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:

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

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

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)


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

Australia’s bard: C.J. Dennis’ Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and Australian English

by Harriet Mercer*

Although it has been nearly a century since the 1915 publication of C.J. Dennis’ verse narrative Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, Dennis’ comic use of the Australian vernacular continues to endear the work to contemporary readers.

The Songs tell a humorous love story as Bill ‘the Bloke’ tries to reform his rough larrikin habits in order to win the affections of Doreen, a young pickle factory worker. The book is full of examples of Australian colloquialisms, particularly words relating to the world of the urban larrikin (then a word meaning ‘hooligan’). 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

Mem Fox and thirty years of Possum Magic

by Julia Robinson

Mem Fox. Image source:

This week we celebrate the birthday of Mem Fox (born 5 March 1946), Australian writer of children’s books. She is the author of such favourite picture books as Koala Lou, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, and Wombat Divine, but the book that made her a household name is her first book, Possum Magic, the runaway bestseller that has sold several million copies since it was published in 1983. It is the tale of possums Hush and Grandma Poss, who leave their bush home to find a cure for Hush’s magic invisibility. Continue reading

Nevil Shute and A Town Like Alice

by Amanda Laugesen

Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice was published in 1950, and remains a classic tale of romance and war. As a novel written by an Englishman who had just moved to Australia, the novel reflects Shute’s attempts to capture the Australian vernacular as he depicts the heroic Jean Paget, Joe Harman, and the life and people of the Queensland Gulf Country.

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