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The Language of the Bush


The following charming story was published in 1919 and provides some examples of how city folk viewed the language of the bush.


At a station but a few days ago I heard a boundary rider say to his mates as one of the hands rode away: “Look at Harry, off to M–. He’s done-up like a sore finger.” The reference was top Harry’s clothes. He had his best rig-out on, including what the bushmen call a boiled shirt. Remarks like these are typical of the language of the bush. No bushman ever uses plain English if he knows of a roundabout synonym; and he is an inveterate user of similes. Many of his similes are wonderfully vivid and descriptive, and would delight even a university professor (of English). The point of the ‘sore finger’

Simile is fairly evident. It is directed at the white shirt, with a passing reference to the care and attention usually bestowed on a sore finger.

On another occasion, I heard a bush dandy described as “got up like a wedding cake”. This was a particularly good simile. Another time I was watching a group of men shifting a stable, bodily. The boss grew gradually exasperated at the slow movements of one of his hands, and at last yelled, “For heaven’s sake get a move on, Tommy. You turn round like a bullock team.”

The most numerous of the bush similes refer to fighting, and there are some very graphic ones. I heard a shearer discussing, contemptuously, the claims of a station hand to prominence in this connection: “Him fight! Bugger me, he couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag.” Another was dismissed with even less courtesy, “Why, he couldn’t frighten a goose off her nest.” A group were talking about the possibility of Bill Blank winning the high jump somewhere. “Bill win it!” broke in one of the hands, “Poor, Bill couldn’t win an argument.” Some of the similes are exceedingly striking. I heard a woolscourer ask a shearer if he had any money, as he wanted to borrow some. “No, Bill,” was the reply; “I’m as bare of money as a frog is of feathers.” Could anything be more explicit?

Most bushmen are, as the Scottish people say, ‘unco guid at the uptake’. They see a point at once. I saw a big, raw-boned bushman on a small pony, along whose side his exceptionally long feet were very noticeable. A shearer eyed him attentively, and, then, with an impressive glance at his foot, which bore a distant resemblance to a shaft, he remarked, “Breaking him in to harness at the same time, Sammy?” The riders aw the joke at once, and smiled appreciatively. One afternoon I was among horse=-breakers. There was one particularly good rider, and many encomiums were passed on his work. The best was this, delivered as his mount was trying to tie himself in a knot: “Yes, he’s here for good. He can stick like a postage stamp.”

The true bushman has a thorough scorn for the loafer, and charity is abhorrent to him. He has also a healthy contempt for what he calls “crawling jobs” – that is, a bush job where the worker is brought much into personal contact with his boss. I heard one bushman, discussing the offer of one of these billets, declare fervently that he “would sooner take a job of chewing crusts for sick parrots.” We had a small fiddling, pernickety chap on our selection once. He was of very little use, but he somehow was kept on. A boundary rider summed him up at once: “Tom ought to work for a grocer. He could sit all day picking sugar out for flies’ toenails.” We had another chap, who always had a cheerless and dilapidated appearance. He appeared one morning looking even worse than usual. The cook took one look at him and then broke out, “Gord’s truth,” he exclaimed, “Look at Jimmy – like something the cat would bring in, of a wet night.” The sting of this simile is in the last four words. It is certainly a very graphic one, and is much used in the bush. I heard a similar character, another time, described as “looking as if he’d been pulled backwards through a hedge.” The word ‘backwards’ gives splendid point to this comparison.

So far as his English goes, the average bushman does not leave much to be complained on. Most bushmen have had a state school education, and papers, especially weeklies, are plentiful enough, and widely read. I heard a curious remark once, based on a paper. A boundary rider was referred to as being well equipped with sporting information. A little one-eyed tanksinker squinted up at the disputants, and said. “Oh, I’ve met Andy’s sort. His missus wrapped his dinner up once in the sporting pages, and now he’s it.”

Racing is probably the leading conversational topic amongst bushmen, and their language is often very picturesque. Apart from the omnipresent blanky, bush language, as a rule, is the reverse of lurid. I say “as a rule” advisedly, as I have at times heard truly terrific language. Once, on the Paroo, the language was so appalling that one of the men laughingly remarked, “God’ll hear you in minute, George.” George interrupted the torrent of profanity for a moment to say: “God! Why you blanker, don’t you know that God never crosses the Darling!” This is a common remark all over the Western Division of New South Wales, and is due to the absence of religion across the darling, in the Far West as a rule.

Meanness is an unpardonable sin in the bush. Yet there are some men whose meanness is almost miraculous in its methods. I heard a station-owner described as so mean as to compel his cook to “catch flies in the sugar basin, and shake the sugar out of their feet.” I heard a particularly mean man described as one who would “steal potatoes from a blind pig.” Of another it was said, “he would kiss a child – and steal its potato.” The third describes the mean man as ”stealing a sick child’s soup.” Some similes are exceedingly short and correspondingly graphic. I asked a shearer once how a common friend was, “Bad,” was the reply; “he’s as thin as twine.” He couldn’t well be thinner. “As fine as wire.” is another for thinness.

Their dogs – the sheep and cattle dogs – give rise to much picturesque bush language. I heard some doggy talk one day, at a northern pub, which was ended by a big red Riverina man, who declared that his pup could “put a blowfly into a bottle.” This ended the claims of all the other dog owners.

Common in most of the bush, particularly in Western Australia, is the quaint habit of using a phrase with the same lingual sound for another word. For example, a bushman will say, “Oh, she’s all right; still, she’s nothing to go silk-hanky over.” “Silk hanky” of course, represents the word ‘cranky’ I have heard a bushman ask another to have a “you and me” meaning a pannikin of tea. A match is called a ‘tear and scratch’. I fancy this rather ridiculous custom is an imported done. Sometimes the imitation words are amusing or witty, but usually they are neither.

The usual bushman is rarely at a loss for a word. His vocabulary, like that of Brett Harte’s hero, is often “frequent, and painful, and free.” But, if he can’t think of the right word, he flings out a big, high-sounding word of some sort. Often the words are homemade. “How do you sagaciate?” is often used for “How are you?” and so on. But, one way or another, the bushman can convey his meaning, and as this is the primal use of language, the language of the bush may be termed as generally successful whatever other qualities it may have.

George Caley. Sydney Truth. 18/7/19