This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Patrick White (1912–1990), the first Australian* to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was also the first Australian writer to have a significant international reputation; during his lifetime his novels often received greater critical acclaim overseas than in his own country.
His work includes characters – like Digger Masson – who speak with a recognisably Australian voice: ‘Reckon I’ll catch the evenin’ train to Brizzy.’ White has an ear for the vernacular, and this makes him a good source for historical lexicographers. Quotations from his work occur nearly fifty times in the Australian National Dictionary, a historical dictionary of Australianisms. These quotations provide evidence for ordinary terms such as damper, fence strainer, ute, and shearing contractor, along with more informal, ‘slangy’ words like crook (sick; bad), preggo (pregnant), prezzie (present), and root (to have sex).
White’s literary targets include pettiness, bigotry, and casual racism. His characters use derogatory labels such as dago (non-British European immigrant), tyke (Roman Catholic), and wonk (homosexual). Less insulting are bluey (redhead) and larry (abbreviation of larrikin).
A dozen quotations occur in entries for Australian plants. Banksia, black wattle, blackwood, and tea tree are familiar native species: boggabri and bush grass perhaps less so. The detail in some quotations suggests a quirky view of the natural environment:
It was a big old banksia, full of dead heads, the trunk and branches of the tree tortured into abominable shapes, full of dust and ugliness.
One of White’s plays, The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962), provides the first written evidence of two Australianisms. The idiom dressed up like a sore finger (a variant of done up like a sore finger) means to be overdressed, or dressed with unusual care: ‘I’m gunna get out of this suit. Dressed up like a sore finger’. The second term is the phrase on the sanitary, referring to the now-defunct job of working on a sanitary cart collecting night-soil (human excrement) from outdoor privies:
I told you I was on the sanitary. I’ve gotta make meself scarce. Late already. We’re short of personnel. The night-soil’s not everybody’s cuppa tea.
Patrick White has made a contribution to British lexicography too. The online Oxford English Dictionary quotes his fictional works about a hundred times. Many of these quotations are for general English words such as teensy, palate, loopy, rummage. My favourite is an unusual sense of salt-cellar: ‘She was so thin, but he loved her even for her salt-cellars.’ These are ‘the pronounced hollows at the base of a thin neck’. His novel Riders in the Chariot (1961) provides the earliest evidence of two British English words: the adjective no-hope (‘For Chrisake! Who am I to know what is up to every no-hope Jew that comes to the country?’), and the compound word sporting page (‘He would … go away, or reach for the sporting page’).
We dictionary-makers wish Patrick White a happy hundredth anniversary. A National Library of Australia exhibition, The Life of Patrick White, opens this week in Canberra.
*White was the only Australian recipient until 2006 when J.M Coetzee, a Nobel Prize winner in 2003, became an Australian citizen.