Dabbling Down Under

I have been dabbling – juste-est of mots – in the world of 1840s Australia. The dictionary may have been published but the database’s appetite for new material, or in this case old material, is unsatable  and a friend in SlangWorld recently reminded me that Australia’s earliest newspapers for the period are now online. There are many thereof, and many long since gone. The Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser and the Alexandra and Yea Standard and Yarck, Gobur, Thornton and Acheron Express will delight their readers no more. Nor yet The People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator.  But there are plenty to explore.  

I have foraged in general, hunting down hitherto unrecorded early uses of fine Australianisms. There is sly-grog (illicitly distilled liquor, peddled by the sly-groggist in his sly-grog shanty), tucker (food and as such a not that distant cousin of Billy Bunter’s preferred menu), jumbuck (a sheep and most likely based on ‘jump up’ but not, sadly an Aboriginal term for a cloud of white mist, which painterly term never actually existed), and larrikin (which isn’t as once suggested a play on ‘Larry’ – here denominated as a ‘typical’ Irish forename – but on the homonymous Worcestershire dialect word meaning a mischievous boy, and thus ultimately from larking). That’s one way of going about it: choose your word, do your search, and see what delights materialise. And, dare I say, these are the delights. The old stuff, the first use. Far more interesting to predate one’s own (and more satisfyingly yet, the OED’s) researches than pile on yet another word for guns or drugs from Multi-ethnic London English, current UK youth slang of choice.  

Then there is another way. Read a whole paper. The whole run, that is. Thus I have been looking at length at Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer which starts up in 1845 and continues until . . . but this is a recent decision and with one four-pager a week I have so far managed two years. It can disheartening to look too far ahead. It’s partially the point size which is minuscule, and the fact that what I have a feeling may be scans of what had already been reduced to microfiche, are at times challenging. Worn fonts, a heavy hand with the inkpot. Such is research and electronic isn’t everything.  

By the time he reached Australia Mr Bell had turned into publishers Messrs Pickering and Nichols, but there had been an actual Robert Bell, a printer and his weekly had started out in London as a rival to Pierce Egan’s 1820s Life in London and would outlive its rival. The London paper, indispensable to turfites, was finally absorbed in 1886 into the Sporting Times, which was otherwise known as the ‘Pink ‘Un’ (pink paper, like the FT) whose regular scribes such as ‘The Pitcher,’ ‘The Shifter’, ‘Rooty-Tooty’ and ‘The Dwarf of Blood’ (its restaurant reviewer) were much perused in subalterns’ messes across the Empire. 

Its Australian cousin was, let us say, somewhat rough-hewn. This is, after all, a world in which such acknowledged ‘hells’ as Newcastle and Norfolk Island, places of ‘secondary punishment’ (i.e. deliberately savage prisons for those who, despite transportation, remained incorrigible) were not that far down the road. Most people’s servants had done their time and were not above the occasional relapse. Like the London paper it was devoted to sport, with much prize-fighting and racing; cock-fighting was regularly covered. But, at least for me, it reached its apotheosis in its police reports. these are long and loving. And while the racing and boxing have their linguistic moments (rather tired moments on the whole – the Fancy slang of the 1820s did not wear well) the parade of villains was more productive. 

These are not especially big villains.  If anything they are stereotypes with, I fear, two predominant roles: the drunken and belligerent gentleman of Irish origins (or so his surname makes clear) and the equally drunken and perhaps even more belligerent lady, also it often seems with her roots in the old dart (i.e. ‘old dirt’ and as such a play on ‘ould sod’). The occasional bent Jewish pawnbroker leavens the parade, but while I eschew stereotypes, being by origin subject to certain such myself, here they are unavoidable. Sometimes they beat up the opposite gender, sometimes they beat their own. There is much of what the pornographers term ‘girl-on-girl action’ although the participants at least begin their fracas clothed.  

Not all of which is stated as such. As ever violence is OK but sex problematic. The women are almost invariably prostitutes. Heaven forfend that such a term should sully the readers’  breakfast tables. Instead we find angel, blowen, chicken, Cyprian, frail sister, moontrotter, nymph of the pave, Pitt-street promenaderquean,  and vestal. We get the point. Drink is euphemized: both sexes  are variously baked, cut, elevated, foggy, glorious, mystified and pot-valiant; they have malt above the meal and rum above the water; they are malty.

The reports are pleasingly ad hominem. One Ryan, an allegedly corrupt policeman ‘whose thoughts are on pelf intent’, seemed to be a regular butt. Thus: ‘If there could ever have existed any doubt as to this wretched abortion of humanity being debased to stoop to anything, such is now wholly removed.’ Another is ‘a huge mass of blubber, which would render it dangerous for him to go near a Boiling Down Establishment.’ And ad feminam. ‘She also stated that Mrs. Byers had said, that she, Mrs. Bolton, was Captain Innis’s “fancy woman” — that, she, the prisoner, didn’t care for him or his wooden leg, and that all he, Captain Innes, was good for, was to go to bed to [sic] married women.’ Mary M’Cann is ‘a natty little piece of property’, Emma Stirling is ‘a pert little nymph’ whose ‘ fist had been too intimate with the defendant’s face.’ It’s all very jolly. The local jail is never Woolloomooloo, but ‘Mr Keek’s hotel’. Of a man who allegedly beat and deserted his wife we find that ‘The Bench-considered there was no grounds for binding Langley over to keep the “piece,” and told Charlotte that if she wanted due maintenance, she must make the application.’ There is much such punning. How the chaps must have laughed. 

I have no shame. These are my people. Thirteen thousand miles from a home they would never see again, eking out their raucous, hard-scrabble existences. I am less enamoured of Bell’s smug contempt but this is slang; you get what you can and go where you must to get it.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

12 thoughts on “Dabbling Down Under

  1. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    May 5, 2011 at 14:02

    I’ve been trying to persuade Jassy to adopt the pseudonym ‘The Dwarf of Blood’ for the Dabbler’s restaurant reviews…

  2. jonhotten@aol.com'
    May 5, 2011 at 14:51

    The Dwarf of Blood. I think I know her.

    • Gaw
      May 5, 2011 at 22:18

      The Dwarf of Blood being a restaurant critic, I’m surprised Malty hasn’t raised questions as to the height of AA Gill.

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        May 6, 2011 at 09:13

        AA Gill’s problem Gaw is lack of aptitude, not altitude. My dentist is an Australian, with a stammer. The result, I think, of a Lloyd’s overdraft.

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      Jonathon Green
      May 6, 2011 at 07:40

      Thanks Gaw. What a remarkable selection of photos. Way beyond mugshots. I yearn for detail on the individuals, but no matter.

      • hannah.mattner@gmail.com'
        May 6, 2011 at 12:39

        There’s a touch more detail on the photographs if you get to them via http://collection.hht.net.au/firsthhtpictures/resbyfield.jsp?term=New+South+Wales.+Dept.+of+Prisons&field=AUTHOR&searchtable=&displayFormat=TABLE but it’s mostly just where they were imprisoned. The rest of the collection is just as good as the mug shots, though slightly gruesome.

        Thanks for the slang – I’ll be sure to add some of these into my usual Canberran discourse, just for the fun of it. There’s some treasures in your wedding special, too.

        • jgslang@gmail.com'
          Jonathon Green
          May 6, 2011 at 18:07

          Wonderful. The link only seems to bring up the women (plus a good few who are not featured on the laboiteverte link). I assume a search would find the men. There is detail available on their criminal specialities. And the site is a fantastic resource in general.

  3. zmkc@ymail.com'
    May 6, 2011 at 03:16

    ‘Thirteen thousand miles from a home they would never see again, eking out their raucous, hard-scrabble existences’ – beautifully said

  4. swsjohnson@gmail.com'
    Stevo the Devo
    May 6, 2011 at 16:53



    Pedantry aside, this is good stuff. Here in Son of Blighty the word Pommy is oft-debated. “Prisoner of Mother England” is the popular accepted phrase but I think that is tripe. The context is all wrong. Why would Australians refer to themselves thus? The other explanation is “pomme” thanks to their sunburnt red cheeks, but why not just call ’em “apple cheeks” ?

    How about a derivation of “pompous”, which any visitor would be perceived as when visiting the colony in the early 19th C. The place was a bloody shambles.

    Pommy pompous. Has a ring.

    No proof, mind.

    Pip pip.

  5. jgslang@gmail.com'
    Jonathon Green
    May 6, 2011 at 17:15

    Unsated: I know, I know. Maybe it’s a lexicographer’s thing – sometimes you want to do more than just collect them.

    As for pommie, I was merely paraphrasing the etymology provided by the Australian National Dictionary. You’re certainly right to dismiss ‘Prisoner of mother England’. Popular etymology alert: beware.

  6. christopher_gow@medibank.com.au'
    chris gow
    May 13, 2011 at 03:25

    What is fun is that many of those terms, such as tucker, sly-grog and larrikin are still in use (not perhaps in common use but every Australian, even children, know what they mean). Jumbuck is in the first line of our alternate national anthem – Waltzing Matilda.
    Despite all the penetration of American language Australian slang remains vital.
    My personal favourite, which has now persisted for nearly 60 years in apparent linguistic isolation is ‘fang’; it means to drive very fast, derived from Juan Fangio, the great Argentinian grand prix driver of the 50s. Every Aussie knows what it means, yet who under the age of 60 could remember Fangio?

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