Friday, July 24, 2009

Talking Australian: The Push - The Invasion from Downunder

Whilst many romantically associate Australiana with the early settlers and the struggle to establish a national heritage much of what we now know as Australian comes from the 1940s and the diverse influence of the Push. Push was the name of a small-time street gang in Sydney's The Rocks district in the 19th century and there they might have remained had it not been for a Scotsman by the name of John Anderson who was a professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney.

Anderson was a liberal free thinker and started a Freethought Society which he called the Push named after the rebellious, anti-establishment larrikins. Frustrated by the War and constrained by liberal thought Push was a non-political group with anarchist overtones and upheld free speech and free love. The reputation of the weekly group grew and attracted an array of angry young men and women who would eventually become key players in the Arts and Sciences of Australia.

Post-Colonial Australia was staunchly conservative with views and policies today we might find offensive. Post-war Australia had seen women gain greater freedoms working outside the domestic sphere and the 'Sydney Scene' of artists, writers, actors and intellectuals opened their door to women. The war years had forced Australian bohemians to stay in the Big Brown Land but now many wanted the same freedoms others appeared to enjoy overseas.

In North America the radical Beat Generation had rejected mainstream American values and were experimenting with drugs, spiritiuality and alternative forms of sexuality. The new Australian hedonists (pleasure) wanted to celebrate the same non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. From a university based club, Push became a café society for Australian radicals only they met in the back room of a pub (where else?). The Royal George Hotel, now the Ship Inn, Sydney.

Barry Humphries described the Push as 'a fraternity of middle-class desperates, journalists, drop-out academics, gamblers and poets manqués (failed poets), and their doxies (mistresses)'. Key members included: Darcy Waters (anarchist and thinker), A J (Jim) Baker (author), Harry Hooton (poet), Robert Hughes (artist), John Olsen (artist), Frank Moorhouse (writer), and Barry Humphries (actor and humourist).

Women drawn to Push included Germaine Greer (writer and feminist), Wendy Bacon (writer), Lillian Roxon (journalist) and Eva Cox (writer and feminist) among many others.

By the late fifties and early sixties London had become the Mecca for many of the Australian artistic community. Earls Court was known then as "Kangaroo Valley" and artists like: Brett Whitely , Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd were the toast of the town and everyone who was anyone was wearing Jenny Kee .

Blighty offered a brave new world to the Australian exiles and soon performers like Rolf Harris, Slim Dusty, Frank Ifleld and the Seekers had not only Earls Court at their feet but the rest of the world in a buzz. Talking Australian became a fashion fad and all the more so when Richard Neville brought to London a small satirical magazine called Oz.

Oz started in Sydney and ran from 1963–69. It moved to London and became part of the established underground publications in 1967. The Sydney Oz was a university newspaper which was heavily influenced by Private Eye and grew to include contentious issues such as censorship, homosexuality, abortion, police brutality as well as regularly satirising public figures. London Oz featured regular contributors included Germaine Greer, artist and filmmaker Philippe Mora, photographer Robert Whitaker, Lillian Roxon, cartoonist Michael Leunig, Angelo Quattrocchi and David Widgery. The magazine’s contents enraged the British Establishment with a range of left-field stories including heavy critical coverage of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, discussions of drugs, sex and alternative lifestyles, and other contentious political expose. Oz soon became a target by the Obscene Publications Squad, and their offices were raided on several occasions.

Eventually in 1971 the editors (Felix Dennis, Jim Anderson, and Richard Neville) were brought to trial for obscenity and a very famous case in the High Court followed. The defence lawyer was Sir John Mortimer QC (author of Rumpole of the Bailey) and despite his best efforts the "Oz Three" were found not guilty on the conspiracy charge, but were convicted of two lesser offences and sentenced to imprisonment.

The trial brought the magazine to the attention of the wider public and John and Ono actively protested against the court decision. Apple released "God Save Us" by the ad hoc group called Bill Elliot and the Elastic Oz Band to raise funds and gain publicity.

All convictions were overturned at the appeal trial and although the editors went onto other things Oz London was inevitably silenced.

The Push made its mark and was key in laying the foundations of the 60s counter culture in Swinging London.

As part of the same movement Barry Humphries introduced Aunt Edna Everage (Melbourne Housewife) to an unsuspecting British public transfixed with ‘That was the week that was’ (BBC).

Barry Humphries not only established himself as a comic genius but was a leading force in the new satire cognocente. His small cartoon in Private Eye magazine took on a completely new life of its own.

Barry McKenzie was the story of an Australian yobbo and his travels to London. It became so popular two very successful Barry McKenzie films were made starring Barry Crocker and directed by Bruce Beresford. From now on in everyone wanted to talk Australian and thereby the foundations for Strine were laid.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Talking Australian: What brings us together sets us apart

It was once recorded the greatest gift to linguistics Australians ever made was their natural ability to invent idioms. An idiom, just in case you are unsure is a figure of speech, phrase or word whose meaning cannot be determined by a literal definition. That is the meaning is figurative and the knowledge of this is only known through common use. Sounds complex well here is an example: “To kick the bucket.” This does not mean to actually hit the container with your foot but instead to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil,” “Pop your clogs,” or simply, die. Idioms are like poetry and not only add visual imagery to a sentence they also enhance its power and emotive appeal. Language experts believe idioms are not a specific characteristic of any language but instead are thought to be part of the culture that speaks the language. Linguistic Determinism is a psychological theory that proposes the structure of a language shapes the user's thoughts. Experts believe what we say, and more, how we say it, gives valuable insight into our character. Hence the fondness for continually adapting English through shortening, substituting and combining words contributes not only to an evolving language but also says much about the Australian psyche.

Marcus Clarke was a writer in the 19th century and was convinced Australians used language either to convey notions of their inner thoughts or as a code which to the uninitiated meant one thing, but to those in the know, something quite different (and usually the opposite to the meaning of the words used perverse meaning). Take ‘bluey’ as an example, in Australia ‘bluey’ is red, elsewhere it is blue. To the uninitiated talking Australian can appear incomprehensible yet Australians seems to have no problem in comprehension. For example, take the colloquialisms 'flat out like a lizard drinking' (meaning - working very hard on a task) or 'standing like a bandicoot on a burnt ridge' (i.e. feeling lonely and vulnerable). Dazed and confused, someone might wander 'like a stunned mullet'; in a furious rage, they will be 'mad as a cut snake' and in a state of undeniable lifelessness they will be 'dead as a maggot'. The clever use of comparisons in these colloquialisms raises startling images.

Another characteristic of Talking Australian is its lilt, tones are very important and with the abbreviation of words to emphasize the stressed syllable, it follows the general pattern of how English sounds when it is sung. According to Valerie Desmond in The Awful Australian (1911), she speculated the practice of the voice rising and falling with unexpected syncopations similar to the intonation of the phrases in Chinese speakers. This may have been influenced by the Chinese in the mining communities. Other typical elements of the Australian language are the joining of two words to form a new one, such as bushranger or stockman.

Experts believe to confuse their captors and maintain their own community new Australians of the convict period spoke in a cryptolectic code. At first much use was made of rhyming slang which was familiar to many of the early convicts who had originated around the London area. According to John Camden Hotten (1859) Cockney rhyming slang probably originated in the 1840s with costermongers (street sellers selling fruit) but the penal colonies started in Australia in 1788 which would suggest either rhyming slang was not as prevalent as previously thought or predated Cockney slang. Rhyming Slang phrases are derived from taking an expression which rhymes with a word and then using that expression instead of the word. For example "look" rhymes with "Captain Cook". Through familiarity ‘Having a Captain Cook” can be further abbreviated to, ‘ava Captains." This is typical of the Australian pen chance to abbreviation. Other examples might be “g’day” for "good day" and ‘arvo’ for "afternoon. Another example of language innovation was to reverse the meaning of some words like "bastard." Instead of its literal meaning or as an insult it was used as a term of endearment. To ears unfamiliar with the developing Creole this would appear confusing and the only way to know the true meaning of the discourse would be to listen to the tone of the sentence. The combination of novel words, rhyming slang and tonal communication had the authorities at a loss. This allowed the convicts to make their captors the figure of ridicule. And we have never stopped lampooning authority thank goodness. Here are my four favourite put downs:

'couldn't find a grand piano in a one-roomed house'
'couldn't blow the froth off a glass of beer'
'a chop short of a barbie' and
'useless as an ashtray on a motorbike'.

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.’

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Talking Australia: Bodgies, Bludgers and Bogans

In the early fifties juveniles delinquency became a major concern in Australia so much so the youths were given the name bodgies (for the boys); and widgies (pronounced weegies) for the girls. Not since the Larrikins and larrikinesses of the previous century had Australian seen such public display of loutish behaviour. Adolescent unrest post Second World War was of course universal amongst the baby boomers and coincidentally arose with the introduction of rock’n roll in the mid fifties. Similar malcontents in other countries went by different names such as the teddy boys and teddy girls in the UK.

The term bodgie first appeared in 1945 and was used by the forces when describing unreliable maintenance men or sly guys. Bodgie came from the noun, bodger, meaning ‘something or someone false or unreliable, dodgy; something badly made or shoddy’. In Europe bodgers had been itinerant laborers who rough cut wood in the preparation of clogs. The shoes would eventually be crafted by clog makers by which time, the bodgers had move on. The rough blocks of wood were the result semi-skilled workmen and the term ‘to bodge’ became associated with shoddy work.

After the War, the Black Market thrived around city ports and wide boys (known as spivs) tried to pass off inferior cloth as quality American-made whenever they could. In Sydney this inferior fabric was called bodgie and when the wide boys started to speak with faux American accents they became known as bodgers or bodgies. By 1950, bodgie was used in Australian English to describe something that was unreliable, false or counterfeit. When working class kids were seen in Kings Cross Milk Bar or gathered on street corners and getting up to youthful pranks there was moral outrage.

The Woolloomooloo Yanks were the first street gang to be called Bodgies and wore zoot suits and suede loafer shoes (Yes the same blue suede shoes that Elvis sang about). By the mid fifties bodgies’ dress became more rock’a’billy with bright satin shirts tight trousers and either leather flying jerkins or belted velvet cord jackets. The bodgie outfit was complete with a long, shaggy, Cornel Wilde haircut.

The influence of America was unmistakable and coincided with a heavy American military presence in Australia.

The word Widgies was an abbreviation of wigeon meaning a girl or female teenager. Apparently the term is used to describe ducks and likely means ‘wiggle.’ Widgies wore short hair, tight sweaters and jeans.

The violent aspect of the bodgies could easily be described as the action of ‘bludgeoners.’ This was English slang originally used to describe `a low thief, who would not hesitate to use violence'. The 19th century bludgeoner carried a bludgeon `a short stout stick or club'.

By the end of the nineteenth century Australians had shortened the noun to bludger (1882) and the term was generally used to describe a violent person who lived off immoral earnings. They were also called Stick Lingers and believe it or not there were also bludgeresses but neither term survived beyond the first decade of the twentieth century. From this time bludger referred to anyone who appeared to live off the efforts of others and that included white-collar workers (1910). Cadger and bludger became emotive terms among the Australian workforce and by 1976 the term dole bludger was used to describe anyone who exploited the system of unemployment benefits by avoiding gainful employment.

The derogatory term ‘Bogan’ is more often used today to describe an unsophisticated, sultry type likely to be a dole bludger. Always wrong to make generalisations, of course, and the Australian term ‘bogan’ was known in the 19th century long before there was social security. Banjo Patterson wrote of bogans in his poem, “The City of Dreadful Thirst.

The term Bogan then and now means a young person who is considered to be ‘an outsider.’ The typical characteristics of the modern bogan (also known as petrol heads) is anglo-celtic males who drive large Australian built cars, drink Australian beer, listen to Australian Rock music, smoke and feverishly follow Australian sport. Other traits include wearing black jumpers or Ts with black jeans and baseball boots. The ubiquitous checked jacket and mullet hair style is of course a must.

Mullet was a 19th century derogatory term meaning a stupid person and was transferred to the "business in the front, party in the back" hairstyle in the 60s when it started to become popular. By the 70s nearly everyone from Paul McCartney to David Bowie had a form of mullet. Now whether it was Billy Ray Syrus or the Beastie Boys that heralded the end of the mullet as fashionable is unclear.