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.

Eggshell blonde (Word of the Month for February 2015)

Peter Garrett, AM. Perhaps Australia's most recognisable 'eggshell blonde'.

Peter Garrett, AM. Perhaps Australia’s most recognisable ‘eggshell blonde’.

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 February 2015 is ‘eggshell blonde’: a man with a bald head. Evidence for ‘eggshell blonde’ is found in newspaper evidence from the 1940s. You can read the full Word of the Month in PDF form on our website or read it in an online format.

Rolf Boldrewood, ‘the Homer of the Bush’

by Julia Robinson

‘Rolf Boldrewood … the Homer of the Bush, the most distinctively Australian of all Australian writers of fiction.’

Tom Roberts, 'Bailed up', 1895. Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Tom Roberts, ‘Bailed up’, 1895. Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales

So said the Adelaide Advertiser in October 1889, reviewing Rolf Boldrewood’s novel Robbery Under Arms, a hugely popular tale about a boy from the bush who lives on the wrong side of the law. It first appeared as a serial in the Sydney Mail (1882-1883) and was published in full in 1888. It was an immediate success. The story is a rollicking yarn told at a fast pace, following the young Dick Marston’s fortunes from boyhood into a life of crime. Continue reading

Australian words with a Yiddish origin

by Amanda Laugesen

A small number of Australian English words have their likely origins in Yiddish, a Jewish language with its origins in German, and with several regional variations. Words with a Yiddish origin came into Australian English both through the migration of Yiddish speakers to Australia, as well as through transferred uses and variants of terms that had developed in British English and slang. Continue reading

Checkout chick (Word of the Month for May 2014)

by the ANDC teamcheckout chick girl

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.

boy checkout chick Our Word of the Month for May is ‘checkout chick’: a checkout operator at a supermarket. There is evidence for this term from the 1970s. While the stereotypical ‘checkout chick’ was a girl or woman (hence ‘chick’) the term now refers to boys and men as well. You can read the full Word of the Month in PDF form on our website or read it in an online format.

Larrikin, writer, activist: Frank Hardy and Australian English

by Amanda Laugesen

Union membership cards were obtained from the dwindling band of ‘West’ trade union officials. Votes were then cast in the names of absent union members, living or dead. If this precaution failed, the ballot box was, if the opportunity arose, ‘stuffed’ as Sugar Renfrey termed it. This entailed the addition of as many more ‘bodger’ votes as possible. (Power Without Glory, p. 383)

Hardy1

One of Australia’s most controversial literary figures is Frank Hardy (1917-1994). Hardy was a left-wing novelist, writer, and political activist, and is probably best known today as the author of Power Without Glory, published in 1950. Although a novel, this book is a thinly-veiled account of the life of John Wren, a Melbourne businessman who wielded considerable political influence in Victoria for many years. Hardy was famously sued for criminal libel over the publication, but was acquitted. In writing about politics – the quote above makes use of the Australian term bodger, meaning ‘fake, false, worthless’ – he drew on a rich vein of colloquial Australian speech to inject his radical politics with what he considered an authentic Australian working-class spirit. Continue reading

Cornelius Crowe and The Australian Slang Dictionary

by Judith Smyth*

In my last blog, I told the story of Cornelius Crowe, policeman, anti-corruption campaigner, and author of The Australian Slang Dictionary (1895), a record of the language of criminals on the streets of Fitzroy and Collingwood in the 1890s. In this blog I take a closer look at the dictionary itself.

Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Image source: State Library of Victoria

The dictionary was published in 1895 by Robert Barr, a printer in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and sold for a shilling. It is ninety-eight pages long and contains nearly 2,700 words with brief definitions. The contents page lists thirty-three different types of slang covered by the dictionary, including Lovers’ Slang, Theatrical Slang, Imposters’ Slang, Vagrants’ Slang, and Bookmakers’ Slang. The subtitle claims that some of the ‘unauthorised though popular expressions’ included in the dictionary are ‘now in vogue with all classes in Australia’. Continue reading

Cornelius Crowe: a dictionary maker in the cause of justice

by Judith Smyth*

In a previous blog Mark Gwynn looked at the first dictionary produced in Australia, A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, written by the convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812 to provide the court with a translation of the slang used in the colony by convicts and criminals. The perceived need to translate the language of criminals continued throughout the nineteenth century. An interesting example of this phenomenon is a dictionary compiled by Cornelius Crowe in 1895 entitled The Australian Slang Dictionary, containing the words and phrases of the thieving fraternity together with the unauthorised, though popular expressions now in vogue with all classes in Australia. Continue reading

The Digger: the image of the Australian soldier in his own writings

by Georgia Appleby*

Although the official birth of the Australian nation occurred in 1901 at Federation, a national identity remained dormant until the Anzacs stepped onto the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915. Despite the abysmal failure of the campaign, the Australian forces came to be known as some of the fiercest and most courageous fighters, and the men themselves were not afraid to brag about it.

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Words from our Word Box: update 4

by the ANDC team

Click on the logo to go to the Word Box page

This is our fourth update on the contributions that have been made to the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s Word Box, our website feature which you can use to alert us to new or unfamiliar words and phrases. These contributions allow our editors to identify new material for our general Australian Oxford dictionaries and also for our archive of Australian words, and to share these findings with you. We thank everyone for their submissions and encourage you to contribute—just click on the Word Box image at left to post your word. A few of the more interesting contributions from the last three months are discussed below. Some we have come across previously and some are new to us. We welcome any comments about your understanding or experience of these words.

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