The typescript of the ‘Glossary of AIF Slang’ is held in the collections of the Australian War Memorial. It was compiled by the Australian War Memorial’s (then Museum) librarians, under the direction of A.G. Pretty (known as ‘Pret’), the chief librarian. The glossary appears never to have been published, nor was it used in C.E.W. Bean’s Official History of Australia’s involvement in the Great War. But the glossary remains a valuable insight into the impact that war had on language.

It is worth quoting Eric Partridge at length on the way the war experience (he refers to both World Wars) contributes to the lexicon:

In the Services, the men live – or should live – a more exciting life; they deal with equipment and various weapons; do things they’ve never done before – and pretend they never want to again; many of them visit strange countries; many become engaged in a service that is actually instead of nominally active; all of them mingle in such a companionship as they have never had before they enlisted and will never again have, once they quit the Service.

Such conditions inevitably lead to a rejuvenation of language – to vividness – to picturesqueness – to vigour; language becomes youthful, energetic, adventurous. And slang is the easiest way to achieve those ends; that it is, very often, also the laziest way is irrelevant – nor, if it were relevant, would it much matter, for men speaking vigorously and vividly will not stop at slang: Standard English itself becomes refreshed and enriched. (1)

Partridge himself served in the Great War and along with John Brophy published one of the first collections of slang coming out of the Great War experience, Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918. (2) The Pretty glossary is significant because it is a collection of Australian material. A large number of the words included are not exclusively Australian, but were of special resonance for the Australian experience of war. It is important to note that the glossary owes a great debt to the one published collection of Australian Great War slang, W.H. Downing’s Digger Dialects, first published in 1919. (3) A number of terms seem to be borrowed straight from Downing, although curiously not all, suggesting some sort  of selection process taking place, or a mutual, but unknown, source for both Pretty and Downing. A possible scenario is that the War Memorial’s librarians went through Downing’s recent publication and selected terms that they recognised – all were recent veterans themselves. That lexicography is essentially a borrowing process is attested in the work being undertaken by Judith Robertson. (4) In many cases, Pretty et al. have added to the definition provided by Downing.

The Australian National Dictionary cites the Pretty manuscript incorrectly as ‘Bazley 1924’. The surviving correspondence that accompanies the glossary reveals that while Bazley contributes a number of terms, it was Pretty and his staff who did the hard work on compilation. Importantly also, the glossary should be dated earlier than 1924; an earlier draft, virtually identical to the 1924 version, is most likely from 1922.

The Pretty glossary is thus a very important document. It is important in understanding the development of the Australian language in the early part of the 20th century, and the impact that the Great War experience had on it. It is also valuable in giving us an insight into the culture and social experience of the Australian soldier.


(1) Eric Partridge A Dictionary of RAF Slang Pavilion Books, London, 1990 (1945), p. 7.

(2) John Brophy and Eric Partridge Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918, The Scholartis Press, London, 1930. For Partridge’s experiences in the war, see E. Partridge Frank Honywood, Private: A Personal Record of the 1914-1918 War Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1987. Partridge was a New Zealander.

(3) An annotated edition of W.H. Downing’s Digger Dialects was made by members of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, J.M. Arthur and W.S. Ramson, Oxford University Press Australia, Melbourne, 1990.

(4) See Judith Robertson, ‘The Perils of Lexicography’, Ozwords June 2002.

Further reading:

For more information about the Australian experience of World War I, a useful general history is Michael McKernan’s The Australian People and the Great War (Nelson, Melbourne, 1980). CEW Bean’s multi-volume The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (Angus and Robertson, Sydney) is the classic and comprehensive account of Australian participation in the Great War. For a flavour of the Australian soldier’s language and life, David Kent’s account of trench and troopship publications, From Trench and Troopship: The Experience of the Australian Imperial Force 19141-1919 (Hale and Iremonger, Alexandria, NSW, 1999) is invaluable. For dictionaries and collections of war slang and general slang, see the Abbreviations page.

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