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  Thursday, 19 October 2017 
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OZZYISMS Print E-mail


Some time ago a press release landed on my desk alerting me to the forthcoming annual conference of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. Such an august event would normally be spoken of by PR hacks in appropriately solemn tones, but in this case, to my delight, the pitch was: ‘Take a geez at the amazing stories on offer here’.

A geez!(As in gissa geez!(the shorter version of give us a geezor geezer)at that!).How long since I’d heard that unmistakable Australianism used in everyday speech? Not since my schooldays, I reckoned. Like many people, I sometimes fear that our unique vernacular is in danger of being swamped by American slang, and it cheers me no end to see and hear the indigenous usages revived.

How I cheered when  the Queensland government declined the offer of 'Yo! Way to go!' for a slogun for it's tourism . 'Ow I ongcored!'

Barry Humphries did his bit for the cause a couple of decades ago when he resurrected moribund expressions such as cobber and stone the crows, and devised some new twists on old standards: May your chooks turn to emus and kick your dunny down!

Chook. Dunny. Bonzer words! It was sometimes said that Humphries was ridiculing the culture of his birthplace by putting these classic Australianisms into the mouth of that archetypal yobbo Bazza McKenzie. In fact, its colourful slang is one of the things Humphries most loves about Australia, and he has said so.

And I agree with him. Australian slang is wonderfully ironic and robust, and even if Humphries succeeded in reviving bonzer, cobber, and stone the crows only fleetingly, chook, dunny, and bloke seem to have an enduring appeal.

For some words, alas, it may be too late. Tucker and drongo live on in the bush, but clobber is looking a bit dicey, and I call on all red-blooded patriots to use it whenever and wherever possible, and to educate ignorant youngsters as to its suitability for use as a jokey alternative to boring old ‘clothes’.

Another perfectly good Aussie word has fallen foul of ideology. Sheila, it seems, is frowned on in certain feminist circles, but why it should be thought demeaning to women I have no idea. It is after all only the female equivalent of bloke, and you don’t hear men complaining about that one, do you?

I say sheila is the perfect word for Aussie — well, sheilas. Sheilas aren’t as prissy as ladies, they’re not (necessarily) as sexy as babes and foxes, they’re more savvy than chicks or skirts, not solely to be lusted after like crumpet, and unlike dames and broads they are definitely not American.

When my men-friends call me a sheila it invokes a certain matey, affectionate equality which at the same time preserves a note of what the French call la difference(as in vive!).Which is just the way I like it, but then, I’m an old-fashioned sort of sheila.

I’m an old-fashioned sort too, I suppose. And don’t tell me that’s on the banned list too because, in my experience, sorts are almost invariably ‘good’!

Australian slang is so endlessly inventive. Do you know what a dickless tracy is? A female detective, of course! And I love those topical similes that abound in Australian parlance. Example: before the Grim Reaper carried him off you would hear ‘Busy? I’m as busy as Trimbole’s travel agent.’ Today you could substitute ‘Mal Colston’ for ‘Trimbole’, although you would lose that serendipitous alliteration.

‘Busy as a one-armed brickie in Beirut’ lost its punch when the Lebanese civil war ended, but we still had the old standby ‘busy as a one-armed taxi-driver with crabs’. And there’s a lingering topicality in ‘busy as a doctor writing sickie notes for Skasie’.

Sickie. Now there’s a word for you! I can’t imagine how workers in other countries get on when they have to describe those short absences of a day or so (often on the Monday before a Tuesday public holiday) by fellow-workers who reappear on Wednesday looking surprisingly well and disinclined to talk about the cause or progress of their illness.

Unless, of course, they turn up limping, snuffling, or coughing, in which case they are genuinely crook, and we refrain from chyacking them. Chyacking is an Australian art-form, and it reaches its zenith in the formation of nicknames.

Australians seem to have an irresistible urge to convert formal names into something more casual, and it’s the great quest of all expectant Aussie parents to find a name for their offspring that can’t be bastardised into something comical or rude.

I don’t know why they bother really. The only personal names I can think of that have no known variants are Ian and Ray, but that doesn’t leave much choice, especially if your newborn is a girl.

Besides, middle names and surnames are always there to be mucked around with if the forename is unavailable, and sooner or later some schoolyard or workplace wit will come up with a coinage that satisfies the collective nomenclatural aesthetic.

I have a friend who called her second son Scott. When her toddler started lisping the new baby’s name as ‘Sock’ it immediately caught on among the grownups, except for his mother who through sheer force of personality demanded and got an end to the practice. In her presence, that is. Somehow I think ‘Sock’ will stick, but at the very least it’ll be ‘Scottie’, whatever his mother has to say about it.

And if Sock — er — Scott knows what’s good for him, he’ll wear whatever moniker he’s lumbered with without complaint, because to stand on one’s dignity in the matter of nicknames is to mark oneself out as a bit of a dag.

Besides, if you don’t go along graciously with having your name ‘nicked’, you could do a whole lot worse. You might for instance get Stinky or Fatso or Foureyes in return for your recalcitrance.

I love the wry contrariness of a linguistic culture that calls a tall bloke ‘Shorty’, a short one ‘Lofty’, a bald fellow ‘Curly’, and a redhead ‘Blue’. Why ‘Blue’? Does anyone know where this comes from?

I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t turn out to be an indigenous Australian coinage, but I suppose it may not be. I’ve read that people whose surname is Clark/e are nicknamed ‘Nobby’ because of an early nineteenth-century word for ‘well-dressed’. As in: He was a nobby clerk.(The well-dressed clerk would have been a ready figure of fun in those days to the rural and undustrial poor. To be ‘got up like a pox-doctor’s clerk’ was a popular contemptuous epithet that still appeals.)

‘Spud’ Murphy is an easier connection to make, but why and how did potatoes become murphies? And who were the original ‘Knocker’ White, ‘Tug’ Wilson, ‘Bungy’ Williams, and ‘Smudge’ Smith, and why were they so dubbed?

These nicknames, which live on in those bastions of tradition, the British and Australian navies, are obviously English in origin and perhaps refer to famous, or infamous, characters from the popular folklore of their time. But if the names are obsolete, the procedure by which they’re formed is as vigorous as ever in Australia.

An acquaintance tells the revealing story of how he came to be known by his workmates as ‘Dooges’, a nickname which has no resemblance whatsoever to any of his given names.

Shortly after starting at this workplace, my reader let on that his middle name was D’Arcy. So ‘Darcy’ he became for a while. This soon attracted the predictable ‘Dugan’, making him for a while ‘Darcy Dugan’. This being a bit of a mouthful it was shortened to ‘Dugan’ which was of course too formal and had to be adjusted to ‘Dooges’. The whole process took two years.

The last conversion, from ‘Dugan’ to ‘Dooges’, is an example of the operation of one of those rules of Australian nickname-formation which are so clear-cut they’ve actually been the subject of academic study. At least, the Coodabeen Champions had a crack at codifying them once.

I can’t recite them chapter and verse, but I know for example that monosyllabic names characterised by a long vowel sound and ending in ‘s’, such as Bates or Jones, will become Batesie and Jonesie. Bisyllabic first names ending in a consonant, such as David and Robert, will become Davo and Robbo.

Names whose syllables are divided by an ‘r’ will tend to attract an ‘a’ ending. Warwick to Wocka. Macnamara to Macca. Double ‘r’ followd by an ‘ee’ in names like Barry and Jerry will convert to a ‘z’ sound, as in Bazza and Jezza.

Just to confuse things, Smith will become Smithie, but John will become Johnno. Why not Smitho and Johnnie? I can’t spot the underlying principle at work here but I’m sure there is one. There’s a PhD thesis just waiting to be written on this, mark my words.

Here’s my all-time favourite Aussie nickname story, and it’s a true one. A lawyer friend in Melbourne once knew a reformed crim who worked in the railway freightyards. One day a crate of goods fell off the back of a train, and the contents were revealed to be a number of brand-new and eminently saleable clocks.

My friend’s client took them home to cool down, with a view to disposing of them at some later, less risky time. His wife, however, was determined that her husband should live by his marital promise to renounce his light-fingered ways, and gave him so much curry that he restored them to their rightful position on the back of the train, as it were.

He was known thereafter by his mates as Daylight Saving.Why? Because he put the clocks back.

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