Did you ever have bread and duck under the table? What about a wing-wong for a goose’s bridle? Author and journalist Hugh Lunn harks back to the best sayings in the Aussie vernacular that have gone the way of the dodo.
Until I sat down to write a book on my 1950s childhood, I hadn’t realised that much of the language Australians once spoke to each other had disappeared. In less than half my lifetime.
Boys had once been drips, or dills, or dopes, or drongos, or sooks. Not nerds, or dorks, or geeks, or wimps, or wusses, as they have now become. A mobile was once a decoration you hung from the ceiling with a piece of string so that it blew around nicely in the breeze, while “mooning over a girl” was romantic, and an “outing” was something to look forward to: a family picnic.
To capture my parents as characters, I called them by their Christian names – Fred and Olive – something I never did in real life. More importantly, to bring out their individual personalities, I recreated the phrases they used.
Olive was remarkably easy-going, but, with four children under her feet while running Fred’s cake shop at Annerley Junction in Brisbane, she kept order by “going crook”. “Stop those shenanigans,” she would demand. “Have you kids got monkey glands? I’m going to read the riot act. Hughie, you’re in big strife!”
This was called “rousing on you”, and if you didn’t listen Olive would declare: “Are your ears on straight? You’ll taste my stick.” At school next day it was: “Mum blew me up last night” and every kid knew that you’d copped it.
Olive was a proud Queenslander from Nerang on the South Coast (now the Gold Coast) but Fred spoke in a different way because he was born in Eaglehawk, Victoria, and came out of an orphanage in Western Australia.
He wore a long white apron all the way to the ground while he cooked the pies, sausage rolls and Cornish pasties, plus lamingtons, Napoleon cake, sand cake, genoa cake, sultana cake, rock cakes, meringues, heart-shaped sponges “these’ll make some husbands easy to love tonight”, and of course rainbow cake. He explained to his two mystified sons that the apron was not there to protect his clothes: “it’s my Badge of Servitude”.
The shop was open seven days from early until almost midnight – “it keeps me from chasing the neighbour’s ducks” – so Fred rarely emerged from the hot kitchen. But every so often, he would hang his Badge of Servitude over a door knob and say “I’ve got to see a man about a dog”.
But every so often, he would hang his Badge of Servitude over a door knob and say “I’ve got to see a man about a dog”.
This was code for going up to the Junction Hotel for a beer. If Fred said “I’m off to see the wizard” we kids knew he was heading for the local barbershop to put a bet on with the SP Bookie on the Gee-Gees.
If Olive told him he couldn’t go – that we needed more butterfly cakes – Fred would sigh, “I’m under the thumb” and then call her “Dear Heart” or “Duck”.
If I got six cuts from the teacher at school or got bashed up by State School kids on the way home, Fred would offer no sympathy, just philosophy: “You’ll get all that sort of thing if you live long enough Hughie.”
Looking back, I could see that this language evolved from the world around us … so many of the sayings were about horses, cows or snakes. If one of us whinged that we couldn’t find something, Olive would surely say: “If it was a snake it would have bitten you by now” or “Use big eyes” or “Use your eyes instead of your mouth”. If one of the kids was brooding, Olive would retort: “We’ve got the sulky, now all we need is the horse.”
A cheeky customer who stood back to allow a woman customer out the door might say: “Ladies first … in case of snakes”.
Whereas after Fred had attended to a crabby customer, he would shake his head and say: “The only thing worse than a cow with a kind face is a horse with a sulky behind” or “That bloke, he could stare down a King Brown”.
If a woman pranced into the shop “all dolled up to the nines”, Olive would fold her apron to present a “clean front” and pin back her hair. Then she would lean over to me and say quietly: “What you see when you haven’t got a gun.” Or “You won’t read about her on jam tins.”
When a smarmy salesman finally left the shop, she would say “after talking to him, you need to eat a vegemite sandwich”.
In an era when women all wore a petticoat and men had a button-up fly instead of a zipper, a special language was needed. If a girl’s petticoat was hanging below her skirt her friend would lean over and say “It’s snowing down south”. Whereas if a boy forgot to do up a fly button at a dance, a mate would warn: “Have you won a medal?” Or “It’s one o’clock at the waterworks!”
When visitors knocked on the back door, Fred would yell out “Come in if you’re good looking” and then, as they came in he’d add “We thought you’d left the country”. And from Olive: “We’ve just been talking about you – nothing good of course.”
When visitors knocked on the back door, Fred would yell out “Come in if you’re good looking”.
With lots of inquisitive kids always about – “little pitchers have big ears” – the grown-ups would resort to their own secret language: “I believe Mrs Kerfoops has been seeing a lot of Old Hoojar”. “What’s a Hoojar, mum?” “A wing-wong for a goose’s bridle.”
If one of the relatives was being ignored at the dinner table she would, sure as eggs, exclaim: “Well excuse me for living! Am I a block of flats? It’s enough to put the chooks off laying.”
After my memoir was published, readers made contact from all over Australia to say their parents had spoken just like mine. So I wrote a book Lost for Words about our lost language. A Melbourne reader related this story: his wife had suffered a stroke and after 56 years of marriage was now in a nursing home. She had not spoken one word in 15 months during his twice-daily visits. Nor had she ever laughed.
“It was while reading Lost for Words to her that I got a wonderful surprise,” he said. “I was reading page 27 – mothers’ advice to daughters – when she began to laugh. I asked if her mother had ever said these things to the girls; still laughing she said ‘No’. To my amazement she then said ‘Barry’ – her brother’s name. Still laughing, and both of us with tears in our eyes, I reminded her how Barry was always in trouble. She then spoke one more word, ‘Yes’. I can’t express how delighted I was to get such a wonderful response.”
Such, such are the joys of hearing our lost Aussie lingo.
Hugh Lunn’s memoir Over the Top with Jim became Australia’s biggest-selling childhood memoir ever. Both Over the Top and Lost for Words were named in the “Fifty Books You Can’t Put Down” national project.