The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s second annual appeal for public contributions to the Australian National Dictionary has been a great success. So far, we have had close to 500 contributions on the theme of ‘familyspeak’ – the words and expressions that people use within the family circle or remember an older generation using. Thank you to all those people who took the time to share their stories of familyspeak.The appeal is continuing, and you can contribute via our Word Box feature at any time.
The appeal has alerted us to a number of words and expressions that, after further research, may be added to the Australian National Dictionary. As well, the variety of contributions has provided us with an understanding of a number of categories in which informal language is used in many Australian households. Some of the more common categories appear below.
Many contributions originate as a word or expression used by a child. Interestingly, the vast majority of contributors note that although a word begins with a child, it is often adopted by the whole family, and in some cases may continue in use for decades. Sometimes the term is a mispronunciation: hottle bottle for hot water bottle, bascetti for spaghetti, bin-ock-lears for binocularss, meanish tart for neenish tart, wobbellies for wallabies. Sometimes a child mishears a word or expression, or substitutes known words for an unfamiliar term: hello vera for aloe vera, cheese crust for Jesus Christ, hockey strap for ocky strap, professor cheese for feta cheese, sleep dreams for sweet dreams, soup case for suitcase, dire rear for diarrhoea, spare feet for bare feet, pig hour for peak hour. Children’s wordplay and invention also provide a number of terms: cardig-on, cardig-off for wearing or not wearing a cardigan; eleventeen for eleven; prettyful for something both pretty and beautiful, woo for a wee and a poo, moange for moan and whinge, cat hole for a gutter drain.
Variants of known expressions and idioms
This category shows that well-known and established idioms often have multiple forms, many revealing humour and verbal play. A number of contributions we received are variants of the simile as full as x, meaning very full or satiated. This is common in Australian English, with well-known forms including as full as a goog and as full as a state school hat-rack. Contributions to our appeal include: as full as a butcher’s pup, as full as a doctor’s wallet, and as full as a centipede’s sock drawer. Another common form of simile found in Australia and elsewhere is as useless/useful as an x : for example, as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike. Contributions include: as useful as a pocket in a singlet, as useful as two top lids, and as useless as a screen door on a submarine. In Australian English the simile as silly as two bob-watch goes back to the 1940s, with one contributor’s father using the variant as silly as a hat full of bee stings. Other simile variants are: as blind as a welder’s dog, as serious as a shark attack, and as busy as a Beirut bricklayer. Variants of other well-known idioms include: best thing since sliced cheese, go like a greased weasel, and I don’t give a frog.
A number of contributions take the form of a retort: something said in answer to a remark, typically as a snub, in a sharp or witty manner. Most are light-hearted, and a few go back generations in a family. Several people sent us a wigwam for a goose’s bridle, an established Australian expression recorded from the early 20th century. It’s a dismissive reply to an unwanted question (‘what’s that?’). The appeal reveals that the expression is still known and used, and provides us with a couple of variants: a wing wong for a goose’s bridle, and knitting wigwams for a goose’s bridle. There are several answers to the question ‘What’s for dinner?’. These include: pigs cheeks and goolie gum, bread and butter under the table, duck under the table and say go. We have recorded examples of the ‘under the table’ pattern previously.
Contributors sent us responses to the question ‘Where did you get it?’, including: I got it in the coco-pops (or weetbix) packet, and it came with the cornflakes. Behind these retorts is the old marketing ploy of including toys inside a box of cereal. We can see it too in the derisive rhetorical question ‘Where did you get your licence? From a cornflakes packet?’ In recent years a number of people have heard the response yes way! to ‘no way!’. And when one contributor as a child asked where something was, the parents would say the little green men took it.
Expressions of disapproval proved popular in the appeal. In response to misbehaviour: behave yourself or I’ll bat your eyelid, I’ll put your nose above your chin, stop fluff arsing. In response to making too much noise: stop jazzing about like a hairy goat. In response to a cranky child: lend me your face to fight a bulldog. In response to someone overreacting: calm your farm, and don’t carry on like a half-sucked mango. The latter idiom is usually found in the form got a face (or head) like a half-sucked mango. Someone who looks a bit messy might be told your hair is like a birch broom, or you look like the wreck of the Hesperus. The latter expression has been recorded elsewhere and probably derives from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ (1842).
Malapropisms and spoonerisms
Malapropism is the mistaken use of a word in place of one that sounds similar. It derives from Mrs Malaprop (who made such mistakes), a character in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775). Contributions to this appeal include: amphibious (ambidextrous), cufflink church (Catholic Church), hydraulic tomatoes (hydroponic tomatoes), ravished (famished), stubborn cross (southern cross).
A spoonerism is a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words. The word derives from the name of the Reverend W.A. Spooner (1844–1930) who supposedly made such errors in speaking. Contributions include: but and breader (bread and butter), chair kild (child care), fissy hits (hissy fits), mucket and bop (bucket and mop), runny babbit (bunny rabbit), wishdosher (dishwasher).
A number of contributions to this appeal transposed sounds or elements within a single word. These included: dragonsnap (snapdragon), flutterby (butterfly), revandah (verandah), unindated (inundated), and pecalin (pelican).
One of the most frequent types of contribution are words or phrases that have been created in a new and playful way. These are usually based on the meaning, spelling, or pronunciation of existing words and phrases. Using language playfully is common across all age groups, and while many contributions are particular to some families, others are used more widely. Some families invent singular forms for words, such as cloe for clothes, and jat for a single Jatz cracker (one jat, two jatz). With a little tweak some words can be given a whole new meaning: cheatza (pizza made pre-made bases and toppings), chrip to craptor (an unfriendly name for chiropractor), corniture (furniture made for corners), dirtify (to make dirty), frivol (to spend time on an unimportant task so as to avoid working on an important one), disastrophe (a big disaster). Clearly some contributors think existing words require a freshen-up: Cs and Ms (Roman numerals work well for hundreds and thousands sprinkles), cup of chino (the barista will know what you mean), outsect (that’s where insects should stay), serve you right (a serviette will do just that), vanilla folder (everyone’s favourite colour), armbows and underpits (there should be more words for elbows and armpits), walrus nuts (walnuts of course). And to combine a few in a sentence: you can’t buy baa boots, scrambled legs, or alumwing foil at Hardly Normal, but they stock slishsloshers if your current one is combuggerlypleted.
And now for something completely different
There have been so many different types of contribution to this appeal that it is hard to categorise them all. Many are accompanied by a detailed explanation from the contributor, while others require a little imagination or inside knowledge. There are several phrases taken from popular films, including: as you wish (meaning ‘I love you’, taken from the 1987 film ‘Princess Bride’); you’re terrible Muriel (an expression of disapproval, taken from the 1994 film ‘Muriel’s Wedding’). The 1997 film ‘The Castle’ provided several catchphrases: it’s the vibe, it’s what you do with it, and how’s the serenity? The Australian National Dictionary already records two catchphrases from ‘The Castle’: straight to the pool room, and tell him he’s dreaming. Many families have a special name for the remote control: bopper, changer, donger, fat controller, flicker (switcher), mactrol, merote, zapper, and zooter. Some contributions require a bit of imagination: canoes with people (Nutrigrain cereal), to carpet snake (to eat a large meal and have a nap afterwards), fly cemetery (fruitcake), guy glance or boy’s look (a very quick look for something before requiring assistance), mountain goating (moving to avoid people as part of social distancing), Polly (said to someone close to the kettle to turn it on). Some defy explanation: bingo dingo (well done), conkle ( a wash in the bathroom sink), garkle (sultana), gogs (lollies), jerty (wrinkly apples), scrickle (piece of salty food like bacon rind), way-way (face washer).
And finally, quite a few contributions came with an interesting story. We liked this explanation for betty beans (overcooked beans): ‘My girlfriend's mother who used to dine with us regularly always liked her beans cooked very well. On the other hand we all like them just done. So whenever I overcook them, we and the rest of the family call them Betty beans. Some generations have never met Betty, but they all know and use the saying!’ The phrases doing a June and doing an Aunt Ida are from different sources but have the same meaning—going somewhere without your purse. Both women were notorious for leaving their money at home. Ifits night, meaning ‘leftovers for dinner’, is explained as ‘if it’s in the fridge or in the pantry you can eat it’. And wontsomemore is a good example of the way familyspeak can recall and celebrate family history, and keep important memories alive: ‘In wartime my mother’s aunty lived on a farm. They hosted Italian prisoners of war who assisted them with farm duties, as the Australian men were at war. Aunty Doreen would ask them at the end of the meal in her Aussie country voice “do you want some more?”, all as one phrase, and one night they finally asked, what is this wontsomemore? It has become a family tale and is now used after dinner’.
Again, we thank everyone who sent us their words and stories.