by Mark Gwynn
14 February 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of decimal currency in Australia when pounds, shillings, and pence were replaced with dollars and cents. While various names were proposed for the new currency including austral, digger, dinkum, roo, and royal, it was the prosaic dollar that won the day. In this article I look at some of the colloquial terms in Australian English that refer to particular coins and banknotes.*
If you had a pineapple, added a lobster, two blue swimmers, and two prawns, what would you get? A grey nurse, of course! While this equation may look like a seafood recipe, these are actually Australian slang terms for banknotes. There is a good chance that you have not heard of them because they don’t appear to be in common use, although we have some evidence for them from the 1980s. The terms allude to the colour of the banknotes: the $50 note is yellow (a pineapple), the $20 note is red (a lobster), the $10 note is blue (a blue swimmer, a type of crab), and the $5 note is pink (a prawn). The $100 note is currently green, but between 1984 and 1996 it was grey, and was called a grey nurse (a type of shark). While terms for our decimal banknotes do not have a strong hold in the Australian vernacular, the pre-decimal currency did produce words and idioms that were well-known in Australian English in years past.
The earliest nickname for an Australian coin was holey dollar – a modified Spanish coin used in New South Wales between 1814 and 1828, when there was a shortage of currency in the colony. The holey dollar was what remained of a Spanish dollar when the centre of the coin (the dump) had been struck out of it. The holey dollar was worth five shillings, and the dump fifteen pence. The words caser (‘five shillings or a crown’), and deener (‘a shilling’), were used in Britain but were also widely used in Australia from the early colonial period. Caser derives from the Yiddish and Hebrew word for ‘silver’, and deener probably derives from Latin ‘denarius’ for a silver coin. Thrummer in the colonial period referred to a threepence. It derived from British slang thrums or thrum, a colloquial or dialect pronunciation of thruppence mainly evident in the British underworld. Thrum also generated the Australian rhyming slang scrum for the same coin, recorded from the late nineteenth century. Other Australian terms for a threepenny bit from this time include trey and trey-bit. Trey was used in Britain for many centuries to mean ‘three’, and derives from trois (French for ‘three’). Trey was also altered in Australian English to trizzie in the twentieth century. From the late nineteenth century the sixpenny coin was often called a zac, and probably derives from Scottish ‘saxpence’. Zac was also used to refer to a ‘trifling sum of money’, and in the phrase not worth a zac (‘worth very little’).
Australian pre-decimal banknotes also had nicknames. The ten-shilling note was a half (half a pound), the one-pound note was a flag (perhaps from a resemblance in shape), the five-pound note was a spinnaker or a spin (origin unknown), and the ten-pound note was a brick (from its reddish-brown colour).This sense of brick is still occasionally heard in the expression London to a brick on. It was originally a gambling term (recorded in the mid-twentieth century) that meant ‘an absolutely certain result’: you are so certain of the winner that you would stake the whole of London in a bet to win ten pounds. In more recent years the gambling context is often missing and the expression just means ‘absolutely certain’. The British slang word flimsy was also used in Australia from the mid-nineteenth century as a general term for a banknote.
Perhaps the most enduring pre-decimal currency slang terms in Australian English are bob and quid. Bob is British slang for a shilling. Two bob (two shillings) has generated a number of idioms in Australian English, alluding to something that is ‘cheap, of poor quality’, or ‘of little consequence’. The expression silly (or mad) as a two-bob watch is still encountered, as is to have two bob each way ‘to hedge your bets; to be uncommitted’, and to have your two bob’s worth ‘to have your say’. Quid in British English originally referred to a guinea (the sum of one pound and one shilling) and subsequently to a pound note. Quid was widely used in Australia to refer to a pound note, and is still encountered in the idiom not the full quid, meaning ‘not in full possession of one’s mental faculties’.
* This is a modified version of Mark Gwynn’s article ‘Holey Dollars to Grey Nurses’ which appeared in the April 2014 issue of Ozwords. The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s newsletter Ozwords is published twice a year by Oxford University Press Australia. For previous issues of this publication and for subscription details see our website.