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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Beware the drop bears

The Australian National Dictionary Centre provides a wonderful online resource for those of you are not entirely familiar with Australian English. My overseas readers may need to consult it now and then when I use an unfamiliar expression (to those beyond these shores) such as "bogan" (a word that proved to be very important recently in a discussion over at Butterflies and Wheels). If I suggest that someone (our Minister for Communications and Stuff, for example) dare not eat prawns for fear of cannibalism, you will be able to discover something to the effect that a prawn is not just an edible crustacean similar to a shrimp but also a foolish or hapless person. Moreover, when a prawn, such as the Minister, or indeed anyone else (whether they are a prawn or not), attempts to deceive you, or put one over you, you are entitled to respond: "Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate!" I.e., "Don't try to fool me, my friend!"

One point that strikes me when I look at the site is how recent some well-known Australian slang terms are - some appeared in my lifetime, and I must have cottoned on to them, or sussed them out, almost immediately. E.g., the expression "hoon", for a dangerous, stupid, and irresponsible driver, usually behind the wheel of a powerful or hotted-up car, goes back no further than the era when I first encountered it. Evidently, the word was used before that but in a different sense (to refer to some kind of standover man involved in prostitution).

The people involved in the site also have a sense of humour.

To demonstrate the latter, I refer you to the definition of "drop bear".


Kris Maglione said...

Well, as you're schooling us on Aussie slang, I feel the right, er, need to school you on American slang. Your translation should probably be, "Don't try to fool me, friend!" (or "pal", "buddy", ...) Your translation doesn't exactly evoke sarcasm.

Charles Sullivan said...

Separated by a common language, eh?

The word 'dag' has an entirely different meaning in the States than it does in Oz.

It's short for 'dagnabbit', which is a non-blasphemous version of 'God Damn it.'

I don't hear the word 'dag' very often these days, but I first heard it from African American schoolmates when I was a kid in the 1970s.

Charles Sullivan said...

Karen Stollznow (linguist, Australian, and fellow skeptic) once told me that there's not much regional variation in dialects throughout Australia.

This seemed strange to me, given the wide variations of regional dialects in the States. Perhaps Australia's more recent colonization is the reason for this.

Russell Blackford said...

Strangely they don't discuss "dag" in the Australian usage that I am most familiar with (and which you may have in mind): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dags_(subculture)

Russell Blackford said...

More recent colonization, a lot of internal migration, availability of radio and TV throughout most of the period when we had any significant population. I'm only guessing, but it's true that you hear little regional (as opposed to class) variation.

You do hear some: in NSW the word "school" clearly rhymes with "pool". When I moved down to Victoria, 30-odd years ago, I was surprised that some people with otherwise-normal accents pronounced it much more as if it rhymed with "bull". And Victorians tend to pronounce "castle" as "cassle" whereas in New South Wales it will be said as "cah-s'l". The latter is not really an accent difference though. And having moved back to NSW in the last few months, I don't notice any regional difference.

Charles Sullivan said...

In the region where I was raised, Pittsburgh, the speakers often turn the letter L into a soft W in certain words.

For example: People becomes Peopw, and Building becomes Buiwding.

I think something similar exists in Australia and in parts of England. It really doesn't occur elsewhere in the States outside of about a 150 mile radius of Pittsburgh.

Having moved years ago, I've lost most of my Pittsburgh dialect, but the L-to-W thing is something that's deeply ingrained in my speech pattern.

Russell Blackford said...

I can't quite imagine what you're describing, Charles. I guess it would sound like "booding". Okay, I sort of imagine an American accent like that, but I've never heard it in Australia. I've only ever heard "building" pronounced as "bill-ding". Of course the vowels may change, but I've never heard it without the "L".

I've heard many other consonants crushed out in Australian speech, though, e.g. "Febooary" or "guvvament", or, famously, something like "uuuii-un" for "union" (the latter variant is beloved of politicians with backgrounds as trade uuuii-un leaders).

Charles Sullivan said...

Fair enough. The L-to-W may not exist in Oz, but it does in England, and in Pittsburgh, of course.

Think of it like this: A guy's name is Bill, but I pronounce it Biww.

The vowel-sounds don't change, just the L-to-W.

So, Building is Biww-ding.

Now, I am curious about how class influences dialect or speech patterns in Australia. I've heard that your national TV news presenters sound more British than 'strailian.

Ours presenters sound more "Middle America". Probably from somewhere between Iowa and Kansas. It's as if they have no distinct accent when we listen to them. But of course all spoken language has an accent/dialect.

Russell Blackford said...

"Now, I am curious about how class influences dialect or speech patterns in Australia. I've heard that your national TV news presenters sound more British than 'strailian."

When I was a kid that was the case. It's not really anymore, except for some arts presenters on ABC radio. News presenters just have good clear, trained voices and accents that are, I suppose, kind of middle Australia - not somewhere between regions, but somewhere between the class differences and without the nasal tones that a lot of Aussies have (me included ... I'd never get a job as a news presenter). You'll seldom hear someone with a very broad accent (who'd say "uuuii-un"), but you'd be unlikely, these days, to hear one of those heavily-modified accents that sounds something like BBC English on TV or radio.

One thing I've noticed over the years, though I've never seen anyone comment on it, is the way popular radio DJs no longer have those "big", deep, projected voices. They have much more ordinary, though clear, voices. Not sure whether the reasons for that are sociological or technological or a mixture.

Charles Sullivan said...

I think the big, deep, projected radio voices were a male phenomenon.

Once women got into radio it seemed stupid for them to boom and bellow, although the change didn't happen overnight.

It took many years of small, independent radio stations and college radio stations to make that deep 1950s DJ voice to feel pretentious to our modern ears.

In other words, it was a cultural shift.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, good point Charles. When I was young, in the 60s and 70s, DJs were almost always men. The student stations, etc., led the way during the 1970s. Wonder what happened to all those guys who were trained to have those booming DJ voices? Did they retrain (the youngest would still only be in their 50s, I guess)or did they go extinct?

David Rathbone said...

You need to read:

1. a book called "Gullivers Travels" by a writer called Johnathan Swift (don't give up before book four), and then remember that this book was a favorite on transportation ships 1788-1840, where it was read aloud. The convicts liked it because it showed the hypocrisy and the pompous and inflated pretenses of those in power in an indirect way;

2. A book called "Pass Round the Hat" by a writer called Henry Lawson, which explored the abysmal depths of class divide in Australia, a situation which has only worsened as corporatized universities exploit casual employees more and more mercilessly.

Both terms are approximately ten times older than you realize.

p.s. dinkum is a Chinese word, and ripper and bonza are both Japanese words.

MJ said...


I had a friend in university (in the States) whose name was Job Bogan. I always thought being named after someone punished by god was a bummer, but never thought much about his last name.

When I visited Australia I saw a CD at a gas station called "bogan rock" which was a collection of 80's hair rock. I asked my friend what a bogan was and when he told me I couldn't help but think what an unfortunate surname that would be to have. Kind of justified his first name.

Russell Blackford said...

David Rathbone, who are you addressing and what are you talking about? I have no idea what terms you mean are ten times as old as someone thinks. If you're talking to me, you might consider that an Australian with a PhD in English literature just might have some familiarity with both Jonathan ("not Johnathan") Swift and Henry Lawson.

But maybe you'd like to clarify.