by Bruce Moore
Bruce Moore is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and editor of the Australian National Dictionary (2016). The following is an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words (published by Oxford University Press Australia, 2010).
In 1981 in the Bulletin magazine the Australian writer Kathy Lette uses the term rellie for ‘relative’: ‘Dreaded rellies are not so easily disposed of.’1 In 1987 in a collection of short stories Kathy Lette uses the variant form rello for ‘relative’: ‘Everybody else would have liquid-papered me out of their address books by now, especially the rellos.’2 This use of the –ie (or –y) and –o suffix with abbreviated forms of words is not exclusive to Australia, although it is more common in Australia than elsewhere, and is used in distinctive ways in Australia. The choice of –ie or –o appears to be arbitrary, although the –ie forms are much more common than the –o forms. It is rare to find a term that uses both –ie and –o, as in the case of rellie and rello, but such doublets appear occasionally, as in the older commie and commo for ‘communist’, and the more recent flannie and flanno for ‘flannelette shirt’. Some have argued that the –ie forms are more sympathetic or friendly than the –o forms, but even the examples given in this paragraph show that this is not the case.
In Standard English the –ie suffix is typically used to form ‘pet names’ (Annie, Betty) or ‘familiar diminutives’ (OED): birdie, doggie. It is this latter group (birdie, doggie) that superficially resembles the Australian words ending in –ie, but it is clear that they are very different. Birdie and doggie are the kinds of words associated with talking to children. The technical term for abbreviated forms of this kind is hypocoristics, deriving from a Greek word meaning ‘to play the child’. It is clear that there is nothing childish in the Australian words mentioned so far (rellie, commie, and flannie), and so the Australian words must have a different function. They serve primarily as markers of informality, and among speakers they operate as a code of familiarity, common understanding, and solidarity. If I say ‘are you visiting your relatives this Christmas?’ the use of relatives marks the fact that our relationship is a formal one. If I say ‘are you visiting the rellos this Christmas?’ the use of rellos marks the fact that our relationship is less formal, and it can bring into play a set of shared understandings: it is good to visit your relatives at Christmas, but we both know, don’t we, that it can also be a bit of a trial, and so on.
There are two main groups of words in Australian English with the –ie suffix of this kind. First, there is a group of mainly monosyllabic words that remain unchanged and simply add the –ie (or –y): blockie (1944) ‘a person who occupies a small block of rural land’; broomie (1895) ‘a person employed to sweep in a shearing shed’; gummy (1871) ‘a sheep that has lost or is losing its teeth’. A fair number of these occur in the nineteenth century, suggesting that this is where the Australian pattern was established: they are close in form to the Standard English diminutives (bird + -ie, dog + -ie), although differing in function.
The second group is made up of longer words or compounds that are first abbreviated and then have the –ie suffix added. These are very rare in the nineteenth century, with the two main examples being cocky from cockatoo (1871) and schoolie from schoolteacher (1889), enforcing the evidence that the unabbreviated words were the group that first established the pattern. In the twentieth century, however, and especially after the Second World War, this second group completely overtakes the previous one in terms of numbers. It is now extremely rare for Australian English to create a new word by adding –ie to an unabbreviated word. Abbreviate a word, and then add –ie: this is now the standard pattern. It has generated, and continues to generate, numerous Australian words: barbie ‘barbecue’; Chrissy ‘Christmas’; coldie ‘a cold drink of beer’ (from the compound cold one); corkie ‘corked thigh’; kindy ‘kindergarten’; mossie ‘mosquito’; mushie ‘mushroom’; pollie ‘politician’; prezzie ‘present’; quaddie ‘quadrella’; sickie ‘a sick day off work’ (not sick + -ie, but sick day + -ie); sunnies ‘sunglasses’; tinny ‘a can of beer’, ‘a boat with an aluminium hull’ (abbreviations of the compounds tin can and tin boat rather than just tin + -ie); tradie ‘tradesman; umpy ‘umpire’; vollie ‘volunteer’; wettie ‘wetsuit’. Firie for ‘firefighter’ is one of the most recent creations, dating from the early 1990s.
The –o suffix has a number of functions in Standard English. It can form interjections (whammo!), familiar forms of personal names (Johnno), and nouns from adjectives (weirdo). These are not distinctively Australian. Other Englishes can form familiar and informal forms of nouns and adjectives either from monosyllabic words (kiddo from kid) or from abbreviated words (aggro from aggression), but these are the forms (especially the nouns) that are a distinctive part of Australian English. A few of these –o forms appear in Australia in the nineteenth century and at the turn of the century, but these make up a very particular group—in every case, the –o ending alternates with an –oh ending: bottle-oh or bottle-o, milk-oh or milk-o, rabbit-oh or rabbit-o, smoke-oh or smoke-o, and spell-oh or spell-o. What is going on here can be best illustrated with milko. The earliest evidence is in 1865: ‘He proposed that I should carry his pails round the town and shout out “Milk O” at the customers’ door.’3 This is clearly the call of a person selling milk, and the –o or –oh is part of the call. At a later date, the meaning of milko shifts from the call to the person who is making the call, and thus the sense ‘milkman’: ‘A milk-oh … has been convicted of selling adulterated milk more than once.’4 The same process explains rabbit-oh or rabbit-o ‘a seller of rabbits for food’, and bottle-oh or bottle-o ‘a dealer in used bottles’. Spello-oh or spell-o ‘a break from work’ and smoke-oh or smoke-o (and eventually smoko) ‘a tea break; a rest from work, originally for a break that might include smoking a cigarette’ are different, since they are not names of occupations, but they also have their origin in a similar process of calling: (1862) ‘Four or five times in one day … was the ever-welcome command, “Spell O, and sling kettles”’;5 (1872) ‘At stated times throughout the day there comes a general spell, commenced as soon as the phrase “smoke-oh!” is heard.’6
This –o ending then transfers to other kinds of words and forms with much the same function as –ie. With –o, there is no significant time difference between the appearance of non-abbreviated (plonko ‘a drinker of ‘plonk’ or cheap alcohol’) and abbreviated forms (reffo ‘a refugee’), but as with –ie, the abbreviated forms are more common than the unabbreviated forms. The –o suffix is not used as much as –ie, but it has produced significant words in the past, and continues to do so. Examples include: ambo ‘ambulance officer’; arvo ‘afternoon’; bowlo ‘bowling club’; compo ‘compensation’; demo ‘demonstration; garbo ‘garbage collector; muso ‘musician’; salvo ‘a member of the Salvation Army’.
These abbreviated forms with –ie or –o added have become one of the most recognisable features of Australian English, and the evidence shows that new examples continue to be created.
1 Bulletin (Sydney), 22 December 1981, p. 208.`
2 Girls’ Night Out (Sydney, 1987), p. 57.
3 J.F. Mortlock, Experiences of a Convict (London, 1865), p. 115.
4 Truth (Sydney), 20 January 1907, p. 1.
5 G.T. Lloyd, Thirty-Three Years in Tasmania and Victoria (London, 1862), p. 125.
6 G.S. Baden-Powell, New Homes for the Old Country (London, 1872), p. 175.