CANBERRA. Caramba! I came to the capital of Australia two days ahead of the queen’s formal opening to avoid the royal rush, and what do I find? 30,000 Christian activists holding a candlelight parade to bless Aust (they abbrev. everything here) for the next 200 years.
The Parliament House complex had itself gone into a security phase so deep that not even the project manager, Hal Guida, could get a pass for his wife and kids to sneak a peek this weekend. I was successful in making arrangements to come back after I’d finished my epic bus trip around the far west and central parts of Oz (the affectionate diminutive the Aussies give their land)—as in Canberra / Adelaide / Perth / Broome / Darwin / Alice Springs. This butt-breaking odyssey will even off the last seven days of my 15-day Deluxe Coach Koala Pass.
So what to do in my four-star hotel, with an excess of Christians and an impending queen fritzing my visit? I start guzzling off the ten different beers I bought in Tasmania (“Tassie’s Treasures” was the come-on) and work my way through the fat Saturday editions of the Melbourne Age and the Weekend Australian (Rupert Murdoch’s very much appreciated national daily that lost a potful before his Aussie nationalism paid off).
Bingo! I’d been told that a certain Max Harris would be my best informant on the jeu d’esprit I am composing on the way English is spoke hereabouts. And, mirabile dictu, his column this week is on the Australian National Dictionary (AND), due next month from Oxford University Press, $75 for 10,000 Oz-ese words crammed into 960 OED-type pages. The AND is edited by one Dr. W.S. Ramson of ANU.
(Ozzies get off on shortening and initialing everything in sight: At the Victoria Art Gallery café in Melbourne last week, a leisurely schmooze with a “sheila” (Hibernian influence, Dr. Ramson thinks) was cut short with, “Thanks for the New York leads, but I’ve got to get to the Uni for a tute.”
“You’ve got to what?” I queried in a state of stun. “I’ve got to go to my tutorial at the university,” she explained calmly, as if everyone in the world spoke Antipodese.
Well, ANU (the Australian National University) is in Canberra. So I got Ransom’s number and gave him a buzz. In spite of the fact that he and his family were headed for Newfoundland on the morrow (to savour Newfie lingo as a post-partum treat for having gotten the AND birthed), he palavered easily and at length on the issue of Oz-ese.
Trained as a traditional philologist in Old English and Middle English (or should we say, as he did, OE and ME?), after 20 years in the trenches he has earned the sinecure of heading a dictionary center where, depending on financing, he’ll edit a short version of the AND, or work up a new one on regional diversity in Oz-ese, or possibly even a dictionary of place names—a very difficult job, he interpolated, because of the 190 Abo languages, most of which have left no traces.
One of the joys of touring Oz is to see road signs like the one in Sydney next to AG / NSW (the Art Gallery of New South Wales) which juxtaposed “Potts Point” with “Wooloomooloo.” Ramson believes that Oz-ese is mainly Anglo-Celtic in origins—German, Italian and Cornish immigration in the 19th Century having had little linguistic impact.
Even the Celtic input (“Sheila” for girl, and terms like “larrikin”) is minimal, although we speculated that the spritzy antinomianism of Oz-ese might derive mainly from working-class Irish bumptiousness: Almost 50% of the women transported to Botany Bay’s penal colony were working class Irish, with the men having an even higher percentage.
Ramson received my hypothesis about the endemic “ie” diminutive (a way of psychologically dealing with the immensity of Oz) with interest. It’s so pervasive a feature he’d never thought about it—it’s part of the linguistic weather.
He tried to pin the plethora of initials on American bureaucratic acronymics. I no-way-jose’d him on that because Oz is light years ahead of U.S. on the proliferation of initials—the stranger needs a dictionary of initials to survive the maze of ANZ, VAC, PAM, ABC, and on and on.
There’s also a playful aggressiveness in Oz-ese. “Bloody Pom bastard” is often a covertly affectionate way of alluding to the former British overlords. I was given the fake etymology of “Prisoner of Mother England” in one conversation.
And here’s Max Harris: “. . . did you know that the word ‘Abos’ originated as a term for whities, rather than for the indigenous black population? The first recorded usage in 1904 applied to the dedicated readers of the ‘Aboriginalities’ column of the Bulletin.
“’Abos’ were a white reading clan. The usage of ‘Abos’ as an abbreviation for the native population came at least a decade later. As an abbreviation. That it was not denigratory nor pejorative is proven by the fact that the convenient abbreviation of Aborigine was normally followed by a full stop. (Alas, that meticulous punctuation is a lost skill.)”
It’s in AND!
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 25, 1988