BLUDGER: noun, a person who lives off the efforts of others; a person who does not pay his fair share or who does not make a fair contribution to a cost, enterprise, etc., a cadger; an idler, one who makes little effort.
Our Aussie bludger is a form of bludgeoner, ‘a person who is armed with and doesn’t hesitate to use a bludgeon, a short stout club with one end loaded or thicker and heavier than the other’. The word bludgeoner appears in a mid-nineteenth century English slang dictionary as a term for ‘a low thief, who does not hesitate to use violence’. Thus in 1852 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine inveighs against ‘Those brutal bludgeoneers [who] go out in gangs’. The derivation of the Aussie bludger from the British bludgeoner is surprising since, by definition, a bludger is too lazy a person to lift even a finger, let alone a bludgeon.
By the latter part of the nineteenth century the term bludger was in use in Australia, although its meaning had narrowed somewhat. The bludger was no longer just a general thug but a thug who lived off the earnings of a prostitute in his keep and was not above a bit of bludgeoning on the side. In 1882 theSydney Slang Dictionary has this entry: ‘Bludgers, or Stick Slingers, plunderers in company with prostitutes’. C. Crowe, in his Australian Slang Dictionary (1895), defines a bludger as ‘a thief who will use his bludgeon and lives on the gains of immoral women’. In 1900 Truth (Sydney) fulminated: ‘This “shop” is not occupied by girls, but by “bludgers”,—the men who own the girls and live on their prostitution’. Truth again in 1901: ‘Girls of no more than 13 years of age smoked their cigarettes and mopped up booze as freely as their bludgers’ (23 June 3/1). And again in1905: ‘In Australia ... bludger means what in London and other large English cities is known as a ‘ponce’. ... In other words, it seems that the Australian bludger lives on the earnings of a prostitute’ (5 Feb. 1/1). A final glimpse at Truth in 1915: ‘To enter Australian politics, to abide there, and to succeed therein, a man must have the instincts of a loafer, the aptitudes of a pickpocket, the conscience of a whore, and the honor of a bludger’.
One can see the word bludger in the process of losing the violent connotation of bludgeoning and acquiring a more ‘laid back’ sense. After all, it wasn’t the bludgers who had to do all the hard work! For better or for worse, the sense of bludger as ‘pimp’ became obsolete by the 1960s.
From the early twentieth century the term bludger widened to a general term of abuse, with no pimp-specificity. Thus in 1906 Truth was able to sling off at the Salvos in this fashion: ‘Dancing, according to a Salvarmy bludger in Melbourne, is sinful and wicked. It is no sin for sour Salvarmy sallies to .. hug the officers, though’. This general abusive sense was especially applied to a shiftless person who seemed to live off the efforts of others (as a pimp lived off the earnings of a prostitute).
The sense of laziness associated with bludger occasioned the next shift: the term was used by blue-collar blokes (the ones who do all the manual work, the hard yakka) to derogate the ‘shiny bums’, the white-collar workers who sit on their arses all day doing bugger-all. This sense appeared as early as 1910, again in Truth: ‘Blackguard band of blatant, bumptious bummers and bludgers, who bum and bludge on Labor’. But its typical use is represented by this passage from D. Whitington’s Treasure Upon the Earth (1957): ‘“Bludgers” he dubbed them early, because in his language anyone who did not work with his hands at a laboring job was a bludger’. And in 1976 Dorothy Hewett has a shiny bum say: ‘The working class can kiss me arse I’ve found a bludger’s job at last’ (This Old Man Comes Rolling Home).
By the 1940s the term had widened to include any idler, not just a shiny bum. In the war newspaper Ack Ack News: the Monthly Magazine of the Anti-Aircraft Units (R.A.A. and R.A.E) in Victoria in 1942 the question is asked: ‘Who said our sappers are bludgers?’ The next shift is to a person ‘who does not make a fair contribution to a cost, enterprise etc.; a cadger’. In The Shiralee (1955) Darcy Niland pinpoints such a one: ‘Put the nips into me for tea and sugar and tobacco in his usual style. The biggest bludger in the country’. In 1971 J. O’Grady in Aussie Etiket gives us this admirably useful advice: ‘When it comes to your turn, return the “shout”. Otherwise the word will spread that you are a “bludger”, and there is no worse thing to be’.
The term dole bludger (i.e. ‘one who exploits the system of unemployment benefits by avoiding gainful employment and making do on the dole) made its first appearance in the Bulletin in 1976: ‘A genuine dole bludger, a particularly literate young man .. explained that he wasn’t bothering to look for work any more because he was sick and tired of being treated like a chattel’. In 1977 we have a citation indicating a reaction to the use of the term: 1977: Cattleman (Rockhampton): ‘Young people are being forced from their country homes because of a lack of work opportunities and the only response from these so-called political protectors is to label them as “dole bludgers”’ (June 16/3). A fair enough comment, given the penchant of some pollies and some political parties to use the term as a convenient bludgeon, or, at the least, to use it indiscriminately. 1979: ‘I, the undersigned, am a rotten dole bludger who is living on the hard-earned taxes of my fellow Australians’ (P. Adams, More Unspeakable Adams, p. 88).
Throughout the history of the word, most bludgers appear to have been male. The term bludgeress made a brief appearance in the first decade of this century—‘Latterly, bludgers, so the police say, are marrying bludgeresses’—but the term had the decency to cark it shortly thereafter.
The verb to bludge (on), a back formation from bludger, has existed from the turn of the century. The verb mirrors the various senses of the noun. There is a verbal noun and participial adjective dole bludging, but a verb to dole bludge has yet to make its presence felt.