Australians are well known for having a certain flair with the vernacular, both delighting and confusing overseas visitors with our slang, colloquialisms and quirky use of metaphors. But where do these expressions come from and how have they stayed with us?
Here are a few wonderful examples. You’re sure to know these but you may not know how they came to be!
…With much indebtedness to the Australian National Dictionary Centre at ANU.
A furphy is a rumour or false report; an unlikely or absurd story. But you probably didn’t know that it comes from the name of a firm, J. Furphy & Sons Pty. Ltd., who began operating a foundry at Shepparton, Victoria, in the 1860s (and still do, five generations later!).
The Furphy company website and the Australian National Dictionary Centre tell essentially the same story about the history of the term.
In the days when few houses collected rain water from their rooves, water had to be physically transported in water carts. John Furphy invented and manufactured a water cart that was used widely, including in army camps during the First World War. The name, Furphy appeared on the side of these carts.
According to the Furphy website, “the carts were typically placed near the latrine area, the only place in the camp where soldiers were out of the controlling eye of their officers, allowing them the freedom to express their thoughts on the latest news that was, at best, unreliable.”
The website says the ‘Furphy Water carts’ were used extensively in Europe and the Middle East to carry water to the troops during the War.
“The drivers of the carts were notorious sources of information and gossip for the men as they moved from camp to camp. As could be expected, not all their news was reliable and so it was that the word Furphy rapidly became a synonym for suspect information or rumour.”
The word, furphy is first officially recorded in print in 1915.
1915 J. Treloar Anzac Diary 3 February: Today’s ‘furphy’, for never a day goes by without at least one being created, was about lights being prohibited in camp on account of the possibility of German airship raid. Some of the troops do not suffer from lack of imagination.
Plonk – the noun – refers to wine, usually to cheap or poor quality wine, although many Australians use the term affectionately for any kind of wine. Hence one might describe a very fine wine as ‘good plonk’. But where does the term come from?
According to the Australian National Dictionary Centre, like ‘furphy’, ‘plonk’ has its origin with Australian soldiers in the First World War. They pronounced the French wine, ‘vin blanc’ (white wine) as ‘van blonk’ and further morphed it into plonk. It was first recorded in print in 1919 and it has since spread to ‘other Englishes’.
A billycart is a child’s four-wheeled go-cart. It’s a shortened form of the Australian term billy-goat cart which dates back to the 1860s, according to the Australian National Dictionary Centre. Some of us still bear the scars of billycart races from our childhood.
In earlier times though, the term applied to a small cart, often two-wheeled, that was pulled by a goat. These billycarts were used for such purposes as home deliveries, and they were also used in races. The term was then applied to any homemade go-cart.
Billycart is recorded in the first decade of the 20th century:
1952 J.R. Tyrrell Old Books: “As boys, Fred and I delivered books round Sydney in a billycart.”