by Anne Pender*
Barry Humphries celebrates his 79th birthday on 17 February, while Dame Edna Everage entertains the people of Western Australia in her farewell tour Eat, Pray, Laugh.
Humphries is a veteran inventor of Australian English and Edna continues to celebrate the rather odd term of endearment possum every time she greets her adoring fans. Edna’s exuberant cry ‘Hello Possums’ as she sashays on to the stage has kept a particular usage of the word for the arboreal marsupial in the vernacular for many years. If you call someone possum it is generally affectionate but may also be just a little disparaging. It was first recorded in this manner in 1894: ‘Bob Fogarty, as I’m a living sinner, delighted to meet you, old possum.’ (A.B. Bell, Australian Camp Fire Tales)
Perhaps Dame Edna’s most obvious gift to Australian English is gladdy, a shortened form of ‘gladiolus’, Edna’s favourite flower. At the end of every show she flings hundreds of gladdies into the auditorium and then leads the audience in the gladdy song: ‘Tremble your gladdy, wave your gladdy’ she shouts, as everyone joins in the ritual singing. Edna was not the first to use the word gladdy though. It was first recorded in 1936 in The Queenslander, a Brisbane newspaper. In 1982 Edna warned readers of her Bedside Companion to beware of this flower in spring, when ‘unsuspecting lawn-squatters run the terrible risk of being “goosed” by an upwardly mobile gladdy’.
The shortening of the name of the flower follows a feature of English in Australia: the habit of giving words and people’s names an ‘ie’ or ‘y’ ending. So we have sickie for a sick day, cossie for a bathing costume, and blowie for a blowfly. In a recent show Edna invited an elderly gentleman from the audience on to the stage and as she instructed him on what he was to do, she addressed him as seenie, explaining that this was short for ‘senior citizen’.
Edna, like many other Australians, shortens a lot of words. She reported to her audience at Jupiters Casino on the Gold Coast on the last night of her east coast tour that she had recently been staying at an exclusive ashram in India: ‘It was so exclusive I was the only one there, except for the Dalai Lama’, she said. ‘I called him Darl.’
*Our guest blogger is Dr Anne Pender, author of the recent biography of Barry Humphries, One Man Show: The Stages of Barry Humphries (2010). She is co-author with Bruce Bennett of a new book on Australian expatriate writers in Britain, From a Distant Shore: Australian writers in Britain 1820–2012. The book includes a chapter on Barry Humphries. Anne is Associate Professor in the School of Arts, University of New England, and a former colleague of ours at the Australian National Dictionary Centre. For more about Barry Humphries and Australian English see an earlier article by Anne Pender in our Ozwords newsletter.