Disappearing words

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We are vaguely aware of words disappearing into the past, and I think this generates an anxiety that we might have lost something worth having. A FOMO directed at words that are no longer available to us.

 Sometimes words disappear because the thing they represent, the object, activity, occupation, etc., no longer exists.  In colonial days an ox-persuader was the term for either a whip or the bullocky who wielded it. A century later a shoddy-dropper was a pedlar who went from house to house selling cheap goods. 

 Change is greatly evident in the foods we eat and the beverages we drink and how we relate to them.  There used to be a set of terms for a type of bland luncheon sausage  - devonpoloneyfritzEmpire sausage.  We are much more discerning about our sausages now and apply very particular names to the different varieties. It’s a long time since I have seen anything like Empire sausage (Newcastle term).

 Beer-drinking has also become much more sophisticated.  We now know a great deal about the types of beer and are much in favour of craft breweries, but have forgotten our earlier attempts in the days when home brews were a necessity. Apparently we used to drink she-oak in the 1890s. This was produced by a publican in Hobart who was said to have created a distinctive flavour by adding a branch of casuarina. Some people loved it, some thought it was disgusting. 

 No longer are we beer-chewers or beer-guzzlers.  We don’t get lathered or drown in the suds.  We still drink with our friends but we don’t call it nobblerising. A nobbler was a small glass of spirits. These days a shot might well be drowned in beer and referred to as a depth charger.

Terms come into vogue for particular types of people and relationships.  In convict days the joke name for someone who had just stepped off the boat was Jimmy Grant. This was a humorous rhyme on immigrant.  There were lots of jokes about how the Jimmy Grant would try to get on a horse backwards and would be red-faced with insect bites. There were names for people from each state starting with cornstalk for those born in the colony of Sydney.  Visitors commented on how tall the native lads and lasses were, contrasting this with the stunted growth of those who grew up in England.  We don’t talk about cornstalks today. Even terms like sandgroper and croweater and bananabender are used only in jest or the names of sporting teams.

 In the 1890s the youth of the day were referred to as The Push. The young men had a distinctive and somewhat flashy style of dress. Their girlfriends were their clinahs (from the German kleine meaning ‘little’) and they themselves were referred to as pebs.  This was a shortened form of pebble meaning ‘a hardened criminal’ and, in particular, a convict.  Pebs were not people to push around.

 Phrases in particular can be so puzzling or dated that they disappear. In early colonial times the kookaburra was called the laughing jackass, and so the phrase arose from jackass to jackass meaning ‘from dawn to dusk’, referring to the way in which kookaburras sing in the early morning and in the evening. There was a variant from jackass to mopoke.

 Even some of the words and phrases that we regard as our particular language heritage have reached a point where we use them self-consciously. Sometimes this is our own fault. So many people have pushed the used of fair dinkum to their own political and marketing ends that it is now hard to use it without slight embarrassment.  An expression like ridgy-didge sounds very corny.  We have an amused affection for the term to pash but who would actually admit to engaging in pashing these days?

 While we may not use these words and phrases any more, it does no harm to bring them out of the cupboard every now and then and smile at who we were.


Sue ButlerComment