Robert G. Barrett, Les Norton, and twentieth-century Aussie slang

by Julia Robinson

A dubbo like you would be arsey enough to fluke something like this…. They’re as rare as rocking-horse shit. (R.G. Barrett, Boys From Binjiwunyawunya, 1987)

We note with sadness the death of popular Australian novelist Robert G. Barrett last week (20 September). His first book, You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids, was published in 1985, and since then sales of his books have topped one million. He belongs to the long tradition of writers in this country whose work celebrates the Australian vernacular. A forerunner in this tradition is C.J. Dennis, with his lively depiction of the working-class slang of Bill the Bloke in The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke in 1915 (see our recent blog). C.J. Dennis and Robert G. Barrett lived at opposite ends of the twentieth century, but both of them shared an exuberant delight in the slang of their time. And like Dennis, Barrett provides lexicographers with a rich source of colloquialisms.

At the Australian National Dictionary Centre we have read many of Barrett’s books in the search for evidence of Australian words and meanings. Currently our database contains about 450 quotations from his work. He is described on his official website as the ‘ultimate Aussie larrikin’, and this is also an apt description of Les Norton, the protagonist of many of his novels. Les is a Queenslander who has relocated to Sydney after a brush with the law. He works as a bouncer at a dodgy Kings Cross establishment, has some shady mates, an eye for the sheilas, and a knack for getting into trouble. He is no stranger to a bit of stoush, Sydney-style:

Les swung his foot back and gave him a Woolloomoolloo uppercut straight in the balls. (You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids, 1985)

Murray had the first Pommy lying on his side, his hands over his head, moaning with pain as Murray kept doing a bit of Balmain folk dancing up and down his ribcage with his R.M. Williams riding boots. (You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids, 1985)

Barrett has a good ear for an idiom (‘it went over like a baked dinner on Sunday’, ‘a rap sheet longer than the straight at Randwick’, ‘Norton was like the cocky on the biscuit-tin: not in it at all’). His distinctively Aussie characters are unapologetic ockers and foreigners to political correctness. They fang for a beer, like a root and a punt, and don’t hesitate to give someone a toe up the blurter if necessary.

Robert G. Barrett’s fans—and dictionary-makers—will miss the fun.  For those unfamiliar with the territory, see the following word list for translations of the Barrettisms mentioned here.

arsey – lucky

as rare as rocking-horse shit – exceptionally rare

baked dinner – a meal of roast meat, gravy and veg., traditionally served as a midday meal on Sunday

Balmain folk dancing – the activity of putting in the boot. Balmain is an inner-city suburb of Sydney, historically working-class but now increasingly gentrified.

blurter – the anus or buttocks

cocky on the biscuit tin – left out, not part of the action. An allusion to the image of a parrot on the traditional Arnott’s biscuit tin, which is not in fact a cocky (cockatoo), but a rosella.

dubbo – a fool, a country bumpkin. Dubbo is the name of a New South Wales country town.

fang – to thirst

punt – a bet

root – an act of sexual intercourse

the straight at Randwick – the home straight at Randwick racecourse in Sydney

Woolloomooloo uppercut – an affront to the testicles. Woolloomooloo, like Balmain, was once a solidly working-class inner-city Sydney suburb.


4 thoughts on “Robert G. Barrett, Les Norton, and twentieth-century Aussie slang

  1. So, was ‘Woolloomooloo’ misspelled in Barrett’s book? (The quote shows four Ls, but your definition shows three.) I wouldn’t be surprised. Woolloomooloo, Woolloongabba, Wollongong and other similar-sounding placenames have inconsistent spelling. (I had to check this comment many times before sending it.)

    • My error – Barrett and his editor got it right. As you note, too much checking is never enough.

  2. I have read the les norton books for years, and am now reading them in order for the first time. My favourite slang that appears in the books is ‘china’ shortened from china plate, meaning ‘mate’

    RIP Mr Barrett

  3. “Dry as a dead fruit bat’s frankfurt” Just about sums up that longing for a beer, late on a summer afternoon. Thanks Mr Barrett.

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