Ethel Turner and Australian English

by Amanda Laugesen

Turner 124 January* marked the anniversary of the birth of Ethel Turner, the writer of one of Australia’s most well-known books, Seven Little Australians. She was also the author of many more books for children. Turner is quoted several times in the Australian National Dictionary, her work providing an important contribution to the historical corpus of Australian English.

Ethel Mary Turner was born in 1870 in England; in 1878, her mother migrated to Australia with Ethel and her sister Lillian. Ethel grew up in Sydney, and quickly took an interest in writing, establishing a school magazine named The Iris at Sydney Girls’ High School. After leaving school, Lillian and Ethel established a monthly magazine, the Parthenon, which lasted for three years. Ethel went on to edit the children’s pages first of the Illustrated Sydney News and then the Australian Town and Country Journal.

Both sisters aspired to be novelists. Ethel’s first novel would be her most lasting legacy: Seven Little Australians, published in England in 1894, quickly became very popular both abroad and at home in Australia. The novel’s story of a family of seven children and their father Captain Woolcot provided a realistic insight into life in Australia. The novel has continued to be read, and has been adapted into a stage play (1914), a film (1939), a BBC mini-series (1953) and an ABC television series (1973). It has also been translated into many languages.

Turner 2Seven Little Australians is quoted several times in the first edition of the Australian National Dictionary. The word cockatoo, used as a verb to mean to sit perched on a fence, is illustrated by the following quotation from the book:

 But everybody else had gone to ‘cockatoo’ – to sit on the top rail of the inclosure and look down at the maddened creatures: so at length he fastened his bridle to a tree and proceeded gingerly to follow their example. (1894, p. 209)

Another little-known Australianism used in the novel is good iron. The term is used of something deserving of praise or approval.

Turner was the author of other books for children, including The Family at Misrule (1895) which continued the story of the Woolcot family, and The Little Larrikin (1896). The latter contributes two quotations to the Australian National Dictionary: for the terms nick, to go on the spur of the moment, and throwdown, a type of small firework. The quotation for throwdown nicely suggests the larrikin behaviour of Lol, the ‘little larrikin’ of the title:

 Lol … was projecting jumping Jacks and throwdowns on the floor, and keeping the cook … on the table. (1896, p. 321)

Ethel Turner continued to write books for children, and was an active campaigner and supporter of the war cause during the First World War. She worked with Bertram Stevens, who went on to become Premier of New South Wales, to produce The Australian Soldiers’ Gift Book (1917). She died in 1956.

*There is some dispute over the exact birth date of Turner. I have used the biographical information provided by the Australian Dictionary of Biography.