Thursday, July 9, 2009

Talking Australian: Tall Poppies, Whingers, Wowsers and Wankers!

Australia has become renowned as a country without social classes and with a strong commitment to social equality. It was often held as an example of an egalitarian society with commitment to the fair go. This environment has given rise to the socially leveling tall poppy syndrome. Australian culture disapproves of the vain, individuals with ‘superior’ airs, instead valuing and glorifying figures of tangible success and humility such as the unsung hero and the quiet achiever. A person who stands out from the crowd by being successful, wealthy, or famous may be called a tall poppy. It is often remarked that Australians have a tendency to ‘cut’ tall poppies down to size by denigrating them, to rubbish or knock them, if they are conceited in their success.

An epithet is a descriptive word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing. It is a metaphor, for example 'Jimmy the Pomm,' or 'Chopper' Read. Abusive epithets such as whinger and wowser have become a colourful and expressive part of the Australian lexicon. These words express characteristics deemed undesirable in Australian society.

A whinger is someone who complains excessively and without validity. It originates from an early English word, ‘whine.’ In Australian ethos there is considerable social stigma attached to whinger, as in ‘Whinging Pom.’ The anti-social, ineffectual behaviour of a whinger is strongly reproved whereas the underdog, the struggler or little Aussie battler is ‘the brave and determined survivor despite all odds.’ Whinger has connotations of weakness, self-pity and the inability to cope with the pressures of life in a mature manner.

A wowser (1895) is spoil sport, wet blanket, guardian of morality, a prudish tea totaler. The provenance of ‘Wowser’ is thought to from Yorkshire and the words ‘wow’ meaning to howl like an animal or grumble like a human and; wowsy’ an exclamation of surprise. In 1916, Australian poet C. J. Dennis defined a wowser as “an ineffably pious person who mistakes the world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder”. The concept of the wowser was initially associated with religion and elicited other related epithets including bible-basher and devil dodger. In 1870 hot-gospellers in the State of Victoria were called as Rousers or Wowsers. Religious wowsers were frequently perceived as intolerant, outspoken and censorious ‘fanatics’ or ‘fundamentalists’ and are often seen to actively protest against the habits or pastimes of which they disapprove, especially gambling, promiscuity and the consumption of alcohol. In 1899 journalist John Norton (1862-1916) wrote in the Truth newspaper and is generally considered to be the author of the acronym WOWSER to stand for “We Only Want Social Evils Remedied (or Rectified)” and this was generally applied to social do-gooders. Wowser is the cultural antithesis of the Australian larrikin.

Another abusive epithet in Australian English is the word wanker used as a metaphor for persons who indulge in egotism and self-indulgence. The noun was derived from a 19th century Yorkshire dialect and meant simpleton. Its association with Onanism was related to madness thought to be caused by self abuse but in Australian English it became analogous to vanity by bragging. Perhaps not the most favoured word in the Australian lexicon its meaning is clear and represents a good example of a rude word saved from the brink, just like ‘bugger.’

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