Transcript

The origins of Australian slang

Barry Blake
Email: b.blake@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

G'day and welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith. And today we'll be having a yarn with that bloke there, Barry Blake, about the origin and importance of Australian slang. Barry is an emeritus professor of the Linguistics program at La Trobe University and he is the author of the books Secret Language and Playing with Words.

Barry Blake:

Both the accent and the slang vocabulary are distinctive and very important because slang is a marker of identity that is really why it exists. And in a differentiated society like western society, there's a lot of need for slang... you have differentiation by occupation, by socioeconomic status and so on... and people tend to develop slang in those contexts, whereas in small-scale societies, there's not much in the way of slang.

Matt Smith:

What is the origin of slang or when did we first see it creeping into language?

Barry Blake:

I don't suppose we know the origins because we don't have proper records, but we do know that what used to be called 'cant' existed in England in the 17th century and we have got a more or less continuous history of English slang from the 17th century. But it would be fair to say that the slang must have existed earlier, I think.

Matt Smith:

And what was the use of slang there? Why did it come about?

Barry Blake:

Well, once again, to do with the differentiation in society, and the main slang or 'cant', as it used to be called, is associated with the criminal classes and those that live on the fringes... gypsies, for instance, itinerant travellers, itinerant tradesmen, anybody who might invoke the suspicion of the law whether they're actual law-breakers or not.

Matt Smith:

And why did they speak slang?

Barry Blake:

It expresses solidarity and, to some extent, secrecy. To a small extent, not to a great extent. For instance, you take back slang, which costers and so on would use in front of customers. They could use back slang... that is, pronouncing a word backwards... in front of customers and talk to one another without the customer knowing what they're talking about. So to some extent, it was a secret form of communication. But it's largely just an in-group thing to identify a group.

Matt Smith:

I did hear at one point that it was so that people would speak in bars amongst themselves and not be understood maybe by the authorities.

Barry Blake:

That's true. That's true to a great extent. But you can imagine that those authorities who mixed with the criminal classes would have caught on to this pretty quickly and they'd know the slang, too. It only works with people who are quite unfamiliar with them.

Matt Smith:

Is that also called Cockney slang in that instance?

Barry Blake:

Well, we talk about Cockney rhyming slang, which has been recorded from the 19th century, and once again, I worry about whether the slang existed in other parts of Britain but because London is the capital, which just happened to have records from there. But, yes, that's a distinctive form of slang which is not we can just interpolate a few examples into your speech here and there, and it can be quite obscure, particularly if you leave out the rhyming part of the slang.

So if you talk 'I have a China' instead of 'a China plate' for 'mate', it's quite obscure. What's the relationship between China and mate? Or 'Give us a captain'... 'Give us a Captain Cook' for 'a look', for instance. That's an Australian variant. In Britain, they tend to say 'Give us a butchers hook' for 'a look'. I'd say there are plenty of examples.

My father was a great user of rhyming slang and he had his own versions of various things. For instance, for the Catholic clergy, which always was a great source of amusement for him, he talked about the 'cream and yeast', the 'currant buns' and the 'one anothers'. So that was the priest, the nuns, and brothers.

Matt Smith:

I'm glad you translated that for me. That was very confusing for a moment. It sounds like Cockney slang is very much up to the individual.

Barry Blake:

Yes, it varies. But we talk about... like, to be 'pissed' is to be 'Schindler's List'. Well, that's obviously a modern example. It used to be 'Brahms and Liszt' years ago. So it can be updated and, yes, it can be local variation, yeah.

Matt Smith:

How did it go from that sort of language and from the language that was developing in England at the time to what we would now consider to be uniquely Australian slang?

Barry Blake:

I think it's just the particular words we use. The principles of slang are the same around the world. It tends to be clever and catchy.

For instance, a 'fake bake' for a suntan you achieve with the bottle or something like that, it tends to have, say, rhyme in that particular case. Or kids call a vanilla slice a 'snot block', which is sort of quite off-putting, but it's clever to think of that.

Expressions like 'flat out like a lizard drinking', which is clever, or to 'charge like a wounded bull' because charge is used in two different senses... the bull charges in one sense and the person putting the price on something charges in another sense. So Australian slang might be distinctive in the particular examples, but the principles are the same all over.

Matt Smith:

Where did Australian slang come from?

Barry Blake:

It's associated with the lower classes in particular as part of the social differentiation, and probably, once again, more with criminal classes or those on the fringe and those that excite the interest of the authorities. They may not be criminals, but people that travel around, they tend to develop in-group language.

But you're also getting group language at schools, universities and so on. Particular schools can have a particular language that's distinctive for that particular school. And age groups. I mean, the certain differentiation in age. A certain slang might be associated with primary school kids as opposed to secondary school kids, and then kids generally as opposed to adults.

Matt Smith:

Did we get a lot of language clashes when we had different groups settle in Australia at different times, when we had convicts and settlers?

Barry Blake:

I haven't seen much evidence for that. I've mainly just seen what you might call 'lower class slang' in the literature. I haven't really seen any clear differentiation between different ethnic groups, the Irish versus non-Irish. I recall reading an article by somebody who tried to pick out distinctively Irish elements. There were perhaps a few, but not too many.

Now I think it's mainly just a class thing in Australia. If you take 'fair dinkum', which we think of as an Australian expression, it is basically something that was imported from Britain. Relatively homogenous slang in Australia, I think, just as Australian accent, tends to be relatively homogenous.

The accent comes from south-eastern Britain and is similar to the ordinary English of people in south-eastern England. And that's not all that far from Cockney, because Cockney gets a lot of publicity, but the English of south-eastern England is not all that far from Cockney and Australian English is in the same sort of type of English.

And there's a certain sort of isomorphy between the sounds, for instance, of British English in south-eastern England and Australia. Whatever rhymes there rhymes here, for instance.

Matt Smith:

What are some of the modern-day factors that affect Australian slang and language?

Barry Blake:

I suppose American influence, particularly among the young, obviously distributed through films and what not. And so you can sort of find that people like myself tend to know the old Australian slang but feel out of it a bit when it comes to young people slang. We don't quite know what the 'young people slang' is, and occasionally the newspapers pick this up and give lists of modern slang, which is quite of interest to me but it's not something I actually come across in everyday life.

Matt Smith:

And what's an example of modern slang that you know of?

Barry Blake:

One that was popular a few years ago was 'bitchin' for 'good'. That came in from America, for instance. You get all sorts... one that you notice because you look at the word, it reminds you of 'bitch' and you think it's probably something that's negative.

Matt Smith:

What about advertising influences or even marketing brands? Because I've seen that Maccas is distinctively Australian to call McDonald's 'Maccas'. We shorten words quite a lot.

Barry Blake:

Oh, yes. Yes. And add the suffix 'dee' or the suffix 'o' or 'ers' as in 'preggers', for instance, 'reffer' for refugee and that sort of thing. To 'take a sickie' based on 'sick'. We have lots and lots of that. Those diminutives are very, very popular.

Matt Smith:

Has it then become, if you know these diminutives, if you know these sort of rhyming slangs and these words, that you are accepted as being Australian?

Barry Blake:

Yes. That's one of the most important things. I think really the most important thing is this identity. And I know myself. When I write I sometimes try to slip some of these things into things I send overseas. They normally get marked out.

Matt Smith:

With politicians using slang, is that a good thing to identify with them more or do you think it counts against them?

Barry Blake:

Look, I think politicians have to be careful. Obviously, they can use slang to try and identify with their audience. It probably works better for a Labor politician. I think you have to be careful. Some people might prefer to go in the other direction and speak formally.

Matt Smith:

I've got a few things here that I take it are uniquely Australian words, what they mean or where they might have come from. 'G'day.'

Barry Blake:

Well, 'G'day' is obviously just a form of 'Good day' and is a natural enough way of greeting somebody. It's curious that it happens to have caught on in Australia and is not used in other parts of the English-speaking world.

Matt Smith:

'Hooroo'.

Barry Blake:

When I was a kid, many adults would say 'ooroo' when they were leaving somebody, and I caught onto it and used it a lot. When I went to look it up in the dictionary, I couldn't find it. And eventually I found that said it was an abbreviation of 'hooroo' and it was related to 'hurray'.

And that surprised me. I grew up among people who said 'ouse' the 'house' and so on. But in all of those cases, I would have heard my parents and school teachers pronounce the word properly, so I knew that you had to put the 'H' in, but I never heard 'ooroo' with the 'H'.

Although I notice in Burke's Backyard, I think he ends the program with 'hooroo'. So that one's quite an interesting one. So it's a variation of 'hurrah' and 'hooroo', and then the 'H' is dropped, and for me it's sort of permanently dropped.

Matt Smith:

'Bugger'.

Barry Blake:

'Bugger' is supposed to go back to Bulgarian... I don't know whether that's the case... and of course referred to 'buggery' originally and caught on a lot in Australia and also in Pidgin. So for instance, in the Pidgin of northern Australia or New Guinea, if something 'bugger up' it's not a swear word at all. It is the normal word for something 'messed up' or 'wrong'. 'Bugger up' is the normal word.

Matt Smith:

I take it that's an example of Australian language influencing overseas?

Barry Blake:

In the case of Pidgin in New Guinea, perhaps, yeah.

Matt Smith:

'Crikey'.

Barry Blake:

'Crikey' is from Christ. It's one of those euphemistic forms like 'Jiminy Cricket' for 'Jesus Christ' and good for gardens...

Matt Smith:

'No worries'.

Barry Blake:

Yeah, 'no worries', 'no sweat', 'no trouble', they're a series, aren't they? They became popular about 40 or 50 years ago.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Professor Barry Blake, thanks for your time today.

Barry Blake:

Good. Thanks, Matt.

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