Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talking Australian: Fair Go

The cliché ‘fair go’ is a very powerful one and one which has enormous symbolic significance to the Australian national identity. Tracing its origins however really means understanding the history of struggle in the Big Brown land from the time of European settlers.

The ethic of ‘fair go’ can be traced to the mid-19th century with the commencement of the anti-transportation movement based upon acceptance free labour as intrinsically a fairer system of organising work than a master-servant relationship. Australia became a society based on the principle everybody should have the same opportunity to work wherever and however they wanted. This was witnessed in 1851 by the decision in New South Wales to partition the gold-bearing ground into equal lots so everybody could have the chance to dig for gold. This was combined with an end to corruption and high taxes and the right to vote during the Eureka rebellion of 1854.

A decade later the anti-squatter legislation emphasised the value of small-scale family farming over big squatter domination of the land. The principle of a fair go meant the new Australians enjoyed the same opportunity to get access to wealth and to make what they could of their lives irrespective of how they started out. Later the early rise of compulsory and free education in Australia was another example of the ‘fair go.’

During the Great Depression Surry Hills, Newtown, Redfern and Glebe were at the heart of the anti-eviction movement, in which residents fought to prevent their neighbours being thrown out onto the street. The Australian ‘fair go’ was largely based on the belief the opportunity to compete and thereby to improve status with competition open to all comers. Rewards accrue to those who make the most effort (by working hard and seizing available opportunities) and who display the most talent (as a result of undertaking education and training, as well as exploiting natural ability). One of the most redeeming features of the notion of a "fair go" is that we offer a helping hand when it's needed and that our birth alone does not determine our destiny. This has great relevance to the time we live in now.

Assistance graciously given to those in need at times of emergency such as fires and floods demonstrate the true blue mark of the new Australian and the fair go. So too is the intolerance of privilege all too often displayed by figures of authority long distanced from the proletariat they represent but determined to walk the tight rope of the tall poppy. History tells us the egalitarian nature of the Australian people will not tolerate it and the fair go will prevail.

The national anthem of Australia is Advance Australia Fair which became the official national anthem in 1984. The original version was composed by a Glaswegian called Peter Dodds McCormick (1834-1916) under the pen name "Amicus", meaning "friend". It was first performed on November 30th (St Andrew's Day) in Sydney in 1878. It took until 1973 after the Labor Government held a national competition to find a replacement for God Save the Queen. Judges had to choose between Advance Australia Fair, Banjo Patterson's Waltzing Matilda or Carl Linger's Song of Australia as the National Anthem. Opinion polls were unanimous and Advance Australia Fair won the day. Despite this the new anthem met with widespread opposition and obstruction and it was not until the Los Angeles Olympics that Advance Australia Fair finally became Australia's national anthem, under the Hawke (Labor) government (1983-1991).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Talking Australian: Australian Larrikins

The origin of the word larrikin remains unclear and many etymologists are divided as to its true provenance. Some believe the word was forged in the Australian underworld when two slang words ‘leery’ meaning quick witted, and ‘kinchen’ (or kin) young fellow were joined to make leerrykin. Others think there is insufficient evidence to support this supposition and prefer the explanation ‘larrikin’ originated from a simple mispronunciation of English dialect. The two main contenders are the Yorkshire phrase ‘larrack about’ meaning ‘to get up to youthful mischief;’ and the old Midlands term ‘larrikin’ meaning too much use of the tongue. In any event it was first used in Australia circa 1868 and appeared in an 1870 newspaper referring to a group of wild, adolescents, from the inner urban areas of Melbourne.

‘A gang of "larrikins" ... had been the terror of Little Bourke-Street and its neighbourhood’;
The (Melbourne) Age (1870)

It took another ten years before larrikin was officially used in police records. At the turn of the 19th century many inner city streets were terrorised with young street toughs or ‘larrikins.’ Rather like hoons today, their behaviour was unabashedly masculine in character and revolved around flamboyant machismo such as fighting, taunting authority-figures, and bragging about sexual prowess. (bit like traveling on a train).

The term larrikin became commonly associated with members of the Rocks Push which was a criminal gang from The Rocks in Sydney. Australian Larrikins were readily compared to the London "Loafers"; New York "Hoodlums" and San Francisco "Corner or Bowrey Boys". Unlike their American counterparts who eventually became the crime families, there is little evidence to suggest larrikins were anything other than "naerdae wells" or "jack the lads".

Larrikins were the great grandfather of juvenile delinquents and like all youth cultures known particularly for their dress. Described by the press in 1870, as "youths with a hang dog look and careless in attire" the original larrikins dressed in quite spectacular style and wore long frock coats (bobtailed coats) made from dark or black material decorated with buttons. Many had velvet collars and were tailored with tight waists. Cut in similar in style to Edwardian drapes the jackets were later adopted by the UK Teddy boys in the 1950s. Loud neckerchiefs or silk ties with jaunty waistcoats and bell bottom trousers cut tight on the thigh were complemented with either a slouch (low crowned felt hat) or small round bowler worn at a rakish angle. Larrikins wore high heeled boots (Louis IVX style) with extremely pointed toes.

Their young female companions were called Cafe Belles or larrikinesses and the 19th century Chavs or ladettes were gaudily dressed often in short skirts. Their public behaviour was disorderly both loud and frequently they were seen smoking on the street. At the time this was associated with prostitutes. They were often accused of ’suspicious behaviour ’after dark’and the Bulletin (1898) described them as ‘young women who ate fried fish in bed and were as guilty of falling asleep next to the bones and the stopper of the vinegar bottle.’ Extremely unlady-like.

Something happened at the beginning of the 20th century and the negativity associated with larrikin synonymous with hooligan died out in Australia and instead became a term affectionately used to describe persons who did not always adhere strictly to polite social conventions. Many historians believe this was part of a romantic social more that existed in Australia at the turn of the 19th century.

Writers like Marcus Clarke and the more sentimental, C J Dennis wrote affectionately about knock about blokes who would morph into loving family men when given half a chance. (The sentimental bloke 1915). The transformation from street ruffian to comic figure was complete when contemporary Music Hall performers like Roy Rene gave their spin to a raffish larrikin-figure on the popular stage with emphasis on the frequently inebriated leer, who was full of double entendres and thoroughly entertaining.

The same transformation was seen elsewhere such as Harry Lauder (I belong to Glasgow); Max Miller and much later Arthur English and Flash Harry (George Cole in the early St Trinian films) as spivs. This process left the term larrikin sufficiently sanitised so many Australians today would happily accept larrikin behaviour as typical of the true blue Australian.

The are many examples from Australian history including Ned Kelly, and Captain Thunderbolt but more contemporary examples would be the late Steve Irwin (crikey!), Graham Kennedy and Bon Scott. Most people associate Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin as stereotypical examples but there is no end of other contenders including Bob Hawke, Shane Warne, Sammy Newman and Ben Cousins to name but a few.

Read more
Bellanta M (2012)Larrikins: A History

Friday, June 5, 2009

Talking Australian: The influence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

In the early days of the settlers there was no common language in which to share with the indigenous people and subsequently a pidgin language was developed. This had limited vocabulary and simplified grammar but some elements of Aboriginal languages were adopted either as loan words, or corrupted (usually by mispronunciation) into Australian English. Most referred to places, flora and fauna. Many of these came from the language of the Dharuk (Darug) and Eora people who were the original owners of the area which is now Sydney. Examples include place names: Mulgoa (suburb of Sydney – blackswan), Toongabbie (a place near water) and Winmalee: and flaura and fauna: burrawang and waratah. Also the tree kurrajong (the bark was used to make fishing lines).

Darug words used to describe animals include dingo (1830 and a corruption of "tingo", a word used by the Aboriginals of Port Jackson aka Sydney Harbour, to describe camp dogs), koala (from the Dharuk gula). Although the vowel /u/ was originally written in the Latin alphabet as "oo" and spelt as coola or koolah), it later became "oa" possibly due to a spelling error and wallaby. A word used by the Darug people which has common use in Australian English was cooee (1790). Cooee, cooee was a high-pitched call used to attract attention over long distances. It was used in the bush and meant “is there anyone there?”.

The word cooee appears in place names like Cooee, a suburb in the Tasmanian city of Burnie. There is also the Cooee March which was staged by 35 men from Gilgandra, New South Wales as a recruiting drive after enthusiasm for the World War I waned in 1915. The men marched to Sydney calling "Cooee!" to encourage others to come and enlist and by the time they reached the group had grown to 277 men. The Cooee March is commemorated each October in Gilgandra which hosts the Cooee Festival. From 1880 onwards ‘Cooee’ was used in a figure of speech like “if he's within cooee, we'll spot him.” Cooee has come to mean within hearing distance.

The word Boomerang was also adapted from the Dargun language.

A word taken from the Yagara/Jagara language once spoken in the Brisbane region is yakka as in hard yakka or hard work. The word yakka first appeared in Australian English in 1847. In some Aborigineese the common root 'ya' means motion.

Yallum which describes a natural well, denotes a slow deliberate motion of water soaking through the sand up the well. Yallock describes the motion of water passing over yonnie or small pebbles (a rippling stream) and Yarra is often used to describe rapid movement of water. It can also be used to describe anything coming down, or hanging down as in 'yarraynee' a river red gum with long pendulous branches.

Yabber (1874) means to talk quickly or unintelligibly, yarraman (1875) was a horseman. and yabbie are freshwater crayfish.

Another word from the Yagara/Jagara language is bung (1841), meaning broken or pretending to be hurt. A failed piece of equipment may be described as having bunged up or as "on the bung" or "gone bung". A person pretending to be hurt is said to be "bunging it on". A hurt person could say, "I've got a bung knee".

Words which are often thought mistakenly to be Aborigineese include digeridoo which is an onomatopoeic word invented by English speakers.

Kangaroo meaning a bouncing marsupial is thought to mean “What’s that over there?” This was likely to have been a rhetorical statement used in response by indigenous trackers when asked to identify the strange creature unknown to Europeans

Further Reading
Aboriginal and Torres Straits Island English or Australian English?