Sparrows, spadgers, spags, spoggies, spraggies, and spriggies

by Bruce Moore*

The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is native to Europe and Asia, and it has been introduced to most other parts of the world. Although the house sparrow is the most widespread and abundant of birds, in the past twenty years there has been evidence of a decline in numbers in some areas, especially in western Europe, perhaps a result of a decline in insect numbers (food for sparrow nestlings) in urban areas.

images-1In the 1860s, the house sparrow was introduced to Australia, and spread widely, except in Western Australia. As in other parts of the world, there was been some anecdotal evidence of a decline in sparrow numbers in Australia. For example, in 2010 the Newcastle Herald ran an article titled ‘Where have the sparrows gone?’ (2 August).  Even so, in the 2015 ‘Aussie Backyard Bird Count’, the sparrow was the fifth most commonly sighted bird, after the rainbow lorikeet, noisy miner, Australian magpie, and sulphur-crested cockatoo. Continue reading

Loud, incessant, and indescribable: cicadas and their names

by Julia Robinson

‘Equally annoying with the dust was the loud, incessant, and indescribable noise of myriads of large and curious winged insects, commonly and incorrectly called locusts, but which are totally different from any kind of locusts I ever saw.’ (Mrs C. Meredith, Notes and Sketches of New South Wales, 1844)

In early summer I enjoyed a weekend walk with friends on a favourite walking trail on the edge of suburban Canberra. On our way back we paused in a pocket of bush where cicadas in their hundreds were clustered thickly on tree trunks. The air was full of their noise, and a single kestrel looked on from a high branch, considering its next mouthful at the insect buffet.

Greengrocer. Source: Trudyro at English Wikipedia

Greengrocer

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The case of Mr Fluffy: a proper name becomes a word

by Julia Robinson 

In a general dictionary (unless it is an encyclopedic dictionary), proper names, trade names, and encyclopedic terms do not usually appear as entries. Only those that have become lexicalised—that is, those that have become accepted into the vocabulary of a language—are included. In Australian English there are many such terms. For example, Vegemite, Esky, Darwin, Barry Crocker, Bondi, Nellie Melba, and the Melbourne Cup have all become part of the lingo with extended meanings and uses beyond their original sense. They form compounds and phrases (happy little Vegemite, Darwin stubby, a Melbourne Cup field), become generic terms (esky), form rhyming slang (have a Barry Crocker), and are used allusively (shoot through like a Bondi tram, do a Melba).

A Mr Fluffy ad for loose-fill asbestos insulation

Dirk Jansen’s ad for loose-fill asbestos insulation, 1960s

This year one name that may be taking the lexical leap into the Australian vocabulary is Mr Fluffy. There can be few people living in and around the Australian Capital Territory who have not heard of Mr Fluffy. It is the name given to a former Canberra businessman, Dirk Jansen, in relation to the home-insulation business he operated in the 1960s and 1970s. He advertised his product, loose-fill asbestos, in local newspapers from 1968: ‘New “Asbestosfluff”. The perfect thermal insulating material. … It sprays onto ceiling area quickly and cleanly.’ (Canberra Times, 30 March 1968) Unfortunately the product was amosite, an extremely carcinogenic form of asbestos. Blown into ceiling spaces it can migrate through cracks, holes, ducts, and wall spaces into the living areas of a house, and the microscopic fibres once breathed can cause cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma decades later. Continue reading

Ghost-net art

by Julia Robinson

Turtle caught in a ghost net. Source: GhostNets Australia

Turtle caught in a ghost net. Source: Alistair Dermer/GhostNets Australia

A ghost net is a plastic fishing net lost or discarded at sea from a fishing boat. It continues to drift with the tides and ‘fish’ on its own – that is, to entrap and kill marine life – sometimes for many years. A net’s ‘ghostly’ ability to continue fishing by itself has given rise to its name. Ghost nets have been recognised as an international problem since the mid-20th century, and the evidence for the term ghost net dates from this period. It is not an Australianism. However, collecting and using ghost nets as a source of art material has resulted in terms that are uniquely Australian: ghost-net art, ghost-net weaving, and ghost-net sculpture: Continue reading