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. The language of the novel is strongly colloquial and uses the Australian vernacular of the 1970s—particularly the language of teenagers and the surfing culture of this period. For this reason it is a valuable source of evidence for lexicographers of Australian English.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s database and the Australian National Dictionary contain over a hundred quotations from Puberty Blues that provide evidence for Australian words and the way these words are used. The quotations give a colourful context for Australian English as the following examples reveal. For those unfamiliar with these terms a translation is given in brackets.

The girls smiled, bludged smokes and looked attractively bored. (cadged)

Here comes Darren. What a deadset doll. (genuine, awesome)

I’m so nervous. I didn’t do any study. I’m packin’ shit. (terrified)

At south Cronulla we’d let the boys ‘tit-us-off’ and occasionally get a hand down our pants. At North Cronulla we’d progressed to dry roots. (simulated acts of sexual intercourse without penetration)

She walked everywhere in her bikini. That meant she was showing off her body and was an easy root. (sexual partner)

Sue and I checked out the guys. They were spunkier at North Cronulla. (more sexually attractive)

Look Debbie – Kim told me that Bruce’s wrapped in ya. (engrossed in, infatuated by)

Things like have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school. (depart surreptitiously)

‘Spung!’ cried Jeff Basin, the local dubbo. (country bumpkin, fool)

I paddled out first. Sue couldn’t stop laughing at me slipping off and getting chundered. (thrown into the sea—a figurative use of chunder ‘to vomit’)

‘Smile!’ ‘No. He’ll think I’m trying to crack onoo him. (crack on to, pursue someone with amorous intent)

You’d go out with the gang to a party and when everyone else paired off, he’d lead you outside for a pash on the front fence. (passionate kiss, French kiss)

Many of the Australian slang terms found in Puberty Blues would be unfamiliar to teenagers today. There are a number of reasons for this including the fluidity of teenage language, the influence of US and British slang coming via television, movies, and the Internet, and the social and cultural changes that have occurred in Australia over the last 30 years.

6 thoughts on “Puberty Blues and Australian English

  1. My excessively literary ear has always heard this, “wrapped”, as “rapt”.
    As a slightly older Shire girl than the Puberty Blues ones, I can confirm that the degree of naughtiness or even danger increased as one moved north along the beach, Wanda Beach being somewhere only Bad Girls went. Or, sadly, inner suburban girls who had no idea of its significance or real danger.
    I wonder if this correlated with the fact that the surf became increasingly wild as one moved north. Maybe the adventurous /foolhardy were led on by this.

    • Thanks for your comments Sandra. The written forms ‘wrapped’ and ‘rapt’ are both common in Australian English. Although I think ‘rapt’ is more common now, but perhaps both variants are not as common as they once were.
      I surfed the beaches of northern Wollongong in my childhood and I would say that heading south always seemed more dangerous. But then again if you headed north you hit the Royal National Park! I think surf culture changed quite dramatically through the 1980s. Many of our more risque and interesting slang words from the 70s come from surf magazines like Tracks. Unfortunately for lexicographers these magazines became more conservative and formulaic through the 80s. But enough of this reminiscing!

  2. “Wrapped in” , or “wrapped up in” are adjectival phrases that tell me that someone is elated by, captivated by about a particular thing, action, or person, e.g. I am wrapped in Ozwords, he was wrapped in sailing)

    whereas the adjective “rapt” (c.f. rapture, enrapture) implies an emotional response related to circumstances (e.g. I am rapt to be elected to the Ozwords Hall of Fame; he was rapt when sailing his boat).

    However, most teenagers (including me – many years ago) believed that the spelling was “wrapped’ in both cases. “Rapt” was the sort of word that appeared in Shakespeare.

  3. Thanks for your comments Max.

    ‘Wrapped’ and ‘rapt’, of course, have very different histories in Standard English. ‘Wrapped’ is a past participial adjective from the verb ‘wrap’, which appears in the Middle English period and is of unknown origin. ‘Rapt’ is a borrowing from Latin, and is always an adjective. The senses are usually distinct. ‘Rapt’ means ‘completely fascinated or absorbed by what one is seeing or hearing, ‘characterised by a state of fascination’, ‘filled with intense and pleasurable emotion’. In all these senses, the relation of rapt to words such as rapture and enrapture is evident. ‘Wrapped’ can be quite literal (‘covered up with a wrap or enveloping garment’, ‘enclosed in a wrapping’), and it often has more figurative senses, as ‘deeply interested, centred, or absorbed in a person or thing’. In the idiom ‘be wrapped up in’ – ‘be so absorbed (in something) that one does notice other people or things’ – ‘wrapped’ comes very close to the senses of ‘rapt’. Even so, the uses of ‘wrapped’ in Standard English do not contain the emotional excitement and intensity conveyed by ‘rapt’. Thus, the distinction that you draw between being wrapped in Ozwords’ (‘deeply absorbed in Ozwords’) and rapt to be elected to the Ozwords Hall of Fame (‘filled with intense please at being elected’) is a clear distinction in Standard English.

    The complicating factor occurs with the use of these words in colloquial Australian English, where the two senses of ‘wrapped’ and ‘rapt’ are blurred together, and (historically) most commonly spelt, as you suggest, as ‘wrapped’. ‘Wrapped’ is commonly used in Australian English to mean ‘overjoyed, delighted’ (he is wrapped to be the new minister; I am wrapped!), and as ‘wrapped in’ to mean ‘infatuated by; delighted by’ (wrapped in surfies). Such uses of ‘wrapped’ would puzzle non-Australians.

  4. We used almost all this language (excepting “dubbo”) as kids/early teens in the mid to late 70s early 80s in Brisbane, even though we did not have a surfing culture. “Deadset” is surely a much older as I think I remember that from ’73 or ’74. The same for “spunky”, which I had been led to believe originated from US soldiers posted here in WWII.

    • Thanks for your comments. We have evidence for ‘deadset’ from at least the 1960s including this example from Frank Hardy’s novel ‘Yarns of Billy Borker’: I’m a real crusader against acid stomach, got a dead-set cure for it: Quick-Eze. We don’t have evidence for ‘spunky’ meaning sexy prior to the early 1970s. There are a number of other senses of ‘spunky’ including one meaning ‘courageous, brave, plucky, etc.’ that goes back to the 18th century. This doesn’t mean ‘spunky’ meaning sexy wasn’t around earlier than the 1970s, rather we have not found any earlier written evidence at this stage.

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