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The Australian National University

Aussie English for Beginners

Aussie English for Beginners is a series of books published by the National Museum of Australia. The definitions and histories of words and phrases are provided by the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and the cartoons are by David Pope. The first two books in the series focused mainly on single words (such as bludger, dob, ocker, and swag), although there were some idioms (bring a plate, full as a goog, and don't come the raw prawn with me!). The third book focuses exclusively on idioms.

Because the meanings of English idioms are not self-evident, they can prove especially difficult for people who are learning English. And in Australia, not only do the new English speakers have to learn the idioms of international English, but they also have to learn our own unique Australian idioms. For example, there are some international idioms that describe madness or eccentricity-- mad as a hatter, mad as a march hare, and mad as a wet hen. But in Australia, we have many more. What would a non-Australian make of the idioms silly as wheel, silly as a chook, silly as a two-bob watch, to have kangaroos in the top paddock, as mad as a gum tree full of galahs, not the full quid and short of a sheet of bark ? Aussie English for Beginners Book 3 tries to make sense of some of the most common Australian idioms.

The process of the creation and loss of idioms is difficult to predict. Although the last trams ran on the Bondi line in Sydney in 1960 the idiom to shoot through like a Bondi tram has remained firmly part of Australian English. Some idioms, however, have become dated. For example, the idiom full up to dolly's wax means that you have eaten enough--it refers to the time before plastics were widely used, when children's dolls had wax heads attached to cloth bodies. Such dolls have disappeared, and the idiom has largely disappeared with them. I heard it from the man outside Hoyts is an idiom that was common in Australian English until the 1970s. It originally referred to the commissionaire outside a Hoyts picture theatre in Melbourne in the 1930s. He had the reputation for knowing everything that was going on, so if you heard something from the man outside Hoyts it had to be true! This idiom has almost entirely disappeared from Australian English, as has the Sydney idiom more hide than Jessie --a reference to Jessie the elephant (who died in 1939) of Taronga Park Zoo.

Is Australian English continuing to produce new idioms? We toyed with the idea of including the idiom straight to the poolroom, a favourite of Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) in the 1997 Australian movie The Castle. It is used to refer to something that is regarded as so special that it cannot be used, but must go on display--'Darl, this Chinese vase you've painted is beautiful--it's going straight to the poolroom'. We are not convinced, however, that the idiom will last. During the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City in 2002 Australian Steven Bradbury won a gold medal in the short track speed skating competition, when all the other skaters fell before the finish line. In the following months the phrase to do a Bradbury was widely used to describe someone who came from behind to be the unlikely winner of a contest. But the idiom has now almost entirely disappeared.

A number of the words explored in Aussie English for Beginners Books 1 and 2 came from Australian indigenous languages or from British dialects--both historically important sources for Australian words. But in this collection of idioms there are no indigenous words, and there are very few that have a dialect origin. What we find with idioms is a truly home-grown product. Some of the idioms carry the memory of important Australian historical figures (Dame Nellie Melba in do a Melba and Ned Kelly in such is life) or events (your blood's worth bottling comes from the First World War, whereas go troppo comes from the Second World War), but most of them are timeless expressions of quintessential Australian values and attitudes. The typical Australian is prepared to stir the possum if necessary, but is more content to live in a world characterised by no worries and she's apples. The same Australian has a strong sense of injustice-- fair suck of the sauce bottle-- and sympathy for anyone who gets the rough end of the pineapple. But there is no sympathy for those who have tickets on themselves, are as flash as a rat with a gold tooth, or who wouldn't work in an iron lung. And there is absolutely no sympathy for those who dare to take you for a fool--I didn't come down in the last shower or what do you think this is, bush week?

These and many more idioms are explained in Aussie English for Beginners Book 3 and delightfully illustrated with cartoons by David Pope.

[This is a revised version of Bruce Moore's introduction to the book. The cartoon illustrating a stubby short of a sixpack is also from the book.]


A stubby short of a six pack

Not very bright or clever, not quite 'with it'. This is an Australian variation of a common international idiom, typically represented by 'a sandwich short of a picnic'. It combines the Australian 'stubby' (a small squat 375 ml bottle of beer) with the borrowed American 'sixpack' (a pack of six cans of beer), demonstrating how readily Australian English naturalises Americanisms.

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Check out Aussie English for Beginners at the National Museum of Australia

Updated: 20 January 2012/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher