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In 1935 an Australian radio listener turned on their wireless after two months away and assumed it must be picking up America. Signing off as ‘Disgusted’ of Neutral Bay, the listener complained on the Wireless Weekly letters page (dubbed ‘The Safety Valve’) that American slang was taking over the airwaves. Why was it, ‘Disgusted’ asked, that the station should ‘inflict 15 minutes of American slang, impossibilities and gangsters on to us’?
Complaints like this were common between the two world wars. With the advent of the ‘talkies’ and with many households now owning a radio, Australians felt the growing presence of American popular culture. Wider concerns about Americanisation crystalised around the use of language. The presence of US troops during the Second World War compounded this recurring worry, and ‘oh yeah’, ‘attaboy’ and ‘gee’ were among the expressions singled out in the press.
Since the 1890s Australia’s distinctive lexicon, including its slang, had increasingly been seen as a source of celebration. The language used by the characters in Steele Rudd’s ‘Dad ’n Dave’ stories and Banjo Paterson’s verse was not necessarily taken up by the average person — social prestige was still attached to British English and more refined accents — but it was seen as ‘authentically Australian’.
This pride in Australian English came with a perception that it was open to displacement, and this idea still surfaces today. While American speech has been a recurring bogeyman, more recent concerns include the effects of social media and texting. A persistent lament is that our local vocabulary is under threat, even on its way out. But how true is this?
I work on the Australian National Dictionary, which records Australian words and their origins. It aims to include all Australianisms, including not only words that originated in Australia, but also words used more frequently in Australia than elsewhere, and words that have special significance in Australia. We’re currently hard at work on the third edition — the second edition was published in 2016, with some 16,000 headwords suggesting the extent of the Australian English lexicon.
Despite the reassuring number, it would be fair to say that many Australian words have disappeared from our vocabulary. But this is natural in any language, and is particularly true of slang, which often tends to be ephemeral. Bonzer, for example, meaning good, was first recorded in 1903 and became ubiquitous in early twentieth-century Australian society. Variants at the time included bontosher, bonzalina, boshter and bonsterina. But while you may occasionally hear bonzer today, it would likely be used pretty self-consciously: few Australians would use it as part of their everyday vocabulary.
Some words have fallen into obscurity for a good reason. Consider the female forms of common words for types of people that were around a century ago: Australienne, larrikiness, and wowserina. They are now (rightly) obsolete. Other words that were used widely in Australian English a generation or two ago — like cobber, drongo and grouse, and expressions such as strike me pink and stone the crows — don’t seem to be as common as they once were.
But even though some typically — or perhaps stereotypically — Australian words are falling, or have fallen, out of use, that doesn’t mean Australian English is under threat, or that the incursions of American slang or the effects of social media are to blame.
Our current database of potential new entries runs into the thousands. Some are ‘old’ words that were previously missed, but the majority have come into Australian English over the past few decades. They relate to almost all areas of Australian life, from sport, to life in the outback, to First Nations culture.
For better or worse, politics and politicians regularly add to our lexicon. Recent contributions include democracy sausage, Canberra bubble and quiet Australian, the latter two popularised by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Social trends have thrown up terms such as fauxgan (a fake bogan), latte belt and smashed avo. Abbreviated forms ending in ‘-ie/y’ and ‘-o’, a common feature of Australian English, continue to appear — for example, I recently collected quotes from the memoirs of AFL players Nick Riewoldt and Jarryd Roughead in which they use the word granny for the Grand Final.
Concerns that we no longer produce uniquely Australian slang aren’t borne out by the number of new words we’re adding to our lists, including dack, to steal; shang, to give someone something; flog, an idiot; and razzle, an RSL club. Things that could only be Australian, such as the thongophone, Tim Tam slam and shoey (popularised by Daniel Ricciardo when he had Formula One wins) are other new additions.
We’re tracking many words relating to First Nations history, culture and contemporary life, as well as words from Aboriginal languages. Possible new entries include terms such as Indigenous nation, knowledge-holders, law place and many other compounds based on Country, knowledge and law. While words from Aboriginal languages have featured in Australian English from the period of Invasion, we continue to identify more new words entering the Australian English lexicon from these languages. These include Aboriginal words for flora, fauna, the environment and the weather, as well as words relating to First Nations spirituality and culture, including many Dreaming words.
All in all, I would have to say that Australian English is thriving. While Australians use a lot of slang that’s also used elsewhere, we also continue to generate distinctive slang. But the richness of Australian English is broader than this, and our diverse society, First Nations peoples and popular culture ensure that we continue to add to our lexicon.
Amanda Laugesen is the Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, ANU. Her latest book is Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language (NewSouth, 2020).
This story appears in Openbook winter 2021.