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The Australian National University

Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms

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

pav

Pavlova, a soft-centred meringue dessert topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit. It was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured Australia and New Zealand in 1926. Australians claim they invented the dessert, but New Zealanders also claim that they invented it. The abbreviation pav, at least, is Australian, and recorded from 1966.

pineapple: get the rough end of the pineapple

Get a raw deal, be treated badly—‘Sally got the sack? She really got the rough end of the pineapple!’ The force of the phrase derives partly from the fact that either end of a pineapple is ‘rough’, although the end with the prickly leaves is very rough indeed. The equivalent American saying is ‘to get the fuzzy end of the lollypop’. The expression was first recorded in the 1960s.

plonk

Wine. Now often used of cheap or poor quality wine, although Australian beer drinkers call any kind of wine plonk. This word had its origin with Australian soldiers in the First World War. They pronounced the French vin blanc, 'white wine', van blonk, and further transformed it into plonk. The Australian word has now spread to other Englishes. First recorded 1919.

pokies

Poker machines. Pokies are coin or card-operated. The punter presses a button or pulls a lever to spin the wheel, and the machine pays out, if you’re lucky, according to the combination of symbols that appear on the wheel. Known as ‘slot machines’ in the US, pokies are commonplace in Australian pubs and clubs, and a substantial revenue raiser.

pommy: dry as a pommy's towel

Extremely dry. This is a play on various meanings of the word ‘dry’. The phrase can refer to rainless weather or to an arid landscape, but it is most commonly used to mean ‘thirsty’, especially in expressing a desire for a drink of beer. The phrase derives from the stereotypical Australian view of the English as reluctant to wash, and belongs with other anti-English terms such as ‘whingeing pom’ and ‘full as a pommy’s complaint box’.

pork chop: carry on like a pork chop

To make a fuss, to behave in a silly or excited way. This is an elaboration of the standard phrase ‘to carry on’. The pork chop is an Australian addition, and some people suggest that the phrase derives from the fact that frying pork makes an especially loud spitting noise. The Australian phrase may have been influenced by the expression like a pork chop in a synagogue, meaning ‘out of place’ or ‘unpopular’.

possum: stir the possum

Deliberately cause controversy, especially in a public debate. The phrase was first recorded in 1900, but its origin is unknown. Some suggest it arose from a reversal of the American expression ‘to play possum’, which refers to the popular belief that the American possum feigns death when attacked. To ‘stir’ in Australian English is to deliberately cause trouble or tease someone.

prawn

The literal definition of prawn (a word which appears in the Middle English period, but whose origin is unknown) as an edible shellfish is obviously part of standard English.

It is, however, the figurative use of the word to describe 'a fool or someone deserving of contempt' that seems to be predominantly Australian. As early as 1893 it is used to described the hapless worker:

Well boys, the 'Worker' is a prawn - a fool for all his pains. He has the muscle and the brawn. The 'Fat Man' has the brains. D. Healey Cornstalk (1893).

It is used in this sense through the twentieth century:

1944 L. Glassop, We were Rats:What an odious prawn this Anderson is, I thought.

1977 C. McCullough, Thorn Birds: 'Jussy, this is Cardinal de Bricassart!.. Kiss his ring, quickly.' The blind-looking eyes flashed scorn. 'You're a real prawn about religion... Kissing a ring is unhygienic.

In 1940 we have our first evidence of the combination raw prawn. This combination means 'an act of deception; a "swiftie"; an unfair action or circumstance, a "raw deal"; something which is "difficult to swallow".' Typical usages include:

1940 Any Complaints (Newcastle) 4 April: Voice.. is invariably heard muttering something about a raw prawn.

1946 R.D. Rivett, Behind Bamboo: Raw prawn, something far-fetched, difficult to swallow, absurd.

1954 Queensland Guardian (Brisbane) 20 January: Snow says he thinks that this is the raw prawn. We do all the work, the mob behind Menzies gets all the dough.

1965 E. Lambert, Long White Night: Looking like a reprimanded schoolboy, he flushed and apologised: 'Sorry, Johnny. That was a bit like the raw prawn. Seriously, what's she like?'

In contemporary Australian English, however, the combination raw prawn is more likely to be heard in the idiom to come the raw prawn (on, over, with, etc.) meaning 'to attempt to deceive (a person); to misrepresent a situation'. The idiom is typically used in negative constructions - don't come the raw prawn with me. According to G.A. Wilkes, this expression originated in WW2 Services slang (A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms 1978) and indeed the Australian National Dictionary 's first citation for it is 1942:

They argue there for hours - They start at early morn; Till a loud disgusted voice drawls out, `don't come the old raw prawn'.  A.J. McIntyre, Putting over Burst

The following citations indicate how the idiom is typically used in Australian English:

1963 J. Wynnum, No Boats to Burn: `Don't come the raw prawn stunt with me,' the girl cried. 'That feller wouldn't shout his old woman a glass of water if she was dying of thirst out in the middle of the Nullabor!'

1973 Woman's Day (Sydney): `Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate,' he said. `I can get it back home at Woollies for that price.'

1983 Canberra Times 17 Nov.: Sceptical groans which were, if I translate them correctly, requests for Mr Hawke to stop coming the raw prawn.

public servant

A person employed by a government authority; a civil servant. This current meaning originated in the convict system. Unease about the term convict led to the creation of euphemistic terms, including government man (1797), assigned servant (1817), and public servant (1797). The convict public servant was assigned to public labour. By 1812 the term was used of any government worker.

Updated: 26 October 2014/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher