11 Delightful 19th-Century Australian Slang Terms

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In 1892, German linguist Karl Lentzner published Dictionary of the Slang-English of Australia and of Some Mixed Languages, likely the first compilation of its kind. “The English language has of late years incorporated a vast store of words and phrases generally known as ‘Slang,’ which, with marvellous rapidity, have taken root in all sections of the community,” Lentzner writes. “America especially has proved a fertile soil for colloquialisms of this kind; and so has Australia. To collect, and to some extent tabulate, an interesting class of these unorthodox accretions—Colonial Slang, is the purpose of this work.”

You won't find crikey in this book, but there are plenty other weird and wonderful words worth incorporating into everyday conversation. Here are just a few of them, from the first section of Lentzner’s book, “Australian and Bush Slang."

1. Boomah

This word for a very large type of kangaroo, Lentzner says, likely sprang from a misunderstanding by British Colonel Godfrey Charles Mundy, who wrote in Our Antipodes,

An officer from Van Diemen's Land told me that he had once killed in that colony “a kangaroo of such magnitude, that being a long way from home, he was unable though on horseback to carry away any portion except the tail, which alone weighed thirty pounds. This species is called the boomah, and stands about seven feet high.”

“The word was strange to him,” Lentzner says, “and he imagined it to be a variety of kangaroo, and not a slang word expressive of size.”

2. Cornstalks

These are Australian settlers, particularly girls. They get that nickname “because their average height is very great, though they are fragile,” Lentzner writes.

3. Dead Nuts On

This term, which means “very fond of,” is a more emphatic version of the English “nuts on.”

4. Happy Returns

This is a pleasant term for a rather unpleasant thing: Someone who has happy returns is throwing up his food.

5. To Hump the Swag

To carry your luggage on your back. An example, from the article "Impressions of Australia," which appeared in Blackwood's Magazine: "And you may often have to hump your own swag, for the able-bodied fellows who are standing about are probably too well off to care to earn your shilling."

6. Kokum

Prison slang for sham kindness.

7. Leanaway

Someone who is tipsy. “The metaphor is of course,” Lentzner writes, “from the drunk person’s reeling.”

8. Off his kadoova

Someone who is insane. “Off his kadoova, ‘off his head,’ ‘off his chump,’ or simply ‘off,’ all convey the same idea—as a train being off the rails, or a man off his play,” Lentzner writes.

9. Promossing

“Talking rubbish, playing the fool, mooning about.”

10. To have one’s shirt out

To be angry. “Probably this expression has arisen from the shirt working out between the breeches and waistcoat during a struggle,” Lentzner writes. “To have one's shirt out, therefore, denotes excitement and thus anger. Another possible derivation is from the provincial shurty, to bustle about.”

11. Simply throwing up buckets

A way of saying you are very disappointed. "When a person means to say that he is as disappointed as ever he can be, he sometimes says, 'Oh! I am simply throwing up buckets,' Lentzner writes. "This expression is of course considered very vulgar—used by school boys, and the like."

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January 13, 2014 - 8:11pm
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