Q From Peter McCarthy, Australia: A common Australian euphemism for vomit is chunder, as you undoubtedly know. Is the derivation watch under? This was supposedly shouted out by upper-deck passengers on emigrant ships, before vomiting over the rails to the peril of those below. As an explanation, it sounds a bit too cute. And how long has the word been around? I don’t remember it at all prior to its use in the Barry McKenzie comic strip by Barry Humphries in the 1960s. Perhaps we Australians are the victims of another Humphries practical joke?
A Barry Humphries certainly popularised chunder, but be reassured that he didn’t invent it. The first recorded use is actually in the 1950 novel A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute. Mr Humphries himself mentioned the “watch under” story in an article in the Times Literary Supplement in 1965. He believed it, but — like you — I treat it with the very greatest suspicion, as it sounds like a classic bit of folk etymology.
The writer of the TLS article recorded that he remembered it as being common in the mid 1950s in “Victoria’s more expensive public schools”. Others have suggested that it was actually World War Two military slang.
But the most common explanation is persuasive, though it is a little tentative because it is based on anecdotal associations rather than hard evidence. It is said that it comes from a series of advertisements for Blyth and Platt’s Cobra boot polish. These appeared in the Bulletin newspaper in Sydney from 1909 on, originally drawn by the well-known Australian artist Norman Lindsay. The ads featured a character named Chunder Loo of Akim Foo and were popular enough that Norman’s brother, Lionel Lindsay, wrote and illustrated The Adventures of Chunder Loo for Blyth and Platt in 1916. The character’s name became a nickname in World War One (sometimes abbreviated to Chunder), which is where the idea of a military link may have originated.
It’s suggested that the term is rhyming slang (Chunder Loo = spew) and that it was first taken up as public school slang. It moved into surfing slang in the 1960s, which was where Barry Humphries seems to have found it. Because he used it in his Barry McKenzie strip in Private Eye (along with inventions like “point Percy at the porcelain” and “technicolor yawn”), the word became widely known in Britain almost before it did so in Australia.