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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.

widgie

In the 1950s in Australia a widgie was the female counterpart of a bodgie. The word (often spelt weegie in early occurrences) is of unknown origin.

In the Sydney Morning Herald 11 February 1955 there occurs an interesting description of the 1950s widgie:

Constable Waldon said: 'A widgie, as she is known to me, is generally dressed in a very tight blouse, mostly without sleeves, and generally with a deep, plunging front. The blouse closely conforms to the lines of the body. In addition, she usually has a form-fitting skirt, which is very tight, especially around the knees. The skirt flares out a little below the knees and generally has a split either at the side or at the rear to enable her to walk. A widgie wears a short-cropped haircut.' Judge Curlewis said the detective's description of a widgie was the best he had heard in a Court.

wigwam: a wigwam for a goose’s bridle

A snubbing reply to an unwanted question. It might be used to answer an inquisitive child who asks ‘What’s in the bag?’ The original English idiom was ‘a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle’. ‘Whim-wham’ meaning ‘an ornament’ disappeared from the language in the nineteenth century and survived only in this phrase. In Australia the meaningless ‘whim-wham’ was altered to the more familiar ‘wigwam’, and sometimes to ‘wing-wong’.

wobbly: chuck a wobbly

Lose your temper, have a tantrum, as when one federal parliamentarian admonished another in the Senate, ‘Stop chucking a wobbly, Senator. Behave yourself.’ It is a variation on the earlier phrase ‘throw a fit’. ‘Chuck’, in the sense of ‘throw’ or ‘stage’, is used in other Australian expressions with the same meaning, such as ‘chuck a mental’ and ‘chuck a mickey’.

wog

A minor illness such as a cold, a ‘bug’. This is not the offensive word wog used in Australia to mean a migrant from southern Europe, and in Britain to mean a non-white migrant. This Australian wog originally meant ‘a nasty insect or bug’, and then came to mean a minor illness.  First recorded in this sense 1941.

wowser

The term wowser - surely one of the most impressive and expressive of Australian coinages - is used to express healthy contempt for those who attempt to force their own morality on everyone. The person who abstains from alcohol (for whatever reason) is not thereby a wowser: s/he's just probably very fit. But when s/he tries to force everyone else to do as s/he does, then s/he is a wowser. Or as C.J. Dennis defines the term: 'Wowser: an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder'.

The term originally meant `A person who is obnoxious or annoying to the community or who is in some way disruptive' and was applied, for example, to prostitutes and public drunks. Feminists and equal opportunists got the `wowser' guernsey too: Truth (Sydney) (1902): 'Another of his whims or freaks was to promise a number of wowsers of the `wild woman' type (to use a term coined by Mrs Lynn Linton) that he would supplant men in the Public Service with women'. These `wild women' wowsers were seen as on a par with `the warrigal wowsers of Waine' whom Truth (1904) castigates as `lewd larrikin louts'.

The shift to the present sense of wowser (to wit, a mealy-mouthed hypocrite, a pious prude, one who condemns or seeks to curtail the pleasures of others or who works to have his or her own rigid morality enforced on all) occurs at the turn of the century. The earliest citation for this sense in The Australian National Dictionary is 1900. In 1903 Truth bugles again: 'He ridicules the mournful croakings of the wasted wowsers who denounce every earthly pleasure as sinful'. Truth, in fact, is rich in anti-wowser invective: (1904) 'The watery wowsers who wouldn't be seen sipping a nobbler in a public house, but who swig good stiff inches from the big black bottle on the bedroom shelf'; (1904) WHITE-EYED WOWSERS simulating sanctity... whose whole life is one pious yelp against the ordinary joys of common humanity'; (1906) 'Those pious, Puritanical, pragmatical, pulpit-pounding self-pursuers whom we call wowsers'; (1911) 'Moliere's Tartuffe was a Roman Catholic French wowser'; (1912) '...the denunciation of Sunday golf and every kind of rational Sunday recreation - except that of putting 'tray-bits' in the Sabbath plate - which it is the wowser's recreation to count up in the vestry afterwards'; (1914) 'Governor Strickland was asked recently for his definition of the new word "wowser". The Governor said it was generally defined as a man who objected to three inches of an open-worked stocking, but sweated his employees'; (1915) 'The wowsers enjoy the whine of life'; (1916) 'Because of the howls of the wowsers, the venereal diseases are just those that are most carefully concealed....'; (1916) 'The Wowser is invariably a member of the exploiting class or one of his professional, clerical, or other hangers-on'.

In fact, by 1911, the word would seem to have been firmly established: RTH (1911): 'And what writer now would consider it necessary to use the inverted commas for such robust and satisfactory slang as wowsers...?'

From elsewhere: Aussie: the cheerful monthly (Sydney, 1922): 'Wowsers and gloom-merchants are always saying that we spend too much of our time in sport'; Surf: All about It (1930): Yet even today, the act of jumping into the Pacific with as little as possible on the body is regarded with gloomy suspicion by the wowsers ; Bulletin (Sydney, 1975): 'But members of this odd body of wowsers want the right to force their opinions on to others'.

The noun wowser gave rise to the adjective wowser and to coinages such as wowseress, wowserette, wowserine (all three mercifully defunct), wowserdom, wowserish, wowserism (all three probably still alive and kicking): Truth (1916) 'Unless people get their backs up and fight this religious monster... this will be the most wowser-ridden land on this old planet of ours'; L. Mann The Go-Getter (1942): 'A few years ago the age [of consent] was seventeen, but some old women got a wowser government to increase the age'; Alan John Marshall & R. Drysdale Journey among men (1962): 'Now we are at the gateway of the wowser belt. A wowser is a gentleman who uses a contraceptive as a book-mark for his Bible. Adelaide... and Melbourne are traditionally the wowser cities.... both have a reputation for the repression of any books that may... excite the disapproval of the small, but vociferous wowser groups that flourish there'; Sydney Morning Herald (1976): Mr [Fred] Nile does not see the Festival of Light as a puritanical neo-wowser movement; Age (Melbourne, 1983): 'Coming hard on the heels of the casino inquiry, which also recommended in the negative, the Government's decision on poker machines may give it a puritanical or wowserish image'; Truth (1912): 'That spirit of meddlesomeness and prying prudery that Australians call Wowserism'; Canberra Times (1984): 'The liquor poll is a curious survivor from the turn-of-the-century days when the country was in the grip of wowserism'. I wonder what the wowserism-quotient is in 1997.

Best of all, the noun wowser gave birth to the rich and wonderful verb to wowse: Truth (1909) '... on tea the croud carouses, and the whiskered wowser wowses, And old women garbed in trousers interject their deep "Ah-mens"'; Bulletin (1968) 'But, to be precise about wowsers and wowsing... a wowser was not necessarily a teetotaller, it was not meant to describe the man who led a good and pure life, but the kill-joy, the professional moaner about everything that made life pleasant'; National Times (Sydney, 1983) 'You bunch of wowsing do-gooders....'

The origin of our wonderful Aussie wowser is uncertain. John Norton, the editor of Truth, claimed to have invented the word. He used it in a headline in 1899, and later said: I invented the word myself. I was the first man publicly to use the word. I first gave it public utterance in the [Sydney] City Council, when I applied it to Alderman Waterhouse, whom I referred to as... the white, woolly, weary, watery, word-wasting wowser from Waverley. 'When I [first] used [the word],' said Norton in the Supreme Court of Victoria, 'I did not know what it meant. I had to find a definition afterwards' (Truth 1914). 'Asked [in the Supreme Court] to define the word "wowser," Mr. Norton said it had been defined by Cardinal Moran [of Sydney], thus showing that the word was already a guest in the halls of the Princes of the Church, [although] we others know, by common knowledge, that the word "wowser" is in common use in less exalted and less holy places'. ' A wowser,' continues this article in Truth, 'is - A pernickety kind of person, always objecting to everybody else who does not agree with him; he will interfere with the pleasures and enjoyments of others; thinks that he alone has the right conception of right conduct, and a monopoly of the narrow way to paradise....' [ibid.]

Truth comments on Norton's definition: 'That is Mr. Norton's definition of a "wowser" in the "cold, chaste, white light" of intellectual effort. When, however, the blood is tingling... the light is of a different color.... The creation of a word like "wowser" requires a flash of genius, and in that Promethean flash a large amount of unconscious cerebration is in activity.... The spirit of Mr. Norton's definition of "wowser" leads the writer to the conclusion that the nidus of the word "wowser" may be found in the vicinity of the word "puppy" as applied to human beings. In that sense, the definition of the word "puppy" is given as meaning "conceit and self-sufficiency," which, in a concrete sense, goes some part of the way to translating the objective of the word "wowser". A "dog baying at the moon," as an illustration, is too virile to be used as a suitable allegorical cartoon of a wowser baying at the good things of life, that he is too pernickety to enjoy himself, and too mean in spirit to let others enjoy without cavilling at them. But when we debase the "bark" of the "honest watchdog" into the "...wow, wow" of the "self-sufficient" puppy, we are treading close on the track of Mr. Norton's mental flash, that has so happily added to the descriptive treasures... of our mother tongue' [ibid.].

It is curiously tempting to accept the Norton provenance of wowser: it would be wonderful if it were true. Less credible provenances abound. One theory has it that the word 'wowser' comes from the initials of a slogan (a self-justifying wowser one?): We Only Want Social Evils Righted. Another theory is mentioned in passing by Bill Hornadge: 'Yet another version has it that it came into being in the 1870s in Clunes (Victoria) where hot-gospellers became known as "Rousers". This version has it that a member of the Town Council who had difficulty pronouncing his rs had referred at a public meeting to "Wowsers" - and the name stuck.' These two theories sound a bit All-my-eye-and-Betty-Martinish to me. However, there is a British dialectal word to wow meaning `to mew as a cat, howl or bark as a dog, wail, to whine, grumble, complain', and it is possible that this is the true origin of the word. Whatever its origin, wowser is one of our most successful Ozwords. It has even been exported successfully to the UK and the US and has been happily naturalised there for decades.

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