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Two Australian expressions

QFrom Peter Butler: There are two Australian phrases which I understand but have no idea how they came about: don’t come the raw prawn with me and don’t piss in my pocket. The first is used to mean don’t present an idea to me that is underdone or not thought out. The other is used in the context of don’t attempt to flatter me. How do you get from that to pissing in someone’s pocket? Can you advise if you have the origins of these phrases? And if not I wish you happy hunting.

A With the first of these, my principal feeling — being about as far away from its haunts as it’s possible to be on this planet — is that it would be good if everybody concerned agreed on what’s meant by coming the raw prawn. I’ve come across the definitions “to try to impose on someone, as though playing the innocent”, “an act of deception; an unfair action or circumstance, a raw deal”, “to try to deceive; to misrepresent a situation” and “to act resentfully or unpleasantly; to be rude”. (Your explanation isn’t mentioned; might you have misunderstood it?) These are all, I suspect, attempts to categorise a colloquial saying whose meaning shifts erratically and unconsciously according to the situation in which it’s used. The general idea may perhaps be best summed up as “don’t try to put one over on me”.

After that, don’t expect a definitive answer about its source. The best I can do is point to a progenitor, the slang term prawn for a fool, perhaps from the idea of a prawn being a stupid-looking marine animal. It’s known from the late nineteenth century.

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.

The Cornstalk: his Habits and Habitat, by Daniel Healey, Sydney, 1893.

The evidence suggests that the fuller expression was a product of service slang in World War Two, perhaps in part based on this usage. In May 1942 the Sunday Times of Perth listed it with other slang expressions then current among AIF servicemen in the Middle East. The earliest appearance I know of is in a publication called Any Complaints, published in Newcastle NSW in 1940. There may be a link with the “green” quality of raw prawns, suggesting greenhorn, but this doesn’t really fit the meaning. A more probable idea behind it was that the story the speaker was being told was as hard to swallow as an uncooked crustacean.

As to the second expression, I agree that to piss in somebody’s pocket is a strange way to curry favour or ingratiate yourself. It’s a modern Australianism, recorded from the 1960s, but a precursor — pissing down any one’s back — is recorded in the same sense in the 1811 enlarged edition of Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

The reason why it’s obscure is that its only half the expression. Don’t piss in my pocket is a shortened form of don’t piss in my pocket and tell me it’s raining. It means “don’t take me for a fool, don’t try to deceive me, don’t flatter me with your lies”.

Two other versions are known, don’t piss down my leg and tell me it’s raining and don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. The latter is remarkably similar to Grose’s version and it seems likely that that, too, was an abbreviation. All three, in full and abbreviated, are also known in the USA.

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Page created 28 Jan 2012