the ten-pound note was a brick (from its reddish-brown colour).This sense of brick is still occasionally heard in the expression London to a brick on. It was originally a gambling term (recorded in the mid-twentieth century) that meant ‘an absolutely certain result’: you are so certain of the winner that you would stake the whole of London in a bet to win ten pounds. In more recent years the gambling context is often missing and the expression just means ‘absolutely certain’. The British slang word flimsy was also used in Australia from the mid-nineteenth century as a general term for a banknote.
Perhaps the most enduring pre-decimal currency slang terms in Australian English are bob and quid. Bob is British slang for a shilling. Two bob (two shillings) has generated a number of idioms in Australian English, alluding to something that is ‘cheap, of poor quality’, or ‘of little consequence’. The expression silly (or mad) as a two-bob watch is still encountered, as is to have two bob each way ‘to hedge your bets; to be uncommitted’, and to have your two bob’s worth ‘to have your say’. Quid in British English originally referred to a guinea (the sum of one pound and one shilling) and subsequently to a pound note. Quid was widely used in Australia to refer to a pound note, and is still encountered in the idiom not the full quid, meaning ‘not in full possession of one’s mental faculties’.
* This is a modified version of Mark Gwynn’s article ‘Holey Dollars to Grey Nurses’ which appeared in the April 2014 issue of Ozwords. The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s newsletter Ozwords is published twice a year by Oxford University Press Australia. For previous issues of this publication and for subscription details see our website.
As a kid I was often told by my dad to ‘get off my date’ when he wanted me to get off the lounge and go outside, or to help with some chore. I was surprised to discover many years later, when I started working at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, that date was not a coinage of my dad’s but an established word in Australian English, meaning ‘anus’. Further exposure to Australian English at the ANDC revealed a number of colloquial terms with the same or a similar meaning. Continue reading →
This is the final update for 2015 on contributions to our Word Box, the website feature you can use to alert us to new or unfamiliar words and phrases. These contributions allow us to identify new material for our archive of Australian words, and also for our general Australian Oxford dictionaries. We encourage you to contribute—just click on the Word Box image to the left to post your word. A few of the more interesting contributions from the last three months are discussed below; some are new to us, and some we already know. We welcome any comments about your understanding or experience of these words, and look forward to your contributions to Word Box.
dogfood – (of a company’s staff) to use a product or service developed by the company before it is commercially available. Also found in the nominal form dogfooding and in the phrase to eat one’s own dogfood. The phrasal form is found in the 1980s and came to prominence in the computer software sector in the 1990s. The origin of the term is uncertain, but it may derive from US advertisements for Alpo dog food, in which the spokesperson refers to feeding the product to his own dogs.
Each year the ANDC selects a Word of the Year. The words chosen for the shortlist are not necessarily new, or exclusively Australian, but are selected on the basis of having come to some prominence in the Australian social and cultural landscape during the year. This year we have selected the term sharing economy as our Word of the Year 2015.
sharing economy ‘an economic system based on sharing of access to goods, resources, and services, typically by means of the Internet’. This term grew in significance and frequency of use in Australia in 2015. This was partly due to the impact of debates around the introduction of ridesharing service Uber into Australia, which has been seen as a threat to the taxi industry. The sharing economyis facilitated by online technology, and while it is most often associated with ridesharing and accommodation sharing apps, it can also include collaborative efforts such as crowdfunding. The term has ‘feel-good’ connotations in emphasising sharing, and some regard it as a positive good for society. However, others have pointed to its corporate dimensions, and its potential to displace industries and businesses. Continue reading →
Bruce Moore is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and editor of the forthcoming (2016)second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. The following is an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words(published by Oxford University Press Australia, 2010).
What’s their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.
Mate is one of those words that is used widely in Englishes other than Australian English, and yet has a special resonance in Australia. Although it had a very detailed entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the letter M was completed 1904–8), the Australian National Dictionary (AND) included mate in its first edition of 1988, thus marking it as an Australianism. A revision of the OED entry for mate was posted online in December 2009, as part of the new third edition, and this gives us the opportunity to test the extent to which the word can be regarded as Australian. Not one of the standard presently-used senses of mate in OED is marked Australian. What are they doing to our Australian word? Continue reading →
The Oxford Word of the Month is written by members of the Australian National Dictionary Centre and published each month by Oxford University Press Australia. Each Word of the Month looks at an Australian word or term in some detail, providing a history of the term and its role in current Australian society. If you wish to receive Word of the Month by email you can subscribe at the Oxford University Press Australia website.