STUNNED MULLETS AND TWO-POT SCREAMERS
The title will be unfamiliar, because in the current fashion it is a catchpenny borrowing of two of the more outré entries featured within it to attract the attention of bookshop browsers. It’s actually the new fifth edition of Gerald Wilkes’s well-known Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms.
Australian English, as Professor Wilkes notes in his introduction, has been influenced by the cant and slang of criminal transportees, by the dialect of immigrants’ home areas, and through contact with many Aboriginal languages. If you add to that a characteristically sardonic sense of humour and an enviable ability to turn a phrase in a moment, you have a colloquial language unlike any other.
Those last two abilities are combined in the ability endlessly to riff on some theme. If Australians want to indicate that someone is incompetent, they might say that he couldn’t find a grand piano in a one-roomed house, blow the froth off a glass of beer, knock the skin off a rice pudding, tell the time if the town hall clock fell on top of him or train a choko vine over a country dunny (a dunny is a toilet, from a Scots word meaning “dung”). They might indicate something is totally useless by comparing it to an ashtray on a motorbike or a glass door on a dunny. They might suggest some person has limited mental abilities by saying that he wasn’t the full quid (still around long after the dollar became the currency), a few flagstones short of a patio, a paling short of a fence, or a chop short of a barbecue.
This edition is as up-to-the-minute as publishing schedules allow, with many examples from recent years. Some 300 new entries have been added and 900 existing ones updated. Among the new ones are alert but not alarmed, the message on a card that gave advice on safeguarding against terrorism issued by the Australian government after 9/11 and which has become something of a catchphrase (as it had a magnet to attach it to a fridge door, the card became known as the fridge magnet). Lollybag is new, a recent alternative to budgie smugglers for over-tight male swimwear; the noun phrase lunch cutter is from the verb to cut somebody’s lunch, to betray a friend, especially by having sex with his wife. To the list of Australianisms formed by adding -o to a truncated word (such as smoko, a break from work for a smoke and something to eat, arvo for afternoon, ambo for ambulance man, servo for a service station, dermo for dermatologist, Salvo for Salvation army officer and gyno for gynaecologist) is added reno, the renovation of a home. Among the recent Australian terms to have been imported to the UK is dog whistle politics, for comments on a political issue that contain a hidden message to attract a different group of voters. Australians have escaped the cultural cringe only to have fallen prey to the black armband, a guilty or apologetic attitude to their past; they may alternatively put on a white blindfold to deny such a view.
To be the two-pot screamer of the title, by the way, means that you’re very susceptible to alcohol; it might lead to your being like a stunned mullet (in which a mullet is not the deeply unfashionable and much-mocked hairstyle, but a fish), to be so dazed as to be almost unconscious.
[Wilkes, G A, Stunned Mullets and Two-pot Screamers: A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms; paperback, pp412; Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand; 1 May 2008; ISBN-13: 978-0-19-556316-0; list price AUS$45.00.]