Several years ago my colleague wrote a light-hearted blog judging the Australianness of the language of Nick Cummins, aka the Honey Badger. The rugby union player and former Wallaby had become well-known for his use of quirky idioms, rhyming slang, and the Australian vernacular. Suffice to say the Badger’s colloquial language contained a significant proportion of distinctive Australian terms. Now that he is starring in this year’s The Bachelor Australia, it’s time to revisit the Honey Badger for a look at his recent use of language.
Mureka’s throat felt lumpy and burning but all the bubblers in the park were as dry as the Simpson Desert. (N. Wheatley, Five Times Dizzy, 1982)
Reviews describe the play as a ‘comedy drier than a dead dingo’s donger‘. (Casino Richmond River Express, 19 May 2010)
In Australian English the simile dry as… is used in various phrases to indicate different kinds of extreme dryness, including thirst and laconic humour. In standard English we find dry as a bone from the early 19th century, but the Australian climate has contributed to a number of variants in Aussie English. The idiom can be simply descriptive, such as dry as the Simpson desert, but is often found in more elaborate forms including dry as a dead dingos’s donger, dry as a kookaburra’s khyber, and dry as a pommy’s towel. For the uninitiated donger is an Australian colloquial term for penis; khyber comes from the rhyming slang khyber pass, arse; and pommy is an Australian colloquialism for a person from the UK, especially England. Dry as the Simpson desert is recorded from the 1940s, while the more colourful phrases emerge in the early 1970s, with the earliest evidence of these from the work of Australian satirist Barry Humphries.
Do you know any more variations on the dry as… pattern? We’d love to hear about them.
The Lord’s had a fair crack of the whip and He’s missed the bus. It’s surfing for me. (Lawson Glassop, We Were the Rats, 1944)
So I say we should give Fatty a chance. After all, he is Australian and our national motto is: Fair suck of the saveloy. (Australian, 27 December 1997)
The expression fair crack of the whip is used elsewhere but is recorded earliest in Australia, from 1902 onwards. It means ‘an equitable opportunity; a reasonable chance’. It is also used as an interjection, meaning ‘give (someone) a chance!’. In Australian English there are several variants of this idiom, all with the same meaning. They can be found in written sources from the 1980s, but probably go back some years earlier.
In the variant fair suck of the sauce bottle (with its elliptical form fair suck), the ‘sauce bottle’ is probably originally a reference to a bottle of alcoholic liquor. Interestingly in 2006 the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, used a slightly different variant: fair shake of the sauce bottle. It is possible that Rudd may have mangled the earlier idiom or heard this expression elsewhere—his use of it is still our earliest evidence. This variant has now entered the Australian lexicon. Another common variant is fair suck of the sav (or saveloy).
Do you know any more variations on the idiom fair crack of the whip? We’d love to hear about them. Please help us add to our collection!
We asked a question on social media last week about a commonly used kitchen utensil, and were overwhelmed by the response. The utensil in question (pictured) has a broad flat blade and is used for lifting and turning food. We asked ‘what do you call this implement’ and ‘which country do you come from’.
The following analysis of the feedback we received demonstrates a number of points:
the word spatula is now the most common term for this utensil in Australia and North America
there are regional differences in world English designations for this utensil
hypernymic words such as lifter and turner are often applied to this utensil
it frequently attracts a thingummy or whatsit type of response, implying its name is not known
and it attracts names that suggest it has other uses, real or imaginary, such as bum warmer and fly swatter.
Last time he arrived, plastered to the eyeballs, full as a State school. (C. Rohan, Down by the Dockside, 1963)
We sat under the oleanders eating liquorice all-sorts .. ‘God, I’m full as a goog‘, Connie said. (Paul Radley, Jack Rivers and Me, 1981)
He deals with bed crisis on a daily basis as the hospital is, as they used to say, ‘as full as a Catholic school‘. (Adelaide Advertiser, 24 June 2001)
The ‘wafer thin’ scene from Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life
In Australian English the word full is found in various similes to designate ‘fullness’ of three main kinds: (1) being very drunk; (2) having eaten to one’s limits or satisfaction; (3) containing or holding much or many. The earliest forms, full as a goog, full as a boot, full as a bull (or bull’s bum), and full as a state school (with variants such as full as a state school hat rack) are all recorded from the 1930s. A number of other variants emerge from the 1960s onwards, including full as a Catholic school, full as a pommy complaint box, full as the family po (from the French pronunciation of pot in chamber pot), the offensive full as a fairy’s phone book, and full as Centrelink on payday.
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.