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From ‘technicolour yawn’ to ‘draining the dragon’: how Barry Humphries breathed new life into Australian slang


If jargon is the poetry of the peoplethen Australia lost a closer last week.

Barry Humphries breathed life into the ‘language’ of Australia, but it was often an imagined life. When it comes to their lexicon, Australians pride themselves on straddling the fine line between reality, romanticization and furphies. Humphries took linguistic ingenuity to the limit, retrieving words and phrases from obscurity, but also pushing or surpassing acceptability.

In this way, Humphries joined others who have led Australia to a sense of nationhood by contributing words, attitudes and a few porkies to our national lexicon.

“Slangy Philosophers” in Australian History

Slim philosophers highlight the main points of Australia and elevate certain words, phrases and verses to help us understand our national experience.

In his 1898 dictionary, EE Morris famous noted the impoverished state of “Austral English”: “there has never been an instance in history when so many new names have been needed, and there never will be another such occasion.”

Australia’s serpentine philosophers have historically jumped at the opportunity. Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson wrote on topics such as billies cooking, camaraderie, and Matilda’s waltzing. However, they did not always agree on whether and to what extent the bush should or could be romanticized.

Poets Henry Lawson (left) and ‘Banjo’ Paterson contributed early to the development of a distinctively Australian vernacular.
Royal Australian Historical Society

Lawson was perhaps the less sentimental of the pair, to write in his poem The City Bushman (1892):

Don’t you think the poets had better leave the woods alone before they stir up a righteous rebellion in the overwritten west?

A certain romanticization of the Australian way of speaking, and disagreement about that way of speaking, seems to be part of the Australian language landscape. During a great period of Australian myth-making (1890-1925), newspapers and magazines such as the Argus, Australian Tit-Bits and the Bulletin enabled the public to write letters or stories and debate with each other.

Readers aggressively debated Australian word etymologies – and the extent to which these words were or were not Australian. For example, a Bulletin writer named “Blue Duck” rejected the emerging Australian slang, to write“Much Australian slang is just cockney flash, introduced by stewards on every mailboat”.

While Mr. B. Duck may be exaggerating the matter, his comment hints at a broader truth. Many aspects of the Australian lexicon first appear in Britain, or in the imagination of our middle-class citizens or artists.

For example, CJ Dennis’ fictional larch Ginger Mick – an Australian original serpentine philosophers – had a style of speech that was more of a middle class fancy – some would argue more cockney than Australian.

But Mick’s imagined way of speaking was loved by Australians and played a part in our emerging nation. We could argue that Barry Humphries and Bazza McKenzie did the same, albeit in a different era.

Humphries and the Lexicon of the New Nationalism

Bazza McKenzie character from Barry Humphries to arise during Australia’s new nationalism in the 1960s/1970s. Linguistically, this was an era of growing colloquial Australian English.

Linguists Peter Collins and Xinyue Yao linked the recognizable rise in Australian colloquialism from 1961-1991 to:

a resurgence of nationalistic fervor in Australia at this time, most colorfully and infamously embodied in the cult of “Ockerdom” of the 1970s, and heralded the decline of Britishness in Australia.

In other words, while Australians have long been known to speak more colloquially than their American and British counterparts, this flourished during the era of the New Nationalism – and shows little sign of stopping.

Bazza McKenzie – in the British magazine Private Eye – leaned towards the Ockerdom of the time. Humphries noted That

words like cobbler And bonzer still come in like a sop for Pommy readers, though such words are rarely, if ever, used in Australia today.

However, Bazza could have given such words a lifeline. Humphries was proud by giving new life to old Australian words and expressions, drawing inspiration from school days, public life or friends such as “Shearing Bill, who had spent most of his life in the outback (…) collecting arcane vernacular”.

In 1965, Humphries noted that he had heard it for the first time thunder in Victoria’s elite private schools a decade earlier (although it was already used “by the Surfies, a repulsive race of sun-tanned hedonists (…)”). When it reached the chunderama style on the big screen, it was Bazza who popularized its (probably false) origin story, the nautical warning for others to “look under” – successful slang usually supported by strong etymological narratives.

Bazza, taboo and the Australian lexicon

Of course, Humphries – especially through Bazza McKenzie – not only revived old Australian words, but invented many of his own. Slang generally flourishes wherever things go wrong at night, and Humphries had his sights set on Victorian taboos surrounding body parts and bodily excretions. These taboos fueled our public imagination (or euphemism) at least into the 1980s, and for some beyond that.

Humphries invented or popularized cheeky ways to discuss vomiting (eg technicolor yawn, liquid smile (by the big white phone)), urinate (eg deflate the dragon, point Percy to the porcelain) and masturbation (eg whip the lizard, pull the pickle). He was also a master of the frankincense – piecing together and reinventing bits and pieces of the Australian lexicon.

Via Bazza, Humphries took sentences based on ugly as (…) to new levels, popularizing a shift away from religious connotations of “ugly” (such as ugly as the devil, ugly as sin) towards containers and openings as a comparison standard (e.g. ugly as a hat full of assholes) – at least in Australia.

In some cases, Humphries went too far, especially for modern sensibilities – his character Sir Les Patterson deliberately tried to offend. Humphries popularized more than a few pejorative terms for marginalized people—words we won’t repeat here.

Beer-drinking Bazza and our snake from ‘Down Under’

Not only did Humphries change Aussie slang, he changed the way we thought about it. Colin Hay quotes Bazza McKenzie’s influence on Men at Work’s iconic song “Down Under”:

He’s a master of comedy and he had a lot of expressions that we listened to and followed. The verses were heavily inspired by a character he had named Barry McKenzie, a beer-drinking Australian who traveled to England, a very large character.

To survive, slang expressions need some Ben Zimmer once described as a “perfect lexicographic storm”. We think there are usually four things that make this storm, and successful Bazza-isms have them all: celebrity endorsement, sleight of hand, imagination, and a few magical furphys.

To be sure, Bazza’s prodigious contributions may not be part of most people’s active vocabulary, but they do belong to a kind of (national) lexical Wunderkammer – loved, admired and challenged as great examples of Australian slang.

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