Australia: Our home is girt by sea

by Mark Gwynn

Since the adoption of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as Australia’s national anthem there have been a number of vocal critics. Some of these critics are nostalgic for the former anthem ‘God Save the Queen’, others prefer the unofficial anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’, while others are uninspired by the tune and lyrics. In this blog I will look at one very particular criticism – the retention of the word girt. The word is archaic and rare in other Englishes but thanks to the anthem Australians know it well.

Peter Dodds McCormick

‘Advance Australia Fair’ was composed by Peter Dodds McCormick, and first performed in 1878. The song was used in various patriotic contexts and went through a number of permutations before being officially adopted as the national anthem in 1984. Only the first two verses are used in the current version:

 

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

 

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

 

Unlike ‘Waltzing Matilda’ the national anthem is devoid of Australian English words. The word girt, however, certainly lays claim to being significant in Australian English.

The verb gird (meaning ‘to surround, encircle’) is from Old English, and its past tense and past participle was girded. In the Middle English period (from the early 1300s) it developed the variant past tense and past participle form girt. And, as a result of this, in the early 1500s a new verb to girt appeared as a synonym for to gird. The Oxford English Dictionary comments on the verb to gird: ‘Throughout its whole history the English word is chiefly employed in rhetorical language, in many instances with more or less direct allusion to biblical passages’. The biblical phrase to gird one’s loins, a figurative idiom meaning to ‘prepare for action’, would still be familiar to many readers. Given the word’s formal and literary history, it is perhaps appropriate that its past participle (whether from the original verb to gird or its later variant to girt) should appear in a national anthem. Of course, McCormick could have used the girded form of the past participle: ‘Our home is girded by sea’. But then he would have had an extra syllable, and the line would not have scanned metrically. Thus: ‘Our home is girt by sea’.

One criticism of the line ‘Our home is girt by sea’ is that it is stating the obvious to a people inhabiting an island continent. Much of the criticism, however, is focused on the archaic and obscure word girt – a word that would otherwise be unknown to the majority of the population. The word has attracted much ridicule and calls to replace it, but there is also a recognition that its very peculiarity is part of a shared Australian experience. The following quotations demonstrate some of these points:

Now if only one of our better poets could be invited to rejig the words and get rid of stuff like ‘girt by sea’. Preferably in time for the next Olympics. (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August 1993)

Advance Australia Fair. This is, once again, aversion therapy for national pride. It’s the musical counterpart to having a rubber-gloved hand shoved up your rectum. Girt by sea? Who the hell is Girt? Nonetheless she’s the best line in the whole bloody song. (Australian, 31 August 1996)

Our sole problem is with the word ‘girt’ and we should have a national competition to replace it with ‘bound’ or ‘rimmed’ or something. (Sun-Herald, 22 September 1996)

He imitates the way people sing Advance Australia Fair: Mumble, mumble, mumble until they come to words they recognise – the ‘girt by sea’ bit. (West Australian, 5 July, 1997)

We love a sunburnt country but prefer to be girt by sea. (Women’s Day, 20 June, 2011)

Australians’ familiarity with the word girt sees an otherwise archaic word used frequently in the media. Girt has become part of the Australian consciousness – learnt through repetition at school assemblies, reinforced at sporting and national events, and uniting Australians in what can be described as an in-joke:

Although McLachlan doesn’t arrive on screen at Home and Away for a few weeks, the promos indicate that there will be much offing of the shirt and bounding be-Speedoed along golden sands girt by sea. (Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1990)

Our Land Is Girt By Deadly Creatures (Melbourne Age, 9 February 1997)

On Australia Day, our land is girt by apathy. (Sydney Daily Telegraph, 7 April 1999)

Our land, once girt by sea, will eventually be girt by fibre-optic cables, for a cost of $36 billion. (Australian Financial Review, 21 May, 2011)

While there are still occasional calls to replace the national anthem, and criticisms of the archaic girt, most Australians have accepted that girt is here to stay and enjoy the word for its singularity:

Girt. Could any word be more Australian? Of all the nations on Earth, we alone raise our voices in a past participle that hasn’t been used in common speech since Chaucer was a rug rat. (Sun-Herald, 28 June 1998)

 

 

8 thoughts on “Australia: Our home is girt by sea

    • John Cowan’s at least it is a singable melody. John, where did you learn to sing? I have the greatest of difficulties to get an even bearable mumble. Girt is really the least of my problems. However I do stand in silence, rather than murdering the tune, in respect for the greatest ‘girted’ land on earth.

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: war, Scandinavia, obsolete words | Wordnik

  2. I think of girt as relating to girth or girdle. Not archaic at all and still in use. Not sure what the fuss is about. There is lots of norse, old french, anglo saxon in our language which is much older. So it seems a shame to pick on old girt… Just my 2c.

    • Thanks for your comment,

      The term archaic is used of words that are no longer in ordinary or everyday use. While ‘girth’ and ‘girdle’ are related to ‘girt’ they are both commonly used in Australian English. In the case of ‘girt’ the word has been superseded by words like ‘surrounded’. Its retention in the Oz national anthem means that it is commonly encountered and often used jocularly or self-consciously as some of the quotations in this blog show. While researching this blog I went through various databases and could find almost no examples of ‘girt’ being used outside the anthem unless being used self-consciously.

      I would love to know if this word is used more widely outside of the contexts I’ve just mentioned.

    • I reckon many people would go to the barricades if ‘girt’ was replaced with another word. But ‘bound’ would be the obvious choice!

  3. Although not born in, I have lived in Oz for many years and always understood our land to be girthed by sea. Girth the verb to surround which I thought quite acceptable. Having learned the words by ear, I never suspected it to be anything other.

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