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.

There are few other characters in Australian children’s fiction as well-known or well-loved as the gumnut babies. May Gibbs loved the bush and used it as the setting for her stories; the perennial popularity of her work is due to the creative imagining of her characters as the fruits and flowers of Australian plants, and her skill as an artist. The popularity of her characters has also left its mark on Australian English.

May Gibbs was born in England, emigrating with her family to Australia in 1881 when she was four. She was educated in Perth and London and pursued a career as an illustrator and writer, settling in Sydney in 1913. Here she began to draw her distinctive gumnut and blossom babies, and in 1916 she published Gumnut Babies, the first book in which they appear as characters. The books were an immediate success. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Bib and Bub, Little Ragged Blossom, and the Banksia Men became for many a part of the experience of Australian childhood.

A Banksia Man, the stuff of nightmares.

Of all May Gibbs’ characters it is the wicked banksia men, the ne’er-do-wells who frighten the gumnut babies and bushfolk, who have especially resonated in children’s imaginations through the generations:

Hell was under the well near the cow paddock, deep and murky and peopled by gnarled and knobby banksia men who lurked there waiting for the unguarded to fall in.  (E. Smith, Saddle In the Kitchen, 1979)

May Gibbs based her villains on the distinctive woody fruiting cones of the native banksia (a genus of trees and shrubs named for Joseph Banks, the naturalist on James Cook’s Endeavour voyage). For generations of Australians who have grown up with the gumnut babies, life imitates art: it is difficult to see a banksia cone without seeing it as a banksia man. Indeed since the 1920s banksia cones have been referred to as banksia men:

Louise: See what I’ve got in my pocket for you….

Bill: (diving into a pocket of her coat and pulling out a banksia cone) A banksia man. Oh Mum! (K.S. Prichard, Bid Me To Love, 1927)

A banksia cone.

The idea of the banksia man as bogey still resonates in adult life: ‘Is “globalisation” the cause of many of the world’s economic troubles, or has it merely become the big, bad Banksia man of our era?’ (Australian Financial Review, 1 September 2001)

The gumnut twins Bib and Bub have also entered the language. They appeared first in 1924 in a long-running comic strip in the Sydney Sunday News. They are Australia’s version of Tweedledee and Tweedledum;* the similarity of their names and appearance has given us a way of referring to a pair of people or things who are inseparable or virtually indistinguishable. The term Bib and Bub is first recorded in this sense in 1977:

The Treasurer, Mr Lynch, belatedly congratulated the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Whitlam, and his deputy, Mr Uren, yesterday on their re-election…. ‘[I]t is good to see Bib and Bub back in the saddle again’. (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 1977)

More recently it has been used to describe the lack of policy choice between the two major parties in the 2007 Federal election: ‘Today’s election is exciting, and much hinges on the result, much more than the Bib and Bub policy swap would suggest (Australian, 24 November 2007)’. In the same week a Crikey commentator asked: ‘ Will it really matter whether Bib or Bub forms government after Saturday?’ A surprising amount of evidence for the term continues to appear in a political context. No doubt the disparity between the wide-eyed innocents and seasoned politicians appeals to our sense of the absurd.

Image source: State Library of NSW

It is a testament to May Gibbs’ skill as writer and artist that characters from her stories and cartoons have continued to leave their mark on our language nearly a century after they first appeared. Her creations still have the ability to charm and entertain us.

*Lewis Carroll’s inseparable characters in Alice in Wonderland (1865).

2 thoughts on “A hundred years of gumnut babies

  1. How bloody marvellous to hear from those wonderful May Gibbs ‘folk’. Such an important part of my life . Just wonderful. Thanks guys

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