I recently read an article bemoaning the “decline” of Australian slang, pointing out that the latest edition of Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang has but a handful of new Australian entries. Thorne is quoted as saying that the ocker macho culture which spawned so much verbal creativity is now out of date, and a number of commentators quite rightly point out that the language of most contemporary Australians is closer to that of their British and especially American counterparts in terms of idiom.
While all this is true insofar as it goes, these commentators are largely looking in the wrong place for home-grown linguistic innovation. For a start, a number of the classic Aussie turns of phrase, the ones falling out of use that sound slightly quaint to most contemporary Aussie ears, are actually relics of forms brought to Australia by Irish and Cockney settlers, and not spontaneous innovations at all.
The evocative interjection Strewth, for instance, is a remnant of an early modern fashion that fell out of use in England. This fashion is found all through Shakespeare, with contractions like Zounds (from “God’s wounds”), Sblood (“God’s blood”), and even Slid (“God’s (eye)lid”). In British English these disappeared around the same time as the oath Marry (from “(by the virgin) Mary”), but they hung on in Australia, with Strewth (“God’s truth”) outlasting them all.
Many terms we think of as classically Australian, like tucker (food), came from British or Irish English. Quite a few are applications of Cockney rhyming slang, some of which are or were also found in London, some of which are Australian innovations on the Cockney “game”. This includes terms like butchers (“look”, from “butcher’s hook”) and Seppo (“Yank, American”, from “septic tank”).
The Cockney and Irish settlers were the colonial underclass. Their descendants are no longer generally marginalised, and as their status has risen, their linguistic behaviour has become that of the mainstream. As the cultural makeup of Australia changes, so will the provenance of new Australian words and phrases.
It is undoubtedly true that white working and middle class Australians are producing less slang than their forebears. The three traditional varieties of Australian English: Broad, Cultivated, and General, are converging. General Australian is hooked into Global English – its users communicate frequently with users of Standard American or British English.
By sheer weight of numbers, on the global English stage the Australian vernacular tends to be inundated by British and especially American English. But the traffic is not all one way. It seems some elements of Australian English have been exported to our more populous neighbours. No worries has become prevalent in the USA in the last decade, especially on the West Coast.
This article in the Daily Mail even seeks to blame Australian English for the prevalence of what is known as High Rising Terminal inflection, or upspeak (rising pitch at the end of a declarative sentence), saying that this trend among younger Brits is probably caused by Neighbours (it isn’t, and it never has been uniquely Australian).
But the middle class is not the place to be looking for linguistic innovation in the first place. The slang that we think of as typically British, or typically American, was by and large created by underclasses who were marginalised in some way. Much American slang, now making its way into other varieties of English including Australian English, originated with the riverboats of the Mississippi, and the trappers and prospectors of the West, not among the educated middle class in the cities.
If we look at some of the more marginalised groups in Australia, we can see a wealth of linguistic innovation and new phrases and even dialects of Australian English. Indigenous Australians have created varieties of English for use among their peers which are rich in innovation. These are slow to make their way into mainstream Australian English, but the word deadly meaning “excellent, strong” is now quite widely understood in Australia, and I have observed some more widespread use of yumob as a second person plural pronoun.
Urban youth in Sydney and Melbourne, originating with youth from Mediterranean backgrounds and later associated with hip-hop culture, have spawned a variety known among experts as New Australian English, or “Wogspeak”. This variety of Australian English was made famous by TV shows like Wogs Out of Work and Pizza. Wogspeak has given us a number of new Australian slang terms, including habib (“mate”, the Arabic for “darling”), stooge (“idiot”, an old word but re-cycled and brought into its own by this vernacular), skip for an Anglo-Celtic Australian (from “Skippy”, the bush kangaroo), and a brand new extension of Cockney-Aussie rhyming slang: chocco (“wog”, rhyming with “chocolate frog”).
Aussie slang seems to be alive and well, though it may not be the “macho ocker culture” that is its main producer any more.