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


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  2. Anyone who speaks honestly nowadays is a larrikin according to Big Brother, since everything is politically correct.

    Rob Larrikin