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The Australian National University

Wars

Military slang, as with the any kind of slang, has the function of uniting groups and defining their values. Since the Australian military is made up of many groups, each of these groups has its own special language, although there are overlaps in terminology between these Australian groups and worldwide military slang. Navy slang, especially, tends to be international (originally British) slang. Even so, some distinctively Australian Navy terms have been produced. They include: beagle ‘a steward’; boy scout’s leave ‘a brief shore-leave’; dimple ‘a hole in a ship’s hull caused by a torpedo’; drain the bilge ‘to be extremely seasick’; macaroon ‘a new rating’; molly ‘a malingerer’; squid ‘female trainee’. Air Force slang is also greatly influenced by British traditions, but there have been many Australian terms: blear ‘(when lost) fly about in search of a landmark’; blind stabbing ‘blind flying’; emu ‘member of the ground staff’; nest ‘an aerodrome (to which all the little aircraft fly home)’; wags ‘signallers’. Such language is generally known only to the members of the service or to groups within a particular service, and they are too specialised to include in the Australian Oxford Dictionary. The wider community very rarely has access to this language.

But it is the Army which carries the numbers, and it is the Army which has produced the bulk of the military slang which has found its way back into the wider Australian community. The large-scale nature of the First and Second World Wars suddenly threw together people from vastly different backgrounds, people who had no other reason than the fact of war itself for living together in extraordinarily close and intimate circumstances. In the introduction to his Digger Dialects (1919) W.H. Downing comments: ‘By the conditions of their service, and by the howling desolation of the battle-zones, our men were isolated during nearly the whole of the time they spent in theatres of war, from the ways, the thoughts and the speech of the world behind them’. Indeed, it seems that those involved in wars of this magnitude need a new language to adapt to their new situation, and to construct ways of coping with it. When Tom Skeyhill in ‘Soldier Songs from Anzac‘ (1915) wrote ‘We’ve forgotten all our manners / And our talk is full of slang’, he points to the linguistic inventiveness which was part of the wartime experience.

It is inevitable that most terms do not survive their wartime contexts, for the end of a war brings to an end the need for the existence of such terms. This is illustrated by the following terms from W.H. Downing’s Digger Dialects (most of them confirmed by the 1924 typescript ‘Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the AIF’ held at the Australian War Memorial, and available in edited form on the ANDC’s website) : Anzac button ‘a nail used in place of a trouser button’; Anzac soup ‘shell-hole water polluted by a corpse’; Anzac stew ‘an urn of hot water and one bacon rind’; belly-ache ‘a mortal wound’; boy-with-his-boots-off ‘a shell which bursts before the sound of its passage through the air is heard’; broken-doll ‘an inefficient staff-officer returned to his unit’; camouflaged Aussy ‘An Englishman serving with the AIF’; to go into cold storage ‘to be killed during the 1916 winter’; dugout king ‘an officer who remains at the bottom of a dugout, while his men are exposed to danger’; floating kidney ‘a soldier unattached to any unit, or without definite duties’; lance-corporal bacon ‘bacon consisting of fat through which runs a thin streak of lean’.

Yet while many terms have been lost, the First World War produced a number of major Australian cultural icons, especially the terms Anzac, digger, and Aussie. The term Anzac appears in 1915 as an acronym formed from the initial letters of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, originally used as a telegraphic code name for the corps. In the same year, it was used as an abbreviation for ‘Anzac Cove’ at Gallipoli, and then as a term for the ‘Gallipoli campaign’. In 1916 it was first used to refer to a member of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who served in the Gallipoli campaign. By the end of the war, the term was being used emblematically to reflect the traditional view of the virtues displayed by those who served in the Gallipoli campaign, especially as these virtues are seen as national characteristics. The term digger in the military sense is a transferred use of the meaning ‘a miner on the Australian goldfields’. Throughout the century it has retained the military associations established in the First World War (it was widely used during Second World War, and during the Vietnam War the Americans still knew the Australians as ‘diggers’). The term has also undergone a widening of meaning — in many contexts ‘digger’ and its abbreviated form ‘dig’ are used devoid of their military connotations (as a synonym for ‘cobber’ or ‘mate’). It was the First World War which produced the term Aussie for ‘Australia’, for an Australian soldier, and then more generally for ‘an Australian’ or ‘Australian’.

Many other common Australian terms had their origin in the First World War. The firm J Furphy and Sons Pty Ltd operated a foundry at Shepparton, Victoria, and water carts were included among their products. These water carts, bearing the name ‘Furphy’, were used in the First World War. Very quickly the term furphy came to mean ‘a rumour or false report, an absurd story’ — perhaps because drivers of the carts were notorious for bringing rumours into the camps, or because the conversations which took place around the cart were sources of gossip and rumour. The term oil in the sense ‘information, news’ (a transferred use of ‘oil’ as the substance essential to the running of a machine) and its compounds dinkum oil, straight oil, and good oil all gained wide currency as First World War Services’ slang. The term possie for ‘position of supposed advantage to the occupant; a place; a job’ is now so entrenched in Australian English that few realise it had its origin in trench warfare as the term for an individual soldier’s place of shelter or firing position. It is in First World War Australian military contexts that souvenir in the sense ‘to appropriate; to steal; to take as a souvenir’ first appears. The term plonk (probably a corruption of French blanc in vin blanc ‘white wine’) appears to have begun its Australian career during First World War. It is in First World War Australian military contexts that many Australian idioms are first recorded: his blood’s worth bottling, give it a burl, hop in for one’s chop, come a gutzer, rough as bags.

The Second World War was similarly productive of new terms. A writer in Army Magazine (June 1944) commented on the experience of soldiers in northern Australia and in the islands to the north of Australia: ‘thousands of Diggers complain humorously that they are “going troppo,” which means degenerating into mild imbecility through tropical conditions. When the war ends there won’t be so many to whom those conditions apply, but the man with a fishy gaze and sluggish limbs is almost certain to be for ever described as “troppo” ’. The writer was correct, and the term, especially in the phrase to go troppo, has found a permanent place in the Australian idiom. Australian words and idioms which have their origin in the Second World War, and which are listed in the body of the Australian Oxford Dictionary, include:

wouldn’t it
acre
(sense 4)
blot (sense 5)
blue (sense 6)
bronzed (Aussie)
don’t come the raw prawn
cruet
(sense 4)
doover
cut-lunch commando
fuzzy-wuzzy angel
game as a pissant
it’s on
(for young and old)
no-hoper
nong
shiny-arse
shoofty
retread
(sense 2)
spine-bash

Updated: 18 October 2010/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher