Wine in Australian English


by Mark Gwynn

oz wine

A vineyard visitor

In Australia the nation’s drinking culture is traditionally associated with beer, but in recent years the sale of wine has surpassed that of the amber fluid. Australian wines are now sold and consumed in vast quantities here and around the world. While the increasing consumption of wine is a relatively recent phenomenon, terms associated with this beverage have a much longer history in Australian English. Australia produces many fine wines; however, many of the wine-related terms in the lexicon relate to cheap and inferior wine, as the examples below illustrate.

Wine casks

Wine casks

cask (also wine cask) – a plastic or foil-lined container for wine, inside a cardboard carton, with a spigot. The wine cask was invented by South Australian winemaker Thomas Angove and patented in 1965. The great advantage of his invention is that, once the cask is open, the wine not drawn off remains under a vacuum, and does not oxidise as quickly as wine in an open bottle. As a result it can be sold cheaply in larger volumes, usually in two- or four-litre containers. Cask wine is the term for the wine in such a container. In Australian English a number of disparaging terms for the cask and cask wine have emerged (see Dapto briefcase, chateau cardboard, and goon).

chardonnay socialist – a derogatory term for a person who espouses left-wing views but enjoys an affluent lifestyle. The first evidence occurs in 1987, the decade in which chardonnay became a very popular wine variety in Australia. This compound is an Australian variant of champagne socialist, a British English term with a similar meaning. Chardonnay also contributes to another disparaging Australian term, chardonnay set, ‘affluent city-dwellers regarded as an elite’. The abbreviated form of chardonnaychardy – is also common in Australian English.

Cleanskin wine

Cleanskin wine

chateau cardboard – a mock-pretentious name for cask wine. Evidence appears for this in the 1980s, and the following newspaper extract from the time describes a more relaxed era in the Australian Public Service: ‘During summer lunch-hours, public servants leave their offices to barbecue at the coin-operated barbecues in the park. They cook steaks, the women bring dishes of salads and they drink Chateau Cardboard wine until it’s time to go back to work.’ (Canberra Times, 14 August 1988)

cleanskin  a bottle of wine without a label that identifies the maker; the wine in such a bottle. This term is derived from a much earlier Australian use of the word – the original cleanskins were unbranded livestock (evidence from the mid-19th century). Buying cleanskins can be a lottery, but they are relatively cheap compared to other bottled wines and are often sold by the dozen. First evidence occurs in the 1980s: ‘If you’re not familiar with the “cleanskin” wines they’re a bargain way of buying well. As the name suggests, the bottles are stripped of everything – and that also gets rid of expensive labelling, packaging, marketing and advertising.’ (Melbourne Sun, 25 September 1986) .

Dapto briefcase (also Dapto handbag) – a disparaging term for a wine cask, and an unflattering comment on the people who buy them. Dapto is a traditionally working-class suburb of Wollongong. There is a smattering of evidence for other similar terms that allude to a town or suburb with working-class roots: Broadmeadow briefcase (Newcastle), Brunswick briefcase (Melbourne), Dubbo handbag (New South Wales). The first evidence for Dapto briefcase occurs in 2005.

A large 'goon bag' created by artist Norton Flavel for the Sculpture by the Sea festival at Cottesloe beach, Western Australia

A large ‘goon bag’ created by artist Norton Flavel for the Sculpture by the Sea festival at Cottesloe beach, Western Australia

goon – cask wine. This word is frequently found in the compound goon bag ‘a wine cask, specifically the bag containing the wine’. The word is possibly a transferred use of the Australian English word goom ‘methylated spirits as an alcoholic drink’. Goom itself may derive from a south-east Queensland Aboriginal word (from Gabi-gabi, Waga-waga, and Gureng-gureng) meaning ‘water, alcohol’. The form goon may also have been influenced by an altered pronunciation of flagon. There is evidence for this term from the early 1980s.

plonk – wine of poor quality; (more generally) wine or alcohol of any kind. The first evidence for this term comes from the early 1920s, perhaps originating with Australian soldiers in the First World War, especially those serving on the Western Front. It is probably an alteration of French blanc ‘white’ in vin blanc ‘white wine’. This likely derivation is strengthened by association with the terms for vin blanc that arose through word play at this time. Von blink, point blank, plink, plink-plonk, and plinkety plonk all appear in glossaries of First World War slang. Plonk is the basis of a number of Australian English terms, including plonk bar ‘a wine bar’, plonk shop ‘a shop that sells wine’, plonk-up ‘a party’, plonked up ‘intoxicated, drunk’, and plonko ‘a person addicted to wine; an alcoholic’.

red ned – red wine of inferior quality. There is evidence for this term from the 1910s. It is formed by rhyming reduplication, but its origin is uncertain. It has been suggested that it is a masculine version of red biddy, a drink of methylated spirits and red wine. One colourful example of its use illustrates the association with poverty and desperation: ‘The old red ned, bitter as shit, poured down his throat, spilling over his already filthy shirt.’ (Southerly, iii., 1974)

wine dot – a habitual drinker of cheap wine or other cheap alcohol. The term is perhaps a pun on Wyandotte ‘a breed of domestic fowl’, or it may be rhyming slang for sot ‘a drunkard’. The earliest evidence sums up the general opinion of this kind of drinker: ‘Gaol for Methylated Spirits Drinkers. These men are regarded by the police as wine-dot cadgers, and nuisances generally.’ (Adelaide Advertiser, 9 May 1933)

wine saloon

A wine saloon in Thirroul (a suburb of Wollongong, New South Wales) from the 1930s

wine saloon – an establishment licensed to sell wine only. The term, first found in the 1860s, is dated now, but this 19th-century evidence demonstrates high hopes for the future of wine consumption in Australia: ‘The wine saloons had already made a large wine-drinking population, and it was to be hoped that the rising generation would take to wine as a natural beverage, because in wine-drinking countries there was less drunkenness than elsewhere.’ (South Australian Advertiser4 January 1883) 

wine shanty – a public house selling wine and other alcoholic beverages, usually in rural areas and often unlicensed. These are one step up from the illegal sly grog shops operating in Australia from the early days of settlement, and which were well-known on the goldfields in the mid-19th century. Wine shanty is not a term likely to be heard today, except in a historical context. The first evidence for it occurs in the 1860s.

4 thoughts on “Wine in Australian English

  1. The very British Rumpole of the Bailey refers to his favorite drink as plonk. Internal evidence suggests that he was born in 1911, and he’s first heard of around 1968, showing that the term had a considerable existence in Blighty.

    • Plonk, and its variants, was used widely among Anglophone soldiers during the First World War. However, most of the evidence comes from after the war period and is usually from Australian sources. Interestingly Leo McKern was an Australian actor, but this is perhaps a coincidence.

  2. Pingback: Link love: language (61) | Sentence first

  3. May I add another: poverty stricken (!) university students are drinking “gunch”, punch made with goon or cask wine. When I heard this, my inner-winesnob lost all nostalgia for those university drinking years :-)

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