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Australian Slang

The term 'slang' (some language references, such as the Macquarie Dictionary, prefer to use the term 'colloquialism') describes a characteristic of speech (or writing) where a speaker (or writer) feels free to express themselves informally and often outside the confines of correct grammar or social niceties. These expressions are usually cheeky, personal and amusing. A significant proportion of slang refers to vulgar or 'taboo' concepts and events. But not all humorous or memorable phrases can be classified as slang; it is important to consider how frequent and widespread the use and recognition of the term is among the general population.

Examples of slang are usually found in everyday speech, however, they are also collected from the radio, television, newspapers, books and advertising. In the Macquarie Dictionary, words with the note 'Colloquial' after the entry are categorised as colloquialisms. There are a number of dictionaries devoted to documenting both past and present Australian colloquialisms, however determining the exact definition of an Australian colloquialism will always lead to a lively and interesting debate.

Linguists and other cultural theorists value the study of Australian colloquialisms as a way of observing how the Australian character has developed through language. For example, 'having a bash' at something is similar to 'giving it a burl', and both phrases reflect a history of Australian improvisation and hard work. 'Don't come the raw prawn' began its life as slang used by Australian service personnel in World War II, and is still used to warn off someone when they attempt to impose their will. The Australian fondness for continually adapting English through shortening, substituting and combining words contributes to a vocabulary that most Australians understand, and what could be called the Australian 'idiom' or 'vernacular'.

Colloquialisms can be incorporated into language in a number of ways; the most common of which are substitution and comparison. A common form of substitution is when rhyming slang removes one part of a phrase and replaces it with a word that rhymes, for example to 'have a Captain Cook' means to have a look. Substitution could also include a 'metaphor', where one word or idea stands in for another. There is no town in Australia called 'Woop Woop', however it has been a popular and evocative byword for a backward and remote location, and has been in use throughout the 20th century.

Colloquialisms that take the form of a comparison often raise startling images, for example: 'flat out like a lizard drinking' (working very hard on a task) or 'standing like a bandicoot on a burnt ridge' (feeling lonely and vulnerable). Dazed and confused, someone will wander 'like a stunned mullet'; in a furious rage, they will be 'mad as a cut snake' and in a state of undeniable lifelessness they will be 'dead as a maggot'. Australians also demonstrate a strong impulse to abbreviate and alter word endings, resulting in 'barbie' for barbecue, 'arvo' for afternoon, 'cossie' for swimming costume and 'blowie' for blowfly.

Following the settlement of Australia as a British penal colony, the language that emerged reflected the distinct conditions of settlement, authority and punishment. A 'pure Merino' was a sly way of describing settlers 'who pride themselves on being of the purest blood in the Colony'. In another example, Laugesen explains how ex-convicts who took up airs and graces on their release were dismissed as 'felon-swells' or 'legitimate exquisites'. Many of these historically specific terms have now disappeared from common usage. For example, the word 'pebble' once referred to a convict who was difficult to deal with and had the hard qualities of stone. A 'paper man' was a convict who had been granted their documents proving a conditional pardon. 'Magpies' and 'canaries' were not only birds; they also were words that described the black and yellow, or straight yellow uniforms worn by convicts.

However, there are cases of words emerging from the convict underworld, enduring through history and remaining peppered through the conversation of Australians today. The term 'swag', which once referred to the booty stolen by a thief, has become a way of describing a valued bundle of items carried by a traveller. The well-known Australian song Waltzing Matilda has helped to cement this term in the popular imagination. Waltzing Matilda is Australia's best known and much loved national song. It is recognised by every Australian, and has attained international status as the nation's unofficial national anthem. This song, however, has long been the subject of controversy; how and where did it originate, why are there different versions, what does it mean, and why has a song become an Australian icon? The term "Waltzing Matilda" is the act of carrying the 'swag' (an alternate colloquial term is 'humping the bluey'). Matilda is an old Teutonic female name meaning 'mighty battle maid'. This may have informed the use of 'Matilda' as a slang term to mean a de facto wife who accompanied a wanderer. In the Australian bush a man's swag was regarded as a sleeping partner, hence his 'Matilda'.

One of the most important influences on Australian English has been Aboriginal languages. There are a number of Aboriginal words that have been adopted colloquially within Australian English, for example 'boomerang', ' humpy' or 'corroboree'.

Other hybrid words have emerged through a 'pidgin' or early adaptation of English words to describe aspects of Aboriginal life. The phrase 'gone walkabout' was originally used in the early 19th century to describe the migratory movement of Aboriginals across Australia. Now it is used in a more general, and sometimes inaccurate, way to describe a journey away from home. Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald even reported in 1981 that 'Lady Diana takes a Royal walkabout in her stride' (25 July 1981, p.10).

A significant number of Australian colloquialisms are affectionate insults or backhanded compliments. A clumsy friend or colleague may be called a 'dag', 'galah', 'drongo' or 'boofhead'. There are also many ways of saying that someone is not very useful, for example: 'couldn't find a grand piano in a one-roomed house'; couldn't blow the froth off a glass of beer'; 'a chop short of a barbie'; 'useless as an ashtray on a motorbike'.

One of the Australian ratbag traditions is to take a word and perversely use it as the opposite of its intended meaning. A well-known illustration of this is the word 'bluey', a nickname for someone with red hair.

In the spirit of friendly rivalry, Australian states and territories are identified through nicknames. For example, Queensland, where the northern climate encourages tropical fruit growing, is the land of 'banana benders', and Western Australia, home to some of Australia's most magnificent beaches, is populated by 'Sandgropers'. Interestingly, while certain distinct phrases are limited by geography, there is very little regional variation in Australian colloquialisms considering the distance between the main population centers.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:34:11 ZULU