Friday, April 24, 2009

Talking Australian: ANZACs and Military Slang

A function of slang language is to unite groups and define common values. The Australian forces are no different in this context but often the wider community are not as privileged to this language with some notable exceptions. The Australian Army has produced the bulk of the military slang which has found its way back into the wider Australian venacular. Tom Skeyhill described in ‘Soldier Songs from Anzac‘ (1915) how linguistic inventiveness became part of the wartime experience but this lexicon rarely survived simply because at the end of hostilities the need for it no longer existed. Much of the services’ slang has been recorded for posterity and kept on file at the Australian War Museum. The First World War produced a number of major Australian terms especially Anzac, digger, and Aussie.

Anzac or Australian and New Zealand Army Corps first appeared in 1915 and were originally used as a telegraphic code name for the corps. Later in the same year the abbreviation for ‘Anzac Cove’ was used for Gallipoli, and then as a term for the ‘Gallipoli campaign’ itself. By 1916 it was used to refer to a member of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who gallantly served in the Gallipoli campaign.

The sobriquet digger came originally from the Australian goldfields and described a miner. The abbreviated ‘dig’ became synonymous with cobber or mate and the nickname digger was given to new recruits from mining areas on the way to Gallipoli. It was also used by the British Tommy on the Battle of the Somme (1916) when they referred to Maori battalions who dug out communicating trenches. Australian troops were more commonly referred to as Kangaroos, or Tommy Kangaroo and sometimes Johnny Kangaroos and other nicknames included: Cobblers, Trooper Redgum and Billjims. Survival at Gallipoli depended on finding suitable cover and fox holes were life saving. Those who survived the nightmare landing may have earned the title by digging in. After the both battles (Somme and Gallipoli) Australian soldiers generally referred to themselves with pride as "Diggers" and the term gained general acceptance.

Decades later during the Vietnam War, when Australian and New Zealand troops formed combined units and the term Kiwi was used to refer to New Zealanders.

Aussie as in (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!) also originated from the Great War and was a term of endearment used to described the ‘Australian battler.’

Now if I said, “have you heard the rumour(the former) Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey intends to give every dinky die Aussie a $900 bonus at the next budget.” You might think that story is a bit ‘furphy.’ A perfect example of spinning a line.

The term ‘furphy’ means a rumour or absurd story. Furphy originated during the First World War when carts from Victoria were used to carry water to the troop’s trenches. The carts were supplied by Furphy and Sons Pty Ltd and their name was painted on the carts but the drivers were notorious for gossip and spreading false rumours. The term stuck and passed into Australian English.

A common term used by the soldiers to describe legitimate news was ‘oil.’ The assumption being a well oiled machine ran efficiently. Soon the compounds of machine oil gained wide currency as slang and this included straight oil, good oil, and of course, eucalyptus oil. Better known as dinkum oil.

Other words which passed in Australian English include souvenir as in ‘to appropriate’ (or steal); and plonk for wine. This is thought to be a corruption of French blanc in vin blanc ‘white wine.’ Idioms such as his blood’s worth bottling’ and ‘give it a burl,’ are also thought to come from Digger talk in the Great War.

Idioms from the Second World War to pass into common vernacular include ‘going troppo’ meaning mental degeneration through exposure to tropical conditions and one of my favourites, “don’t come the raw prawn.” Meaning the person you are addressing is limp, wet and slippery. Probably the most commonly used naval slang in every day language is molly meaning a malingerer or an effeminate man. In general use it refers to a left handed person and a Molly-dooker (slang for hands) was a South Paw (who led with the left hand).

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