Woolly Birds and Hembegs – The Australian Dictionary

 A DICTIONARY IS BORN

Australia’s first lexographer, James Vaux

In 1812 the convict James Hardy Vaux  (pictured )  produced  what is credited as  being  the first Australian dictionary: A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language.  It  was essentially a  compilation of slang used by the ‘flash’ criminal element in the infant colony, much of it  a derivative of  London slang.  At the time Vaux, a   convicted  pickpocket and forger,  was serving time  at  the Newcastle penal colony, north of Sydney.  He dedicated his little book to the settlement’s  Commandant,  a man he  viewed as humane and  fair-minded;

‘I trust the Vocabulary will afford you some amusement from its novelty, and that  from the correctness of its definitions you may occasionally find it useful in your magisterial capacity.’

Here are some of the colourful  entries;

FORKS:  The two forefingers of a hand; to put your forks down is to pick a pocket.

MORNING SNEAK:  Going out early to rob private houses or shops by slipping in at the door unperceived, while  the servant or shopman is employed in cleaning the steps, windows etc.

NEEDY MIZZLER : A poor ragged object of either sex; a shabby looking person.

OLIVER : The Moon

OLIVER IS IN TOWN: A phrase signifying that the nights are moonlight , and consequently unfavourable to depredation. [theft]

SLOP-FEEDER: A teaspoon.

SQUEEZE: The neck.   [This must surely have derived from hanging!]

TINNY-HUNTERS: Persons whose practice it is to attend fires, for the purpose of plundering the unfortunate sufferers, under pretence of assisting them to remove their property.

UP IN THE STIRRUPS:  A man who is in swell street, that is having plenty of money, is said to be up in the stirrups.

My favourite entry is….

WOOLLY BIRDS:  Sheep.

A particularly ‘woolly’ bird

These must not be confused  with another, avian  species of woolly bird, which is nocturnal and better known as the tawny frogmouth.  Here are two baby ones:

Infant woolly birds.

 

In 1827 the  London Magazine called Vaux’s dictionary: ‘One of the most singular that ever issued from the press.’

OUR LINGO DOWN THE TRACK.

The same  could be said of another little  compilation  of Aussie expressions, published in Sydney  in 1965. It was written by the journalist A.A. Morrison  and based on the  broad  Australian accent.   As an example of this, Morrison  used the pen-name  Afferbeck Lauder, because he arranged his entries in alphabetical order.  Get it?  Similarly, the  title he chose was   Let’s Stalk Strine (Let’s talk Australian). Here are some more examples, with my own translations.

AIR FRIDGE :  As in,  The air fridge Strine   (The average Australian)

JEGODTA :   Actually a contraction of several words;  ‘Jegodta Mailben freeseter?’    (Did you go to Melbourne for Easter?)    ‘Nar, dingo’   (No, I didn’t go).

 Of course I  am  quite fluent in Strine  myself, though I hate to admit it.  My friend Errol in the UK insists I call him Irrol.  But even more  embarrassing  was my sister’s experience while holidaying in the US.  After introducing her husband  Wayne and  daughter Katey  to someone,   the names were repeated back to her as Wine and Kitey.  Oh dear!

Mind you, some people speak such thick Strine that even I, Strine born and bred, have difficulty understanding.  One day I was stopped in our village by an elderly couple asking for directions to the chemist.  I felt a hospice  might be more  appropriate when the woman  said;‘ We  only  came here  to die.’

I was  trying to think of an adequate response when  she added;

‘ Yers,  onnertrain. Wiffrum Pinrith’  [Penrith]   I can’t wait to  share this with  Irrol

There is now an emerging, post-modern version of Strine.  It’s my belief that it began in the western suburbs of  Sydney. A classic example can be found in the name of our homeland , which has evolved to  Straya.

Now here is a little test to see if you have begun to master Strine.  Please answer the  following two questions in the comment box below:  Born and bred Strines can  simply  respond to my blog in any way they choose…within reason!

Ware checketcha nise hembeg?

N’emmuch wassit?

 

 

 

16 Comments
  1. You think you’re the ant’s pants matey. It’s too early in Blighty for such hard yakka. I’ll be back this arvo and have another varda. Hooroo, Maddie xxx

  2. Where do you catch the next…could be handbag, but I dount that’s an Australian concept , so the nearest I can get is it must be some kind of transport. I should be fluent, as my sister is a ten pound pom living in Sydney since the seventies, I used to live near Rolf Harris in South London and I’m a fan of Dame Edna.

    I still remember the first time I tried to buy a train ticket in Sydney, though, and the string of words I heard in reply made me remind myself we spoke the same language.

    Good luck with your trip.

    • Pauline

      I hope it wasn’t a string of swear words Sheila! My mother once inadvertently tendered a penny instead of a ‘two bob piece’ (two shillings) when purchasing a train ticket in Tasmania. The fellow handed it back to her and said dryly; ‘It’s a bit bloody sunburned Madam’ Dear old Mum was still giggling about it thirty years on. Now that I think about it, where did the word ‘bob’ come from in this context?

  3. No, I’ve decided that it’s after all: ‘Where did you get your nice handbag?’

    Lol Of course they have handbags in Australia-silly me!

    • Pauline

      Yes, we do carry handbags if we are sheilas, Sheila, unlike Americans who carry purses. Our purses are usually small due to not having much money and therefore we carry them inside our handbags!

  4. Could also be a humbug! My grandfather always had a tin of humbugs in his little shed in the garden where he spent some of his time alone. Hmm…I haven’t had a humbug in ages. How much was it? That depends on whether it was a handbag or a humbug!:-)

    • Pauline
    • Diane, there is a word in the Philippine language : HUMBOG, which means a vain person who is full of themselves, which sort of vaguely relates to that Dickensian expression ‘What a lot of humbug’!
  • Ha ha ha, I thought it could be humbug at first Diane. x

  • The last two words look like, nice handbag, or nice humbug. Where did you catch a nice humbug? Maybe not. Where did you get such a nice handbag. That sounds a bit more like it. Yes, I think the latter matches the syllables.

  • Stick to royal circles if you can while you’re in the Uk. The Queen will have no problem with ‘hembeg’ because that’s royal speak for ‘handbag’.

    • Pauline

      Oh yes! I’ve heard her say it myself Sheila. I didn’t realize Strine could be posh! I wonder if Her Majesty would accept a copy of my book if I took it along to a Buckingham Palace garden party? There’s a lot in it about her great-great-grandma, Victoria, so she might.

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