Fair dinkum dictionary

Jonathon Green wonders if, despite this being a fascinating book, the author has set herself up for defeat


This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“Would you smash a bleedin’ bobby if
you got the blank alone?
“Would you break a swell or Chinkie —
split his garret with a stone?
“Would you have a ‘moll’ to keep yer —
like to swear off work for good?”
“Yes, my oath!” replied the stranger.
“My kerlonial oath! I would!”

Henry Lawson The Captain of the Push c.1900

Barry McKenzie, Australian at Large, made his debut in the 10 July 1964 issue of Private Eye. He was the creation of the comedian Barry Humphries, then, like a number of other creative Aussie expats, resident in London. Hero of a new strip cartoon, illustrations by Nicholas Garland, Bazza, as he would become known, was identified in this first outing as “a strapping young specimen of Australian manhood” and self-described as “an ordinary honest working-class bloke”. His first words “Excuse I, what’s gone flaming wrong?” informed readers that they were in the presence of an antipodean Candide, the classic hick, come to the big city and ready to surf on a tide of Foster’s lager into what within a year would be apostrophised as “Swinging London”.

Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language by Amanda Laugesen, New South Publishing £19.50

Naive he surely was — and while over his nine-year career at the Eye he might increasingly turn the tables on the Brits, that innocence never wholly disappeared — in one respect he was omnipotent. His slang-laden, all-Australian language burst into the Eye reader’s consciousness fully-formed and quite astounding. By 1968 Bazza was offering freckle puncher, smell like an Abo’s armpit, bang like a shithouse door, dry as a nun’s nasty, point Percy at the porcelain, siphon the python and perhaps the most celebrated, the Technicolour yawn (aka the liquid laugh or the big spit).

For many, including this then teenage reader, this was Australian language. We had no knowledge of the nation’s literary tradition: Marcus Clarke, “Henry Handel” Richardson (actually Ethel), “Rolf Boldrewood” (Thomas Browne), the Bulletin magazine stable of linguistic nationalists such as Henry Lawson, “Banjo” Patterson or Edward Dyson, and the homegrown literary stars who would follow, such as Miles (actually Stella) Franklin, Joseph Furphy, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, D’Arcy Niland and many others. Their Australian was as “homegrown” as Barry’s, and infinitely more nuanced and wide-ranging, but his, satisfyingly underlining every stereotype attached to those who dwelt in London’s “Kangaroo Valley” (Earl’s Court), was so much more resonant.

It was also resolutely carnal: in its concentration on defecation and urination, drinking (and the seemingly inevitable vomiting it induced) and copulation (even if Bazza remains the eternal virgin), Humphries either created or collated a vocabulary that would not be rivalled until Viz magazine’s “swearing dictionary” Roger’s Profanisaurus began appearing in 1997.

Rooted, from Amanda Laugesen, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University and chief editor of the Australian National Dictionary, focuses on this side of the Australian vocabulary. Rooted comes from root, a euphemism for fuck, both literally, in the context of sex, and figuratively, as in harm, destroy, and so on. It falls into what Laugesen is happy to term “bad language”, even if one might suspect that with her formidable knowledge it is a term she knows perfectly well is a construct of tabloid moralising and empty religiosity. (Perhaps I am hardened by proximity, but I find it sad she feels the need to warn readers they will encounter the language that is the subject of her work.)

There is an element of self-affirmation: if Australians are seen as great swearers, then Australians will swear greatly

Every nation has such language, usually bracketed with slang, though that contrarian lexis manages to expand at least a reasonable distance beyond pure obscenity. It is, one might suggest, a form of linguistic id, sounding off on behalf of our unrestrained, unashamedly human self. But as Laugesen asks: why does it seem so pre-eminent Down Under? Not to mention so gloriously creative. There is an element of self-affirmation: if Australians are seen as great swearers, then Australians will swear greatly. It was “bloody”, after all, that was named in 1897 as “the Great Australian Adjective”.

The country’s original immigrants were mainly convicts, its first dictionary, compiled by one of their number, a lexicon of convict slang. It was clear to those set above them that such vocabulary was indeed “bad”: as in impertinent, indisciplined and ultimately undermining of the penal colony’s good order. As Laugesen puts it, “This story is fundamentally about power, and how that power (of bad language and over bad language) has shaped lives, identities, and experiences.”

One aspect of this, unsurprisingly, is that of colonialism: the arriviste übermenschen and those beneath. Laugesen suggests that “bad”, in this case racist language was all part of the subjugation of the native Australians. To keep them “in their place” you used terms that delineated that place. This was hardly unique to Australia: one need only look at America, another British penal colony in its beginnings, and the language used for its black slaves.

This is a fascinating book, and again one salutes the author’s research, but I might wonder whether she has set herself up for defeat. The early-period “convict Australia” fits the bill: language (“bad” and other) plays a serious role. The late nineteenth century, when the Bulletin deliberately spearheads a local Australian vocabulary as a bulwark of its non-, even anti-British national consciousness, is part of the story. The Bully’s language, while super-slangy, is not especially “bad” (though near obsessively racist, a problem found in much of the era’s press).

But when Laugesen arrives at post-1945 developments, there seems little, other than geography, to differentiate Oz from the UK or US. Her detailed roll-call of flashpoints — TV shows, movies, books — that saw the old morality overturned by the new is probably best appreciated by a local audience.

Whatever factors moved society away from censorship, towards greater tolerance for the old obscenities (initially blasphemy, thereafter the parts of the body and what we do with them), and a distaste for racism and thence into the current diktats of “woke”, cannot be isolated at Australia’s door. These are international changes, and underpin the fact that, unlike the convict era, Australia is simply one more way-station within the global world.

But as they say: fair suck of the sav, mate. I am vastly parti pris. And the parti is that of infinite love for Australian creativity, “bad” or otherwise. My dictionary boasts nearly 10,000 terms tagged “Aus.” from ab to zurucker: 1,205 concern drink, drinking and drunkards, 912 fools and foolish, 447 sexual intercourse, 300 mad, 172 general insults and 73 vomiting. And bad, in slang, can also mean fair dinkum.

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