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Australian vocabulary

A number of the most culturally important Australian terms developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, at precisely the time that Australian English was generating its Cultivated and Broad forms.

Battlers and bludgers

Battler (especially in its present manifestation of little Aussie battler) is one of the most positive words in Australian English, and it usually refers to a person who works hard to make a decent living in difficult circumstances. Initially, the battler was a person who scrounged a living on the edges of society. Examples of the word from the late nineteenth century include references to an itinerant and irregularly employed rural worker struggling to survive, a person who frequented racecourses in search of a living, and a prostitute.

Battler eventually divested itself of these unsavoury associations, but even in its earliest uses there is evidence of strong sympathy and admiration for working-class people who eke out their existence with resilience and courage.

The opposite of the battler is the bludgerone of the most derogatory of Australian words. The bludger is a person who lives off the efforts of others, a cadger and an idler, a person who expects others to do all the work.

The history of this word helps to explain something of the moral condemnation that bludger and its verb to bludge typically carry. Australian bludger is a form of Standard English bludgeoner ‘a person who is armed with and doesn’t hesitate to use a bludgeon, a short stout club’. In Australia the bludger became a pimp who was prepared to protect his financial stake in a prostitute by resorting to the violence of the bludgeon. The salient feature in this, and all later senses, is that the person who is called a bludger is living off the work of another and, from this sense, it is a short step to the use of bludger as a generalized term of abuse.

The rise of ‘dinkum’

Dinkum emerges at about the same time. Dinkum is from British dialect, where it meant primarily ‘work; a fair share of work’. The notion of ‘fairness’ has always been associated with dinkum, and it is from this connotation of ‘fairness’ that the particularly Australian meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’ developed in the first decade of the twentieth century.

It was also at this time that the collocation fair go appeared, an important expression of egalitarian principles. The continuing significance of this phrase in Australian society is evidenced by the fact that a recent Federal Government booklet Life in Australia (2007), aimed at new migrants, explains what is meant by a fair go in Australia:

‘Australians value equality of opportunity and what is often called a “fair go”. This means that what someone achieves in life should be a product of their talents, work and effort rather than their birth or favouritism. Australians have a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance and fair play... The aim is to ensure there are no formal class distinctions in Australian society.’

Although dinkum (and its variant fair dinkum) appeared in the 1890s, the evidence indicates that its really widespread use occurred during the First World War.

The twentieth century

It was out of the First World War that Anzac (an acronym formed from the initial letters of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and digger (originally a soldier engaged in the digging of trenches, echoing its earlier use for a person digging for gold) emerged in the sense ‘an Australian soldier’. By the end of the war both terms were being used emblematically to reflect the traditional view of the virtues displayed by those who served in the Gallipoli campaign, especially as these virtues were seen as national characteristics.

Such terms are part of a rich tradition of Australian colloquialisms that became established in the first half of the twentieth century, including:

bonzer
Excellent; first-rate.
Buckley’s chance
Little or no chance of doing or achieving something.
cobber
A companion or friend.
crook
Dishonest; unpleasant; ill.
dag
An entertainingly eccentric person; a character. Later, a conservative or unfashionable person.
plonk
Cheap wine. An example of a word of Australian derivation adopted in Britain, and elsewhere, with little awareness of its origin.
pom
A British person.
rort
A fraudulent or dishonest act or practice.
wog
An illness or infection, typically a minor one.
wowser
A puritanical or censorious person, in particular a teetotaller or person opposed to alcohol.

 

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