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Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms

This section contains a selection of Australian words, their meanings, and their etymologies.

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razoo

A non-existent coin of trivial value. Razoo, first recorded in 1919, is used in negative contexts only, especially as to not have a razoo, and to not have a brass razoo 'to have nothing; to be penniless'. The origin of the word is unknown, although it is perhaps a corruption of the French coin called a sou. The form brass razoo appears later in 1927. The brass of brass razoo is likely influenced by the standard English brass farthing, which is also used in negative contexts with a similar meaning (‘she hasn’t got a brass farthing’). For an earlier discussion of the possibility that the form brass razoo is a euphemism for arse razoo (from arse raspberry ‘a fart’) see the article ‘Brass Razoo: is it but a breath of wind?’ on page 6 of our Ozwords newsletter.

1965 R.H. Conquest Horses in Kitchen: My main worry was that when I did leave hospital… I wouldn’t have a razoo to my name.

2015 Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 14 April: I am trapped in limbo and have not earned a brass razoo in six months.

razor gang

A parliamentary committee established to examine ways of reducing public expenditure. The term razor gang derives from the name of a violent street gang in Sydney in 1927 who were armed with razors. The parliamentary sense may be a transfer from the 1960s British Railway slang (an extended use of the literal razor gang) ‘a team of investigators seeking ways of improving economy and productivity’. In Australia in 1981 razor gang became the popular term to refer to the Committee for Review of Commonwealth Functions, chaired by Treasurer Phillip Lynch, which was charged with cutting government spending. Today razor gang is used of any similar committee or organisation that seeks to drastically cut expenditure.

1981 Bulletin (Sydney) 5 May: Canberra reports said that Sir Phillip Lynch’s ‘Razor Gang’ had recommended an overall staff cut in the Federal public service of 2 percent.

2012 Gold Coast Bulletin 15 June: The Newman Government's razor gang has seized the $1.3 million that was allocated by the previous Labor government for the Burleigh police beat to plump up its Budget bottom line.

right: you right?

Often heard as a question from a salesperson to a customer, this is the Australian equivalent of the standard query are you being served? It may sound offhand to non-Australian ears, but although informal, it is not a sign of disrespect. It is a shortened form of are you all right? First recorded in 1974.

1985 Bulletin (Sydney) 16 July: Cedric Felspar .. was lost in thought in .. David Jones .. when a salesgirl crept upon him from behind and whined: ‘You right?’

2013 Age (Melbourne) 13 January: When sales assistants ask ‘Are you right?’, I have answered: ‘No, I'm left of centre.’ What's wrong with ‘May I help you’?

rogaining

A sporting event similar to orienteering, in which teams compete over a course that requires at least twelve hours to complete. The word rogaine probably derives from the first names of the founders of the sport: Ro(d), Gai(l), and Ne(il) Phillips. The earliest evidence of rogaining is found in 1979.

1982 N. & R. Phillips Rogaining: Rogaining is the sport of long distance cross-country navigation in which teams of two to five members visit as many checkpoints as possible in an allocated period. Teams travel entirely on foot, navigating by map and compass in terrain that varies from open farmland to thick, hilly forest. A central base camp provides hot meals throughout the event and teams may return there at any time to eat, rest or sleep.

2013 Milton-Ulladulla Times 25 June: Elleisha has also .. survived overnight bush rogaines, running through the bush at Kangaroo Valley as first aid officer for her team on a 24-hour trek.

rooned: we'll all be rooned

We will all be ruined. An expression of pessimism. Rooned is an Irish pronunciation of ‘ruined’, used in the refrain of the poem ‘Said Hanrahan’, published in 1921 by John O’Brien, the pen name of P.J. Hartigan. Hanrahan, a farmer, is a lugubrious and pessimistic doomsayer. Whatever the weather, he predicts disaster: ‘We’ll all be rooned,’ said Hanrahan, ‘before the year is out’. The expression is now used to mock pessimists, and is first recorded in the same year the poem was published.

1927 Gundagai Independent 1 August: There are plenty of Hanrahans about—‘We'll all be rooned’, they croon, ‘if rain don't come this month’.

2008 Canberra Times 26 January (Opinion Supplement): We may have become a nation in 1901 but in 107 years since we have gradually severed constitutional, legal and procedural links to the English crown and government apparatus. Each has been accompanied by cries of ‘We'll all be rooned!’

rort

To scam, misuse, or to treat fraudulently. This significant Australian word derives from wrought, an archaic past participle of the verb to work. Wrought means ‘worked into shape or condition’ and we see it today in the term wrought iron. Indeed the Australian rort is sometimes spelled wrought in early evidence (see the 1938 example below). The verb rort first appears in 1919.

1938 Argus (Melbourne) 26 March (Supplement): ‘Now me’, he went on, ‘I was edjicated in Woolloomooloo, in Sydney. That's were I learnt wroughting’. ‘But what is this wroughting?’ I asked. He wrinkled his forehead thoughtfully. ‘It's a bit ’ard to explain it’, he said. ‘What it really comes to is that you sells something that isn't no use, to people what doesn't want it, for good, ’ard cash.’

2006 Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 28 September: Carlton were found to have rorted the salary cap.

Rort is also used as a noun, meaning ‘a trick, a fraud, a dishonest practice’, and is first recorded in 1926. For a further discussion of the origin of rort, see our Word of the Month article.

1936 J. Devanny Sugar Heaven: The cockies are supposed to pay this retention money into the bank and we are supposed to draw interest on it but normally they don’t pay it in. They keep the use of it through the season and we draw the bare amount at the end of the cut. It’s the greatest rort ever.

2000 R. Hoser Taxi: Canberra, the public service capital of Australia, is without doubt the rort capital as well.

Updated: 23 September 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher