australian English language change and slang

Australian English slang – part one: origins

Australian English month continues with a three-part series on the topic of slang. Guest blog author Susan Butler is Publisher of the Macquarie Book of Slang (Revised Edition 2000). Part one takes a look at the origins of Australian slang.


Australians worry about Australian English as a whole being swamped by American English, but when it comes to our slang that anxiety becomes acute. It is easy to see how our slang is so derivative. Much of it happens first in American English and filters through to us from that society. What happens, happens there first. There’s really not much left for us to do. Except that there is still the experience of being an Australian, of being in this place, in this society, in this culture for which we have to find the right words. It is an Australia heavily influenced by America, but not wholly overrun. We have to own the words we use. Even the hand me downs have to become integrated into discourse that is distinctively Australian.

Our whole history of slang has been a mixture of the derivative and the original. The first record of Australian English was an account of convict language, brought to the colony by the thieves of London and generally referred to as “the Flash Language”. James Hardy Vaux, a convict himself, defined flash as the cant language used by the “family”. To speak good flash is to be well versed in cant terms. Although there is no clear knowledge of the origin of the term flash, the suggestion is that it referred to a specific district between Buxton Leek and Macclesford in northern England.

Here are some examples Vaux records as “Flash Language” which we would be familiar with today:

awake to something aware of what’s going on
old chum/new chum originally referring to fellow prisoners in a jail or hulk
conk nose
do the trick originally referring to a successfully accomplished robbery or other such illegal business
fence receiver of stolen goods
frisk search
gammon deceit, pretence, plausible language
grub food
kid young child, especially a boy who thieves at an early age
lark fun
lush beer or liquor; to drink such liquor
plant to hide or conceal
queer unwell
quod gaol
racket particular kind of fraud
scotty irritable
shake someone down to rob someone
sharp swindler
on the sly secretly
snitch on someone tell on someone
snooze to sleep
square honest, fair, upright
on the square with someone dealing honestly with someone
stake booty acquired by robbery
sting swindle
swag bundle
swell gentleman
toddler small child
tout keeping a lookout for business
turn up trump be fortunate
wack share
spinning a yarn telling a story for amusement

In part two, I’ll be talking about the influence of British English on Australian slang.

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Susan Butler


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