The Australian Comic Dictionary

 

comic dict

by Mark Gwynn

In 1916 a lexicon entitled The Australian Comic Dictionary of Words and Phrases was published in Melbourne by E.W. Cole. The author was one ‘Turner O. Lingo’, a nom de plume for writer Mary Eliza Fullerton. The volume runs to 64 pages and includes over 600 entries with their definitions arranged (roughly) alphabetically from Z to A to reflect the ‘Antipodean’ nature of the work. This dictionary is a milestone in lexicography: it is the first Australian dictionary written by a woman, and the first comic dictionary of Australianisms.

Mary Eliza Fullerton was born on 14 May 1868 at Glenmaggie, Victoria. In the 1890s she became an active supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries a number of her short stories and poems were published in Australian journals and newspapers, including The Bulletin. During the First World War she wrote against conscription, and it was in this period that her comic dictionary was published.*

A comic dictionary uses the format of a standard dictionary for humorous purposes. As Julie Coleman points out in A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries ‘[a]lthough sharing the iconoclastic stance of some slang glossaries and commonly catalogued as such, comic dictionaries tend to concentrate on non-standard definitions for standard English terms’. (Volume 3, 2009). There are a number of early precedents for the comic dictionary, including some humorous definitions in Samuel Johnson’s otherwise serious tome, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). His definition of oats is well-known: ‘a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’.

Ambrose Bierce, author of the Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce, author of the Devil’s Dictionary

Perhaps the best-known comic dictionary is Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, which was published in full in 1911. Material for this dictionary had already been published in various forms, including US newspapers, from the 1870s. The definitions for lawyer (‘one skilled in circumvention of the law’) and conservative (‘a statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others’) provide good examples of the satirical nature of this dictionary.

The Australian Comic Dictionary follows the same format as The Devil’s Dictionary but, rather than providing definitions for standard English terms, many of the headwords are derived from Australian English. As stated in the introduction: ‘The endeavour has been to make this dictionary especially Australian in character.’ Following are several examples of entries that appear in the dictionary.

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A page from the Australian Comic Dictionary

Billy Tea, a milkless beverage flavoured with Eucalyptus and ants; takes some ability to make and some agility to drink.

Cup Race, the Australian Race witnessed by the Australi­an race.

Drover’s Wife, a bush Joan of Arc without a pedestal.

Governor-General’s Speech, nothing, drest in flourishes.

‘It Isn’t Cricket’, what you have to keep telling your old lady relative when you take her to a football match.

Kerosene Tin, the bush conjuror’s ‘property’ which he transforms into four hundred and six different articles for domestic use.

Nulla Nulla, nothing at all; a phantom waddy.

Ropable, what the man is when the animal isn’t.

Shickered, liquored.

Tinned Dog, bushman’s pate de fois gras.

Wallaby (on the), refers to the custom that prevails in Australia of travelling on a wallaby; a favourite pastime with persons who cannot afford a horse.

Yarra Banker, usually a man who stands on a soap box telling the great unwashed how ‘dirty’ the rich man is.

 

* For more detail about Mary Eliza Fullerton you can read her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and her profile on the AustLit website.

ADB page: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fullerton-mary-eliza-6258

AustLit page: http://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A1331

The story of ‘Anzac’

by Bruce Moore

What's their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.

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

Shelah’s Day and the origin of sheila

by Bruce Moore

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

Two bob each way: money in Australian English

 by Mark Gwynn

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

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

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’).

A brick.

A brick.

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.

Two bob

Two bob

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.

Australian words for the backside: a light-hearted look

by Mark Gwynn

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

Words from our Word Box: update 13

Click on the logo to go to the Word Box page

Click on the logo to go to the Word Box page

by the ANDC staff

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

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.

Continue reading

schmick up (Word of the Month for November 2015)

bond

 

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.

Our Word of the Month for November 2015 is ‘schmick up’: to smarten (something) up; to renovate (something); to improve (something) superficially. You can read the full Word of the Month in PDF form on our website or read it in an online format at the Oxford University Press Australia website.

flagfall (Word of the Month for October 2015)

flag

 

by the ANDC team

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.

Our Word of the Month for October 2015 is ‘flagfall’: 1. an initial minimum hiring charge for a taxi, as part of the overall fare. 2. a fixed initial charge incurred when making a call on a mobile phone. The term derives from the small mechanical lever, a flag, which early taxis used to indicate if the taxi was for hire. While the taxi sense of ‘flagfall’ dates to the early 20th century, the mobile phone sense is recorded from the 1990s. You can read the full Word of the Month in PDF form on our website or read it in an online format at the Oxford University Press Australia website.

Words from our Word Box: update 12

Click on the logo to go to the Word Box page

Click on the logo to go to the Word Box page

by the ANDC staff

This is the third 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.

Continue reading

Become an etymologist for a day—help us with ‘Sam Tick’

by Mark Gwynn

etymology

One of the most unsatisfying aspects of researching and writing a dictionary entry is not being able to determine the origin of a word. The study of a word’s history and origin—its etymology—is just one part of the dictionary-maker’s task. Often the etymology of a word can be readily identified: it may derive from another word, a particular language, or the name of a person, a place, or a product. Take the Australian English word dunny (a toilet) for example. It derives from a British dialect word dunnekin (a privy), and is probably ultimately derived from a combination of dung (faeces) and ken (a house). How do we arrive at this conclusion? Continue reading