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:

AustLit page:

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

Ethel Turner and Australian English

by Amanda Laugesen

Turner 124 January* marked the anniversary of the birth of Ethel Turner, the writer of one of Australia’s most well-known books, Seven Little Australians. She was also the author of many more books for children. Turner is quoted several times in the Australian National Dictionary, her work providing an important contribution to the historical corpus of Australian English. Continue reading

Lathering up with bush soap

by Julia Robinson

In a recent ‘Words from our Word Box’ update, we included the term bush soap, and explained it as: ‘The leaves of any of several Australian plants that may be used as a soap substitute. When rubbed vigorously with water, the leaves produce a soap-like lather, thanks to the chemical compounds (saponins) they contain.’ We noted that the earliest evidence in print for bush soap occurs in the early 1990s. Continue reading

Ruth Park, The Harp in the South, and Australian English

by Victoria Grey*

Ruth Park (1917-2010), one of Australia’s most popular writers, was born in New Zealand but moved to Australia in 1942 to pursue her career as a journalist. In the same year, she married D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967). As struggling writers in the 1940s, they lived for a time in the Sydney slum area of Surry Hills, and this period in her life inspired her to write The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949).

An early photograph of Ruth Park

Ruth Park’s writing is an excellent example of a literary depiction of inner-city urban Sydney in the 1940s. In The Harp in the South, published in 1948 and one of Australia’s most beloved novels, she uses Australian humour and Australian English to great effect. Although this particular book is often discussed in terms of its depiction of 1940s Surry Hills and its tenement environments, the distinctive language she used is also worth noting and proves to be one of the novel’s most beguiling features.  Continue reading

A hundred years of gumnut babies

by Julia Robinson

At the Australian National Dictionary Centre we have been tweeting for nearly a year (@ozworders) about Australian words and language, with forays into history, literature, and popular culture. We enjoy our interactions in the Twittersphere, and it’s always a good day when we attract new followers. Last week we tweeted on the occasion of the birthday of children’s author May Gibbs, and we were delighted when two famous Australians chose to follow us: Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the gumnut babies themselves. They tweet (@MayGibbsNutcote) from Nutcote, the heritage-listed house (now a museum) in Sydney’s Neutral Bay, designed and built for May Gibbs in the 1920s. Continue reading

The evolution of a word–the case of ‘Kylie’

Kylie Minogue

by Mark Gwynn

The word kylie in Australian English has a long history. It comes from ‘garli’, a word meaning ‘boomerang’ in Nyungar, the language of south-western Western Australia, and also in a number of other western and central Australian languages. Kylie, used chiefly in Western Australia, was first recorded in an English context in the 1830s:

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Puberty Blues and Australian English

Debbie (Ashleigh Cummings) and Sue (Brenna Harding) from the recent television series adaptation of Puberty Blues

by Mark Gwynn

Over recent weeks a television adaptation of the novel Puberty Blues has been airing to wide acclaim. Based on a 1979 novel written by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, Puberty Blues is a coming-of-age story about two 13-year-old girls, Debbie and Sue, who seek to be accepted into a group of popular surfers and surfie chicks (surfers’ girlfriends). The novel explores a range of themes including peer group pressure, drug use, generational differences between parents and children, and sexual relationships. Continue reading

Australia’s golden girls

Fanny Durack & Mina Wylie, Australia's first female Olympians (1912). Image source: State Library of New South Wales

by Mark Gwynn

The Games of the XXX Olympiad will see more than 180 women representing Australia in London over the next fortnight. The history of Australian women’s participation in the Olympic Games is a hundred years old, and has been marked by success, triumph, and the emergence of the Australian term golden girl – a female Olympic champion.

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