Far Away Places

This week Mr Slang is banished to Gobbler’s Knob…

We moved last week. Approximately 50 m. One side of the block to the other. So not far but still we moved and it meant a change of address – possibly harder for the recipient to absorb since all that has altered is the flat number – liquidation of cash reserves, a van and its team of strapping Aussies who will as happily – and efficiently – pack and shift a still smouldering fag as they will a sofa, various purchases that had hitherto seemed quite unnecessary, and all the rest. It was not helped by the previous day’s eye operation, thus rendering me a spectator, and barely that. It is done now even if the slang lexica, once so pluperfectly arranged, are still beyond any logical access.

We could have gone further. Much further. There are places, there are words. The concept of the back of beyond has been recorded since 1816 (Walter Scott) though I’ll bet the use is earlier and the concept undoubtedly must be. (Latin used Ultima Thule – the land of Thule being supposedly six days sail north of Britain and thus the northern limit of navigability– and Smollett Englished it in 1771). The OED defines it as a ‘humorous phrase’ and the image, however contrary might be the reality, remains so.

It helps if one’s own land permits of such projections. Australia and America provide for anglophone coinages. The UK is lacking – John O’Groats and Lands End are too parochial even if the root of ‘Welsh’ means ‘foreigner’ – and must borrow.  The great deserts presumably have their own terminology and the Sahara, of course, boasts Timbuktu, the daddy of them all, first recorded in this sense in 1863. A settlement had existed since the Iron Age: the perception of isolation is purely Occidental.

Timbuktu is real. So is Nar Nar Goon, a small town, pop. 1010 at last count, near Melbourne. The name supposedly means koala. Other Ozzisms are less so. Bullamakanka or Bullabananka has a tenuous link to Fiji bullamacow: bully beef, but it may be coincidence and there is no more such a township than there exists New Zealand’s Waikikamukau which needs to be pronounced slowly, i.e. ‘Why kick a moo-cow’, the physical manifestation of which is limited to a meat-free restaurant in Brighton, Sussex.  Oodnagalahbi  has been twinned with Ooodnadatta: a small town in Western Australia but the important syllable is the galah, both noisy bird and slang for fool. Slang’s many-headed lexis of stupidity also underpins Woop Woop, otherwise found as Upper Woop Woop, Oodnawoopwoop, or Wopwops. The woop is a peasant, with that species’ stereotypes. Both the human and the reduplicated metonym seem to have been born in the 1930s. Australia has also given Hay and Hell and Booligal, anywhere hot and uncomfortable and popularized by ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s eponymous poem. Hell is of the reader’s own definition but Hay and Booligal are actual New South Wales communities. Patterson targeted Booligal: the others get off lightly:

‘No doubt it suits them very well
To say it’s worse than Hay or Hell,
But don’t you heed their talk at all;
Of course there’s heat – no one denies –
And sand and dust and stacks of flies,
And rabbits too, at Booligal.’

Rabbits? Indeed. The First Fleet of 1788 brought rabbits as well as humans and by the 1890s they were serious, crop-ravaging vermin. A dingo fence had been completed in 1885; now the aim was to corral the bunnies. The fence was completed in 1907. The rabbits were undaunted (myxomatosis proved more cruelly efficient) but the equation of the boundary and desolation in the phrase beyond the rabbit-proof fence was in place as soon as were the wire and palings. The contemporary over the fence, playing the abstract role, means beyond the bounds of taste. Synonyms can be found in beyond the black stump, where the stump represents a symbolic marker that divides the ‘civilized’ world from the wastelands beyond; and in back of Bourke, celebrating a town in the extreme west of New South Wales which was the terminus of the railway line from Sydney and thus the start of the real Outback.

Outside Australia one finds the Caribbean behind the bananas and behind god’s back, meaning deep in the countryside and Ireland’s back of God-Speed, a place so very far off that the positive reinforcement of one’s wish of ‘God-Speed’ to a traveller will have faded away before they arrive.

In New Zealand the backwoods are the booai or booay which originates either in the Maori puhoi: dull, slow or Puhoi, a failed mid-19th century utopian settlement. This gives up the booai: totally confused, absolutely wrong, of plans, ruined and of items wholly non-functional. Spelt Boohai, and here defined as ‘a fictitious river’, the phrase is also used to brush aside questions involving the word ‘where?’: the answerer explains that he is ‘up the Boohai hunting pukeko with a long handled shovel.’

America cuts, as ever, to the grosser aspects of the chase. B.F.E. and B.F.A. – butt fucking Egypt or Africa – stand for somewhere very far way. The place itself, coined by the military, is Bumfuck, Egypt, also known as Bumblefuck, Egypt, Butt Fuck, Egypt (and West Buttfuck), or Beyond Fucking Egypt. Sodomy is not mandatory: there is no suggested reference to either City of the Plain and Egypt seems to exist purely on grounds of assonance; Bumfuck, while when relevant set on foreign soil,  can be found nearer CONUS, in Iowa, or Wyoming. Nor need the distance be that great: the implication is simply of inaccessibility and inconvenience, be it of a parking lot or a restaurant.

America is also responsible for the seemingly obscene Gobbler’s Knob, but like certain Australian towns, the actual place exists, in this case a small town best-known for its hosting of the annual Groundhog Day ceremony. Other images of inaccessibility include Doo-wah-diddy, High Street, China and West Hell, which last is the antonym of the equally forlorn East Jesus. Black America offers its own subset. these include the nonsensical B. Luther Hatchett or Beluthahatchie, Ginny Gall, which refers back to the west African region of Guinea, and Zar, apparently eliding ‘it’s there’. The implication remains that of a place that is far away, unpleasant and culturally alien.

Finally, a hole in the wall, which comes either from the holes in the walls of English debtor’s prisons, through which the inmates could obtain supplies and money to alleviate their situation, or from the small shops and similar establishments found in the broad stone walls of fortified medieval cities. Hole in the wall became a generic, although the West had its Hole in the Wall, an outlaw hideaway that provided a refuge for Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and the real-life Wild Bunch). Perhaps least savoury was the Hole in the Wall on Water Street, NYC, where c. 1860 its proprietor Gallus Meg (a monstrous Englishwoman) bit the ears off ill-behaved customers and preserved her trophies in a pickle jar displayed behind the bar.

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.

7 thoughts on “Far Away Places

  1. Worm
    May 17, 2012 at 13:32

    My first encounter of ‘Bumfuck, Iowa’ was in Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent

    I have always used the similarly themed ‘arse end of nowhere’. I have no idea whether it’s in common usage or not, but my friends and I all say in conversation that a certain remote area would be best avoided as “it’s duelling banjos down there”

    Regarding the rabbit proof fence, there’s a fairly good film of the same title that I recommend if no one’s seen it

  2. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    May 17, 2012 at 14:52

    The version I’m most familiar with is East Bumblefuck.

  3. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    May 17, 2012 at 19:40

    There’s always “the bookdocks”, which I believe is a corruption of a Tagalog expression.

  4. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    May 18, 2012 at 00:33

    I should also say that I’ve heard “the toolies”, I suppose derived from Thule. There is Podunk, which I think was originally a pond in Massachusetts, but that seems to connote small-town provincialism rather than simple remoteness.

  5. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    May 18, 2012 at 07:59

    I hope the eye is looking better, Jonathon, and the great library is fully accounted for. I’d hate to hear that three critical volumes had turned up on Ebay, collectible from an address in Earls Court.

    After discounting a move to the ‘back of beyond’; did you think ‘Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.’ But decided the stairs belonged to the block so instead moved 50 m laterally? I remember my old dad regularly saying ‘I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ and me thinking: he’s already at the foot of our stairs. The last time he said it was just after my mother ran in complaining that our next-door neighbours had started a fire in the middle of their living room. “Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!” Confusing…

  6. info@shopcurious.com'
    May 18, 2012 at 23:34

    Rabbit Proof Fence is a great film. So you are over the hill…s and far away Jonathon? It’s a shame we missed you at our Dabbler drinks. I hope your eye recovers sufficiently to make contact one day.

    There are some similarly exotic sounding places in the UK – Goonhilly in Cornwall and Broadwoodwidger in Devon to name a couple – and they are also far away.

    The only holes in the wall I have encountered have, thankfully, been cafes. There was one under a bridge in Minories. It may still be there? And the Black Hole of Calcutta – but only in a vintage encylopaedia.

  7. jgslang@gmail.com'
    May 19, 2012 at 13:01

    Thanks all. I live in a specs-free world of 20:20 reading and screen use, and a vague blur at the the other end of the street. This may work well for moments of misanthropy – softening the hell that is everyone else – but new glasses are also on the horizon.

    As for boondocks and the foot of our stairs, both of which I cherish, and a number of other synonyms, I was aiming at supposed ‘towns’ rather than more general imagery. That said, space demanded that Podunk missed the cut, as too did Hoboken, each of which can play the relevant role, as too can the New Yorker’s original epitome of the unsophisticated: ‘the little old lady from Dubuque.’

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