by Bruce Moore*
The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is native to Europe and Asia, and it has been introduced to most other parts of the world. Although the house sparrow is the most widespread and abundant of birds, in the past twenty years there has been evidence of a decline in numbers in some areas, especially in western Europe, perhaps a result of a decline in insect numbers (food for sparrow nestlings) in urban areas.
In the 1860s, the house sparrow was introduced to Australia, and spread widely, except in Western Australia. As in other parts of the world, there was been some anecdotal evidence of a decline in sparrow numbers in Australia. For example, in 2010 the Newcastle Herald ran an article titled ‘Where have the sparrows gone?’ (2 August). Even so, in the 2015 ‘Aussie Backyard Bird Count’, the sparrow was the fifth most commonly sighted bird, after the rainbow lorikeet, noisy miner, Australian magpie, and sulphur-crested cockatoo.
In Britain, the sparrow had a variety of dialectal names, mostly alterations of the core term sparrow. Just as the actual bird was ‘transported’ to Australia by those who thought it would be a good idea to surround themselves with the wildlife of the old country, so groups of migrants brought with them their regional terms for the sparrow. Subsequently, these British dialect terms became terms for ‘sparrow’ in Australia, and they sometimes became regional terms.
This is an English dialect term, occurring in many dialects, including Cumbria, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex. In Australia its use has been similarly widespread. It was used in Australia from the early 1900s to the 1950s. This word is also known from C.J. Dennis, whose characters The Bloke, Doreen, and Rose, are from ‘Spadger’s Lane’.
1901 Referee (Sydney) 24 July 9/5 The newly-formed Goulburn Sparrow Club held their usual shoot last Saturday… At the end of the seventh round only three had shot all their birds… It was not decided till the 14th round, when Mr Badgery killed his bird, and ‘Bird’, who up to this had seldom used his second barrel, failed to stop his ‘spadger’, and left Badgery a well-earned winner.
spag and spagger
In English dialect this is recorded from the Northumberland region. In Australia its use has been widespread, and this is perhaps a result of the fact that spag is really a variant of the widespread English dialect spadge, and that both are abbreviations of spadger. In Australia, the variant spagger has also occurred. The terms were used in Australia from the early 1900s, and although now not commonly used, we have evidence of the spag form from the early 2000s.
1915 Argus (Melbourne) 13 Feb. 7/2 ‘What are you doing with road metal in your pockets, Drain?’ ‘To chuck at the birds, sir, when they come at me. I’m awful afraid of birds, sir, especially spaggers.’
1937 Albury Banner & Wodonga Express 5 Mar. 20/2 ‘Last year my brother Reginald and I collected over 170 sparrow eggs.’… ‘It would take nearly that number of “spags’” eggs to make a feed!’
A variant of British dialect spug (mainly Scottish and Northern England), spuggy (northern England), and spyug (Scottish). In Australia, this is a regional term, occurring in South Australia. It was used there from the 1890s, and the evidence shows that its use continues.
1892 Northern Argus (Clare) 21 Oct. 2/6 Can they ’light on the teenty-teety end of a limb an’ eat worms like spoggies (sparrows)?
sprag and spraggie
These specific forms are not recorded in British dialect, but they are likely to be unrecorded British variants (allied to such forms as spag and sprig) rather than forms that developed independently in Australia. In Australia, much of the evidence for them comes from Queensland, but there is evidence of wider use, especially from Victoria. The range of evidence is from the 1920s to the 1990s, suggesting that this term has largely disappeared.
1928 Qld. Times (Ipswich) 7 Sept. 6/5 This card had words to this effect, typed along the dotted line: ‘Re complaint about missing letter to the Ipswich and West Moreton Bird Nest Destruction Board.’ If the campaign is to be directed against their nests instead of themselves, the ‘sprags’ will be on a much better wicket.
1964 P. Adam-Smith Hear the Train Blow 55 Young Pete .. could get the little grey yabbies out by hand… But he was a cruel boy. He claimed that ‘spraggies’ (sparrows) were the best bait.
spriggy and sprig
This is from Scottish dialect sprig. It was used mainly in Victoria, but there is evidence of more widespread use. The term was current from the early 1900s to the 1960s. In early discussions of the term in Australia, it is often claimed that sprig is an eponym, deriving from the name of the person who was responsible for introducing the bird into Australia. Typical are these quotations:
1904 Free Lance (Wellington, N.Z.) 23 Apr. 3/2 Sir Gordon Sprigg, who used to be Premier of Cape Colony, sprang from the ranks of the reporters. Gordon’s brother is celebrated in Australia for having introduced the common sparrow, which isn’t exactly a welcome visitor. Australian boys call sparrows ‘spriggies’ in consequence.
1921 Argus (Melbourne) 26 Apr. 6/4 Referring to the origin of the name ‘Sprigg’ as applied to sparrows, Mr W. Gordon Sprigg writes:—‘Away back in the sixties the Melbourne Acclimatisation Society decided to introduce into Victoria the hedge sparrow. At that time my father, the late Mr George Sprigg, was director, or curator, of the Zoological Gardens in the Royal Park… Instead of the hedge sparrow the authorities in London (presumably in error) shipped over the common house sparrow, which has not altogether proved an unmixed blessing, and the wags of that day dubbed the little stranger a “Sprigg”, a sobriquet which has stuck to it down the years.’
These are the main variants for the term ‘sparrow’ that have been used in Australia. There is some occasional evidence as well for variants such as spidgie, spuggy, and squidgie, but these do not appear to be very common.
A number of the terms are now obsolete or have very limited usage, suggesting that this is a set of terms that is in the process of disappearing from Australian English. The latest evidence suggests that the birds themselves are making a comeback, after fears of a decline. It seems unlikely, however, that forms such as spadger and sprig will be on the comeback trail.
*Bruce Moore is the editor of the new Australian National Dictionary (2016, second edition), and a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre.