Budgie smugglers and free traders

Andrew Marr’s Start the Week on Radio 4 yesterday was a wonderful distraction from the seemingly interminable talk of hung parliaments, coalition governments, proportional representation, progressive alliances, and political dealings of all shades.

Why? Because one of my favourite Australian phrases, Budgie Smugglers, popped up in a discussion with the legendary Australian poet Les Murray, who is in London to give the Poetry Society Annual Lecture – Infinite Anthology: Adventures in Lexiconia.

As the Urban Dictionary puts it, Budgie Smugglers describes: “Any item of male bathing costume or underwear that encloses the wearer’s genitalia in a manner that resembles the concealment of a budgerigar.”

Australia’s unique origins as a penal colony, its use of English dialect words (e.g. ‘dinkum’, a Midlands dialect word for ‘work’; ‘fair dinkum’ means a fair day’s work) together with the playfulness of Cockney and Irish English plus borrowings from Aboriginal culture (budgerigar, billabong) has created a distinct variety of English. For more on Australian English see the Wikipedia entry here.

Australians are direct, dislike authority and loathe anyone who looks like he might be ‘up himself’. And their language reflects this – it’s earthy, often pretty filthy but also funny.

I lived in Melbourne in the 1990s and was intrigued to discover words such as ‘dag’, ‘nong’ and ‘drongo’ (for idiot), to dob in (to betray), and dole bludger (someone too lazy to work). other words I came to enjoy included furphy (a rumour or false story), snag (sausage), sanger (sandwich), grog (alcohol) and bottle shop (off licence). I was also impressed with the different ways the word ‘mate’ could be used – from a warning to a friendly greeting. While I lived there, the Prime Minister at the time, Paul Keating, memorably referred to Australia as being located “at the arse end of the world”.

But back to Les Murray. As well as being Australia’s best-known poet, he works as a consultant to the Macquarie Dictionary, a job described on Start the Week as a “word catcher”. Just as Webster’s Dictionary in the US captures American English, the Macquarie Dictionary captures Australian usage.

According to The Age (Melbourne’s daily broadsheet):

The gig with the Macquarie – “an honest day’s work, pulling words out of word lists” – is the perfect job for a man who suffers from what he calls “verberation”, the state of having words running through your head all the time. And it gave him Infinite Anthology, a poem about definitions for the new book: “creators of single words or phrases are by far the largest class/of poets. Many ignore all other poetry.”

Les’s favourite Australian word apparently is ‘eight-hour day’. This stems from direct action by workers in Melbourne during the 1850s who demanded (and got) eight hours a day each for work, rest and play.

Other words he mentioned included: Pobbledonk (“a red-sided banjo frog with a resonant voice”), window licker (a voyeur), ranga (a redhead), papped (to be snapped by the papparazzi) and free traders (“split bloomers worn under voluminous skirts”) – which brings us inevitably but rather neatly back to underwear, although of a more ancient nature.

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