[Editor: An article about the slang of Australian soldiers from World War One. Published in The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 9 March 1919.]
“Digger yabber” described
The lingo the Aussie talks
A glossary of the comprehensive kind
(For “The Sunday Times,” by “Lieutenant.”)
He is coming back in his hundreds and his thousands, and amongst the many changes and marks that war’s rough hand has left upon him you will find that his speech has changed into a weird and wonderful thing. God knows it was strange jargon enough when he left for the Great Adventure, but now it has developed into a glorious mixture of words from half the tongues of the globe, for the digger with his quick ear and eye for effect is not slow to pick up tit-bits from the languages of whatever countries he calls at, and since 1914 he has called at many.
His pronunciation is, of course, the same as of yore, and the foundation is Aussie talk the same as the “Sentimental Bloke” gives us, but on top of that he has piled a fantastic superstructure. He still drops his aitches or most of them and he’s still ready to give you a good-sized thrashing if you dare whisper the outrageous suggestion in his ear, but he very rarely does what the Cockneys do, put in superfluous aitches, nor does he usually drop the aitch when it follows a vowel. For instance, he might say “a bloomin’ ’op-over,” but he would not say “a ’op-over;” in that case he would say it properly, “a hop-over.” Under the stress and strain of emotion of indignation he will sometimes surprise you by flopping into really correct and faultless English, spoken as it ought to be spoken; all the aitches lined up as on parade, each one in its proper place and the slang carefully excluded. Such outbursts are very rare and of short duration, but I remember one night we were in the support line and due to go up to the front line and take over that night. A fatigue party had been detailed to bring up the Mill’s grenades, etc., and at the last moment it was discovered that “someone had blundered,” with the result that something vital, fuses or something of that sort, had been left behind. One of the diggers was accused of being the guilty party and he was deeply indignant. “I tell you,” said he with solemn energy, “it was through no fault of mine that they were left behind, so help me God.” Such unusual clarity of speech was not only surprising, it was embarrassing, and when he presently followed it up with a flow of really well-done blasphemy I, for one, was distinctly relieved, and so, I think, was the corporal. It’s not natural to hear a digger talk like that.
His yabber has developed side by side with himself, and just as he had certain definite stages of development, so also has his lingo. He began as No. Umpty Something, Private So-and-so. Soon he became Jack or Bill or Jim to his mates. Then he grew into a Billjim, and next the world knew him as an Anzac. He began to call his mates “cobbers,” and proper names like Dick, Tom and Harry disappeared to be replaced by more or less descriptive terms like Snowy, Darky, Slogger, Tiny or Titch (usually a giant), Bluey, Shorty and so on. The Blighty people soon cut the cumbrous “Australian” down to “Aussie,” and thus conferred yet one more baptismal name; finally he emerged as “digger,” and it seems to have come to stay.
His first habitat was Egypt, and we all know how he chafed and fretted in the shadow of the pyramids fearful that the scrap would be over before he got his chance. As a result of his enforced residence in the land of the ancients we find his speech as fleckled with Arabic as a stormy sea is splattered with foam. Buckshee (gratis), imshi (be off), bint (girl), walled (boy), sieeda (good-morning), aouyah (yes), lah (no), kata karac (thank you), higgery (hurry), tolla-hena (come here), magoon (mad), nahadra (to-day) and buckra (to-morrow) are a few of the commonest words that we are all likely to hear fairly frequently. And he uses many more, such as marleesh (it can’t be helped), mafeesh (no more), taiyib (that’s all right), and stanna swire (wait a minute), but as a rule it’s only the 1914 men or those who were on the Palestine front who use many of these Arabic words, although many of the later reinstouchments have picked them up from the older birds. While in Egypt the digger also picked up a few words of Greek. Sometimes you’ll hear him complain that someone has cleftied (stolen) something, or remarking that so-and-so has gone marto (mad). These Arabic and Greek words are here spelt as the digger pronounces them, and not as they are supposed to be spoken. Another favorite phrase which comes from Egypt is “Mr. MacKenzie,” the Arabs being in the habit of addressing all Europeans indiscriminately as “Mr. MacKenzie.” The digger naturally adopted it.
On Gallipoli he came into touch with Indian troops to a certain extent, so we find him using a few words of Hindustani, as when he says, “let me have a dekko (look),” or “throw over the rooti (bread).” Apropos the latter word he shows his keen sense for fact when he calls the long service medal, the “roota” medal, indicating that the recipient has been eating government bread for twenty-one years.
Your good fighter is usually an equally good lover, so it’s not surprising that when the digger pushed on to France as the next stage in his circuitous march to Berlin, the words to which he took most promptly were of the “prominad-tray-bong” variety. Next to them in popularity come words connected with food and drink and the obtaining of the same. “Estaminet” he often calls the “wait-a-minute,” although I once heard it called the “estimate,” burdybang is his way of saying “bur et pain” (bread and butter), and “tout de suite” (as quickly as possible) he first converted into “toot sweet,” which developed into “at the toot,” and now when he wants anything in a hurry he orders “at the toot and the tooter the sweeter.” Thus words in the hands of an artist flourish and spread like the green bay tree. “Comment allez vous” (how are you), he decided would sound better as “Come on, tallow candle,” or “Come on, Tel-el-Kebir,” and “Ca n’fait rien” (it can’t be helped), which sounded to him like “san fairy ann,” he turned into “san Mary Ann.” “Chat” is digger for lice, so he calls a “chateau” a chathouse, and so once more weds wit to truth. Expressions like tray bon, no bon, parley voo, napoo, aprey voo, etc., need no mention. They have evidently come to stay; in fact “tray bon” has almost ousted the once popular “bon-lingo”.
Finally regarding words picked up from other countries we find him occasionally surprising us with Yankee expressions, such as “I’ll beat it while the goin’s good,” and he often uses the word “some” in the same way that the Sammies do: “Say, kid, I reckon she wus some little bint, beleeve meh.” He hasn’t condescended to accept any colloquial contributions from Germany worth speaking about, the only two words I can recollect being “zwei (two),” pronounced “swi,” and “strafe.” He has grown to regard anything coming out of Boschland as questionable to say the very least, and extends his veto even to their lingo.
As for the common or everyday expressions which he uses, and which are either home-made or of unknown origin, they would fill a book if collected. Almost everything he meets he labels as his light and fickle fancy dictates, although if one examines his apparently aimless names for things it is surprising how he can make the shoe to fit the foot. Arabs are Gyppos; Turks, Jackos, French, Froggies; and Tommies he calls chooms. Germans are usually referred to as Fritzies, Jerries or swine; more often the latter or another term a little too strong for these respectable pages. Girls he refers to as tabbies, tabs, tarts, janes, pushers or bints; “tarting” means courting. Teeth are called tats, the doctor is the quack, a spruiker is a hot-air merchant, breeches are strides, and a restaurant is a hash-foundry. The glad-eye is known as the joyful optic or the dinky di, but if he says his cobber is dinky di he is bestowing one of his highest forms of praise, and he means that his mate is a king of the dinkums. The absolutely highest praise he can bestow on anyone is to say of them, “’E’s by ’imself,” “I’ll pay him,” or “’E’s a winner,” and another very favorite expression is “He’ll do me, dig.” He does not usually say “I’ll go for a walk,” instead it is often “a route march,” a “promenade,” or a “prom.” Matches are strikes, cigarettes are smokes, a dingbat is his description of a batman or officer’s servant, and an asylum is known as the rat-house or the giggle-house. Chats, as already mentioned, are lice, so to be chatty is to be lousy, and that’s what he means when he sings to the tune of “Way down in Tennessee.”
“I’m so chatty, oh, so chatty,
Don’t you envy me.”
An Australian who is on Headquarters’ work in London he dubs a “Strandzac,” or a “tailor-made Australian.” The frozen stare is the opposite of the glad-eye; a bad deal is a “rough spin,” and a “box-on” is a fight, therefore to box-on means to fight on, or carry on. He rarely ever says that a cobber has been killed, it’s always “’E’s gone west,” or “’E’s chucked a seven.” The latter expression originates from the game of “hazard” in which, if you throw a seven, you are out of the game.
If he fails in anything he calls it “coming a skinner,” and instead of saying “Well, I’ll be damned” as of yore, he now explodes forth with “I’ll go hoppin’ to hell on one leg.” If things are going wrong he opines that “the luck wus dead stiff,” or “it’s no bon for the troops,” and at such times he indulges in a rather amusing sort of ceremonial philosophy. The digger, who has suffered the misfortune or whatever it is, will remark pensively and very emphatically, “When yeh’re in, yeh’re in, dig.,” and his sympathetic cobber will invariably reply, “And when yeh’re out, yeh’re out.” When he’s disheartened he reckons that he is “well and truly down to it,” or he will remark morosely, “I’m the last card in the pack.”
When he pulls himself together he says he “took a strong jerry to himself.” If someone makes a fool of himself the digger describes him as “gone to the wide,” or “gone to the races,” and furthermore he does not waste time telling the foolish one to stop acting the goat, he simply makes the acrid and fitting remark, “Better see the Quartermaster, there’s an issue of horns waiting for you.” Another very effective way he has of quelling the troublesome one is to tap the head while saying very solemnly, “Anzac noises,” “There’s nobody home,” or “Apartments to let.” When he sizes you up he puts it that he has “Tickled you off.”
“Wind,” or “Windy” has become very popular. To say that so-and-so has the wind up means that they are nervous, and sometimes it is said “he’s as draughty as a London Tube.” The word “rough” has also grown very familiar; “rough as bags,” or “rough as goats’ knees” is often heard when he is describing someone who falls short of his standard. The phrase “bit of a rough,” which seems to have no meaning in particular, is always in his mouth: “I’ll have a bit of a rough wash, cobber,” or “Say, Shorty, wot about a bit of a rough prom.?”
Many of his words are of military origin. He will say, “Wot about ’avin’ a bit of a rough ’op-over to-night?” which means a beer-up, and “putting down a heavy barrage” means lowering a lot of booze. A “dud” or a “washout” is a failure. To come before the C.O. is termed “on the mat,” and if he gets two days C.B. (confined to barracks) he calls it “twice round the clock,” but if he gets detention he describes it as the clink, the peter, the log or the jug. The M.P.’s (military police) he dearly hates and he has christened them Jacks, Redcaps, Rosellas, or Mother’s Pets. To “crash” or “slip” or “come a gutser” means to fail in an attempt. If he is A.W.L. (absent without leave) he says he “slung an absence.” A field-gun is a “pip-squeak,” and the shell is a “whizz-bang.”
His nomenclature for coins is confusing at first. For instance:— A penny is a brown; threepence a tray, tizzle, or a ticky; sixpence, a kick, a break, or a zack; a shilling, a diener, a wing, or a John Dillon; half-a-crown, half a dollar or half a caser; dollar, an Oxford scholar; ten shillings, half a Jim; pound, a Bradbury; fiver, a spinnaker. A glass of beer is a pot, a wet, a booze, or a wallop; a glass of spirits a wad or a spot. Having a drink is expressed as “stopping a pot from going bad,” or “blowing the froth off a pot;” but it is needless to say that he does more than blow the froth off it. Gin is known as mother’s ruin; rum as Tom Thumb or chain lightning. The letters S.R.D. (Service Rum Department) on the army rum jars he interprets as “seldom reaches destination.”
Some of his figures of speech and similes while not exactly part of his yabber are so characteristic and in many cases so humorous that any account of digger talk that did not include some specimens would be necessarily incomplete. “Dry as a lime-burner’s boot,” “leary as a loaf of bread and twice as crummy,” “you know as much about it as a pig does about ironing shirts,” “as long as a wet week,” are random specimens of his flowers of speech. He will say, if disparaging someone, “He couldn’t beat a carpet,” or a drum, or “an egg without a patent whisk.” If he wants to emphasise someone’s habitual ill-luck, he will remark, “Poor cow! If he bought ducks they’d drown;” or “If he threw up a five-pound note it would come down a summons.” But the one thing that seems to rouse his powers of scornful comparison is meanness. He can’t stand that at any price, nor can he bear a cobber who is disobliging. I once heard a disgusted batman, who had vainly been trying to wrangle something from an obdurate quartermaster, remark to his officer: “Him, sir! He wouldn’t tell yeh the time — not if he had six watches. He’d tell you to look at the town ’all clock,” and the following, meant to show his contempt for a stingy or crusty person, are good and typical specimens of his wit:—
“If ’e owned the west uv France ’e wouldn’t give yeh a ’op-over.”
“’E wouldn’t give yeh good advice.”
“’E wouldn’t give yeh a push in the river if you wanted to commit suicide.”
“If ’is mother was dyin’ for a drink ’e wouldn’t show ’er a short-cut to the canteen.”
He has an equally caustic way of commenting on anyone whom he considers too exacting, or those whose fingers are apt to stray towards other people’s property:—
“’Im! ’E’d take the bird-seed from a cuckoo clock!”
“’E’d take the milk out uv yer tea.”
“’E’d take a worm from a blind hen.”
“’E’d take the fillin’s out uv yer teeth without disturbin’ yer conversation.”
Finally, as an instance of his figurative way of stating things, I once heard an exasperated digger sing out to another who had been annoying him: “I’ll ’op yeh out some of these days an’ surround yeh with such a bleedin’ maze uv uppercuts that yeh’ll be in a trance fer the rest uv yeh days!”
The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 9 March 1919, p. 7
acting the goat = behaving in a foolish or silly manner
Anzac = a member of the Australian armed forces, particularly soldiers (may also be used to refer to Australians in general); derives from the acronym of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), which fought in World War One
apropos = (French) à propos, literally “to purpose” (i.e. with regard to the purpose); pertinent, relevant; opportune, fitting, at the right time; with reference to, with respect to, with regard to the present topic
Billjim = (also spelt “Bill-Jim”) being a combination of the common first names “Bill” and “Jim”, “Bill-Jim” was used in Australia from the late 1800s to refer to Australians, and during World War One was commonly used as a slang term for an Australian soldier)
bird = a person, particularly someone who is remarkable, odd, or distinct (e.g. “he’s a tough old bird”, “he’s an odd bird”, “he’s a sly old bird”)
Blighty = (slang) England; or, in a wider context, Britain
bloomin’ = (blooming) an exclamatory oath
C.O. = Commanding Officer
cobber = friend, mate
dig. = abbreviation of “digger”
digger = an Australian soldier (a slang word which originated during World War One); in later usage, may also refer to a friend or mate
glad-eye = a friendly or welcoming glance, especially to look at someone in a seductive fashion, to give a look which indicates a romantic or sexual interest
hop-over = attack, especially regarding an attack mounted from trenches; from the act of infantrymen hopping over the top of a trench when mounting an attack on the Western Front during World War One (the term was subsequently used to refer to the drinking of beer)
lingo = language or speech, particularly the jargon or slang of a particular field, group, individual, or industry
M.P. = Military Police
prom. = abbreviation of “promenade”
reinstouchments = reinforcements for fighting units; a combination of “reinforcements” and “stouch” (fight)
Sammies = Americans, from the personification of the United States of America as “Uncle Sam”
yabber = talk, especially to talk a lot (possibly derived from an Aboriginal word, “yabba”, meaning to talk or speak; or may be derived from the English word “jabber”, meaning to talk rapidly, especially in an excited and/or incomprehensible manner, hence “jibber-jabber”)
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
’op-over = hop-over
yeh’re (you’re; you are)
[Editor: Corrected “Advanture” to “Adventure”; “Appropos” to “Apropos”; “in his way” to “is his way”; “surprising up with” to “surprising us with”; “morsely” to “morosely”. Added a quotation mark before “Lieutenant”; “promenade”; “an egg”. Added a quotation mark after “Ca n’fait rien”; “allez vous”; “bon-lingo”.]