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!
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 →
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.
This is the third 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 →
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. Continue reading →
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 →