It’s currently bush week here at the Australian National University. This has traditionally been a period of student festivity and pranks. The earlier sense of bush week refers to a time when people from the country came to a city, originally when bush produce etc. was displayed. This sense is recorded from the early 20th century. In the mid-20th century bush week is also used to refer to this week as a time when people from the bush are exploited as credulous by city people, are susceptible to con men, etc. We see this sense especially in the phrase what do you think this is – bush week?: a response to a request etc., implying that one is being unfairly imposed upon or taken for a (rustic) fool. The staff at the Australian National Dictionary Centre wish the students a joyful bush week. But please behave yourselves!
Liberal Peter Dutton described Mark Latham as ‘mad and erratic’… . Amid the usual bickering, Hawker [the Speaker] called for order and declared mad to be unacceptable but erratic OK. No rulings so far on barmy, nuts, roo loose in the top paddock and a stubby short of a six-pack. (Australian, 1 December 2004)
The phrase ‘a stubby short of a six pack’ means very silly, ‘mad’ or just plain eccentric. It is just one of a number of variations on the formula ‘an X short of a Y’. Other examples include ‘a sandwich short of a picnic’ and ‘a tinny short of a slab’. This kind of expression nearly always refers to a larger whole missing one single or important thing: the six-pack or slab (carton) of beer is one bottle or can short of the total.
The ‘X short of a Y’ pattern is now found in standard English, but the earliest evidence for it is Australian. The Australian phrase ‘a shingle short…’ is found in newspapers from the mid 19th century, often taking the form ‘a shingle short of a roof’. A similar form from the late 19th century is ‘short of a sheet of bark’, sometimes abbreviated to ‘short of a sheet’. The same sentiment can be found in standard English idioms such as ‘to have a screw loose’ and to be ‘not all there’ (not quite right in the head).
The Australian National Dictionary includes a number of examples of this pattern including: ‘a sausage short of a barbie’, ‘a sandwich short of a picnic’, ‘a zac short of a quid’, ‘a kangaroo short of a full paddock’, ‘a few snags short of a barbie’, ‘a spike short of a running shoe’, and ‘two Lan Choo lids short of a milk jug’. Most of these go back to at least the 1980s while ‘a stubby short of a six-pack’ is recorded from the 1990s.
Do you know any more variations on the ‘ X short of a Y’ theme? We’d love to hear about them. Please help us add to our collection!
What’s their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.
In 1981 in the Bulletin magazine the Australian writer Kathy Lette uses the term rellie for ‘relative’:‘Dreaded rellies are not so easily disposed of.’1 In 1987 in a collection of short stories Kathy Lette uses the variant form rello for ‘relative’: ‘Everybody else would have liquid-papered me out of their address books by now, especially the rellos.’2 This use of the –ie (or –y) and –o suffix with abbreviated forms of words is not exclusive to Australia, although it is more common in Australia than elsewhere, and is used in distinctive ways in Australia. The choice of –ie or –o appears to be arbitrary, although the –ie forms are much more common than the –o forms. It is rare to find a term that uses both –ie and –o, as in the case of rellie and rello, but such doublets appear occasionally, as in the older commie and commo for ‘communist’, and the more recent flannie and flanno for ‘flannelette shirt’. Some have argued that the –ie forms are more sympathetic or friendly than the –o forms, but even the examples given in this paragraph show that this is not the case. Continue reading →
Paul Hogan made some trenchant comments on radio 2GB this week about the Australian Tax Office, after the tax commissioner implied that the star had paid megabucks to avoid going to court for tax evasion. Hoges’ observations were noteworthy for his use of the words prawns and boofheads to describe ATO officials, but another of his Australianisms—quoit—may not have been so familiar:
‘Excuse me? They looked up my quoit for five years. They involved the IRS, the Australian Tax Office, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or whatever they call it in England, and they found nothing.’ (reported in The Age, 30 May 2017)
Quoit is a euphemism for ‘backside’ or ‘anus’, and is a figurative use of quoit, the ring of rope or rubber used in the game of quoits. The Australian National Dictionary records the euphemism from 1919. It’s not heard often these days, and younger Aussies are unlikely to recognise it. We owe thanks to Hoges for giving it an airing.
The following words are just some of the many terms recently added to Word Box, the website feature you can use to alert us to new or unfamiliar words and phrases.
fidget spinner – a metal or plastic toy that can be spun with the fingers to relieve stress or for amusement. The device has become the latest playground craze for Australian children. While it was invented and patented in the US in the 1990s, evidence for the term doesn’t appear in the media until 2016.
haram dingo – a humorous name for a person who prefers a halal snack pack* without one or all of the usual condiments (garlic, chilli, and barbecue sauce), or with an unusual addition, such as tomato sauce or even (heaven forbid!) mayonnaise. Haram dingo is a multicultural term combining Arabic and Australian English elements. Haram (Arabic ‘forbidden’) refers to something forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law, and dingo is an Australianism applied to someone who is cowardly or treacherous—characteristics popularly attributed to the dingo.
quokka selfie – a selfie that includes a quokka. The quokka is a small, short-tailed wallaby found in south-western Western Australia including Rottnest and Bald Islands. The name comes from the Noongar language of this region. In 2013 the Huffington Post declared the quokka ‘the happiest animal in the world’ because its facial expression often resembles a smile. At around this time a trend began on the social networking site Instagram where photographs including the quokka were shared. The hashtag #quokkaselfie also became popular.
*A halal snack pack is a substantial takeaway meal of hot chips topped with cheese, halal-certified kebab meat, and several sauces. Strictly for the hungry!
In Australian English the word chuck is often found in phrases where it means ‘to perform’, ‘to do’, or ‘to put on’— as in chuck a wobbly (a variant of the Standard English throw a wobbly). While this use of chuck is not exclusively Australian, there are a number of well-established forms that suggest its resonance in the national idiom. The earliest, dating from the 1940s, is chuck a willy (become angry; have a fit of annoyance or temper). Most other chuck expressions appear much later, from the 1970s on.
Bill Sikes and his dog Bull’s-Eye. A reproduction of a c. 1870s photogravure illustration by Fred Barnard for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
by Mark Gwynn
The Australian expression to have a head like a robber’s dog means to be very ugly or unattractive. It is first recorded in the 1940s.
Horrie has a head on him like a ‘robber’s dog’ and was in all the trouble about the place, caused by playing shots over which he had no control. (Picton Post, 21 November 1946)
Several variations of this unflattering expression have been recorded over the years, including to have a head like a drover’s dog, to have a head like a beaten favourite, and to have a head like a half-sucked mango. In Frank Hardy’s The Yarns of Billy Borker (1965), the eponymous storyteller provides an insight into the phrase’s adaptability:
You always have a specific character in your stories. That’s because they’re true mate. Had a head on him like a burglar’s torch. A burglar’s torch? Yeh, a long thin neck and a round head. Every real character has a definite name and a head on him like something. I’ll tell this story my way, see. But if you tell it to someone else, you can use a different name and say his head was like something else: maybe a robber’s dog or a warped sandshoe.
As part of our continuing research into Australian English we would like to record more variations of the ‘to have a head like…’ idiom. If you know of any, please tell us. If you have found the idiom in a book, newspaper, blog (or other online source), we’d appreciate any source details you can provide.
With recent news that Australian company Hills has sold the rights to its iconic Hills hoist clothesline, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the place this humble piece of suburban infrastructure has in Australian English.
The Hills hoist is a type of rotary clothes hoist invented by the South Australian Lance Hill in his Adelaide backyard in the mid-1940s. There were earlier versions and patents for similar hoists but it was Hill’s design, and the company he established, that would see the rotary clothes hoist introduced to backyards across Australia. The expansion of suburbia in Australia after the Second World War, a growing population, relatively large house blocks, and a sunny climate helped make the Hills hoist a household name. It was superior in every way to the old single clothesline strung across the yard and propped up by a stake. The compact design saved space, it was able to be raised and lowered easily, and it rotated to facilitate maximum drying and to allow the user to hang out the washing while standing in one spot. Continue reading →
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 democracy sausage* as our Word of the Year 2016.
democracy sausage ‘a barbecued sausage served on a slice of bread, bought at a polling booth sausage sizzle on election day’. In a year dominated by long election campaigns with acrimonious political debate and some surprising winners and losers, the fund-raising sausage sizzle run by volunteers at polling booths is a reassuring constant of Australian elections. Recently the election day sausage in bread has become known as a democracy sausage, presumably in recognition of its place in our political life. The use of the term (first recorded in 2012) increased significantly during the federal election in 2016, especially as a result of the popularity of several websites set up to help voters locate polling stations with sausage sizzles. The proliferation of the term on social media at this time helped establish the wider use of democracy sausage in the community. With fried onion and your choice of tomato or barbecue sauce, it may be the best thing to come out of an election this year.
This is our final 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.