A fair shake of the sauce bottle

Jon Donnison, the BBC’s Sydney correspondent, celebrates the rise and deplores the fall of Australian slang.

And quite proper, too.

He notes why the phenomenon came about:

Barry at the Psych“Australian slang really seems to have built up a head of steam in the late 19th Century,” says Tony Thorne, linguist at Cambridge University and author of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.

This was partly down to the fact that the kind of people who went to Australia, tended to come from places with rich local linguistic traditions like Scotland, Ireland and the East End of London, he says.

“Those people weren’t hampered by the upper-class cultures of the UK. They were much more free to play with language, creating nicknames for local things, in a way that the buttoned-up Brits in those days weren’t able to do.”

There is also, of course, the link with convicts and the British policy of setting up penal colonies in Australia.

Hmm: “upper-class cultures of the UK” inhibited the development of “nicknames for local things”. Anyone who has experienced English public-school traditions, would doubt that.

Donnison also acknowledges:

But the glory days of Australian slang really arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.

“That was the time when Australianisms stopped being something local and started to spread outside of Australia itself,” says Thorne.

Television played a big part in that, in his view, and in particular one man – Barry Humphries.

“Hello possums!” was screeched out on TV screens around the world from the mauve-rinsed, horn-rimmed-spectacled Dame Edna Everage, Humphries’ most famous character.

It was another Humphries creation though, Bazza McKenzie, who ticked all the linguistic boxes of the Australian stereotype.

Barrington Bradman Bing McKenzie, to give him his full name, was the hard-drinking, straight-talking Aussie Abroad, first introduced in comic-strip form in the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, and later the star of films The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.

Ah, yes! It feels like only yesterday!

Barry

 

For a full decade, starting around the time the Americans didn’t quite get the Stones version of It’s All Over Now, the fortnightly doings of Bazza in and around Kangaroo Valley were essential study.

From which we can draw three corollaries:

  • We needed the stereotype of that baggy-strided, wide-hatted Boy from the Bush (whom Peter Cook reckoned “an Australian Candide”) to reconcile us to the self-confident swarm of Antipodean dentists and bar-hands, who arrived O[ver].S[eas].
  • We recognised that this was all a construct: we’re not that many kangaroos loose in the top paddock to be within cooee of confusing myth and reality. The Barry of the cartoon-strip was an outrageous grotesque. We loved him for it.
  • We adopted, ironically — but, of course, his infinite variety of expressions: straining the potatoes, having a snakes, flogging the lizard, splashing the boots, writing yer name on the lawn, pointing Percy at the porcelain, shaking hands with the wife’s best friend, and all the others that Barry Humphries’ fertile imagination concocted.
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Filed under BBC, Private Eye, Quotations

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