Cactus or crackerjack? The state of Australian English
24th January 2011
But at a time when footy coaches urge their stars to be more accountable, when kids are busy LOL-ing and ROTFLMFAO-ing on Facebook, or declaring on Twitter that the latest Hollywood blockbuster is an “epic fail”, when every seven-year-old girl with a Singstar would rather sound like Miley Cyrus than Missy Higgins, pessimists could be forgiven for thinking that Australian English is in more trouble than the early settlers.
In delivering a diagnosis on the condition of Strine – to use the term coined by journalist Alastair Morrison in the 1960s to describe our national tongue – it’s worth looking at what makes Australian English Australian.
It’s a combination of things. There’s place names and nouns, many of which derive from Aboriginal languages, which will always be with us as they define where we are and who we are, from Tumbi Umbi to Tuggeranong and Woy Woy to Wagga Wagga.
There’s our slang, some of it of the foul-mouthed variety, much of which can be traced back to our convict roots and the influence of Cockney and Irish terms in the evolution of our very un-British style of speech.
Many of these terms are more recent – such as the popular use of the prefixes “dead-set”, “rolled-gold” or “card-carrying” for emphasis. As in, she’s a dead-set, rolled-gold hornbag. Or he’s a card-carrying drongo.
Some of these slang terms are now so mainstream as to be enshrined in Government policies and pronouncements. Only last week Anna Bligh warned the people of Queensland to watch out for shonks as the rebuilding of the shattered State gets underway. State Governments have introduced “anti-hoon” laws to target ratbags on the roads. And let’s not forget that the word “ranga” got a decent workout throughout our last election campaign, as our flame-haired PM took on a bloke who copped plenty of flak for getting around in budgie smugglers.
Then there’s euphemisms and similes – that is, those excellent little sentences which draw on comparative comic images to tell an evocative story. Such as the bloke at the pub who dodges rounds, who wouldn’t shout if a shark bit him. Or the unfortunate lady with the face like a dropped pie. Whose husband is as ugly as a hatful of arseholes.
Many of these terms don’t use exclusively Australian words at all but are characterised by an Australian way of assembling words. Regardless of his politics, Paul Keating must be regarded as one of the great creators of Australian phraseology in our public life. When Malcolm Fraser’s lip trembled upon conceding defeat in 1983, Keating described the outgoing Liberal Prime Minister as “looking like an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades”.
But how many of these words and terms remain part of our day to day conversation? Do we use them frequently, subconsciously, or do we just dust them off for dramatic effect when we’re telling an anecdote while on the turps?
One of the great custodians of Australian English is academic Susan Butler, who has worked on the Macquarie Dictionary since its launch in 1981, and has just edited the 30th anniversary Signature Edition of what is rightly described as our most important national book. This was the dictionary which included terms such as “fart sack” for sleeping bag, “barbie” for barbecue and nouns such as spunk, bludger and dill in its first edition. Ms Butler is an erudite and well-spoken woman with an infectious love for our language. She’s also the woman whom some readers may recall was pulled from the Sunrise show a few years back when, in a matter-of-fact observation about the changing impact of words, she said it was probably now ruder in Australia to call somebody “fat” than it was to call them a “f…wit”, prompting a stunned David Koch to cut to a commercial.
Ms Butler is an optimist about the state of Australian English. She says people fail to grasp how our language has never been static, rather constantly evolving by adopting or shedding terms.
“Language is like clothing, it is subject to fashion and change, and some of the things we regard as quintessentially Australian have changed over time. There’s a view that a term such as ridgey-didge was something which Captain Cook was saying when he first got off the boat, when the reality is our language has always been evolving.”
Ms Butler says that in the 19th century there was an elite view that Australians were developing a horribly bastardised version of English, and that anyone who valued standards and decency should strive to speak the Queen’s English. Since World War II the dominant fear has been that our language is being Americanised.
Ms Butler says the rise of social media and the ongoing influence of American television and cinema on our culture – much more so than the 1960s and 1970s when the BBC was our dominant cultural influence – has definitely had an effect on the language.
“When you hear young boys playing what used to be called cops and robbers in Australia they all seem to put on these American-style Arnold Schwarzenneger voices. Equally in pop music the American accent is the official world language of song. The interesting thing though is that kids get to a certain age in Australia where they know it is distinctly uncool to sound American and they go back to talking like the rest of us.”
Ms Butler echoes some of the concerns of former Keating speechwriter Don Watson who has written angry essays about the rise of management jargon in our everyday writing and speech.
“It’s amazingly pervasive,” she says. “Schools with “core values”, that kind of thing, it’s really now a religion of sorts.”
But the flipside of this is how persistent Australian English is in re-establishing itself as our lingua franca, our true tongue, despite the influence of imported phrases. Two examples Ms Butler gives are how in last year’s election campaign the term “sand-bagging” was used to describe the practice of doling out cash to marginal seats – a distinctly Australian adaptation of the Americanism “pork-barrelling”. A better example still was how John Howard adapted the American term for “water-cooler” topics – that is, the dominant policy issues of the day which captivated mainstream swinging voters – and re-branded them as “barbecue stoppers”.
So as we stop for a barbecue this Wednesday, when it comes to our language, the expert opinion is a very reassuring no worries, not a drama, she’ll most definitely be right.