There was a recent surge of media interest when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) put out a call for members of the public to help them find early evidence for a range of terms, including come in from the cold, disco, and blue-arsed fly. This last term sparked interest here in Australia because the OED claimed that the earliest evidence in print for the term was from Prince Philip commenting, in 1970, that a photographer had been ‘running around like a blue-arsed fly’.
Prince Philip watching out for a blue-arsed fly, perhaps
Many Australians were outraged not only that Prince Philip was cited as providing the first evidence for a term that they believed had been around much earlier, but also that the term was not considered to be Australian. One letter to the editor of The Australian by a West Australian commented:
As schoolboys in the 1950s, my mates and I often ran about like blue-arsed flies, incurring the wrath of parents and teachers. For the Duke of Edinburgh to be given credit for a 1970 use hardly seems right. (6 October 2012).
So what is the story of blue-arsed fly? And is it Australian?
This may not be an Australianism, but some words still deserve comment and ‘murmuration’ is one of them. A ‘murmuration’ is a flock of starlings. It is a very old word which existed in Middle English, died out in the 15th Century, but was revitalised by W.H. Auden in the early 20th Century. It originally comes from Middle French and Latin ‘murmuration’ meaning ‘grumbling’. ‘Murmuration’ always reminds me of the OED, simply because after work in Autumn a small group of us would follow one of the editors, Juliet Field, to near-by Port Meadow on the outskirts of Oxford to watch the starlings’ awe-inspiring formations. If you’ve never seen a murmuration of starlings, and witnessed the fantastic patterns they form in the autumnal sky, check out this video:
'A curly moment as Gary Ablett lines up with a more hirsute colleague at Gold Coast Suns training.' Image source: The Australian/Glenn Hampson
Here at ozwords.org we love this hairstyle on AFL player Gary Ablett. The picture was sent to us by Ozworder and long-time contributor Gilbert, not just for its intrinsic interest but because of the name of the style – the skullet.
When my kids finally convinced me to read the Harry Potter series recently I didn’t think I’d find too many references to Australia, let alone an Australianism. In the first respect I was correct. The only reference is in the final book when Hermione erases her parents’ memories and sends them to far off Australia – safe from the prying eyes of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Not long after this account of magical transportation to Australia we find Harry, Ron, and Hermione doing it tough and camping out, and to my surprise using a billycan to cook wild mushrooms for dinner. I didn’t exactly fall off my broomstick but I was surprised seeing this word used by a British author in the final book of an international series of bestsellers.
If you’ve ever thought that editing dictionaries was dull then think again! When I first arrived at the Centre in 2002 the word of the moment was budgie smugglers – a colloquial term for a pair of men’s swimming briefs, the type that surf lifesavers wear, and yes, the kind that the leader of the opposition wears. The word was cheeky, irreverent, and very Australian – but would it last?