Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Last hurrah for Australian lingo from long ago

SOME are dying, many are dead. They're not cute like bilbies or cuddly like koalas but they're endangered all the same. They are words, Aussie ones in particular, dying cruel, lonely deaths with each passing year, victims of Americanisation, globalisation and the frenetic, quick-response worlds of generations ''y'' and ''i''.

It is with deepest sympathy and regret that I inform you of the recent passing of ''cobber''. It led a long and useful life, bridging that uncomfortable gulf between ''acquaintance'' and ''mate''. This most likely Yiddish-derived gem of a word first appeared in Australian English in 1893. Historic, yes. Hip, hardly. Not in a lexicon of ''peeps'', ''pals'' and ''BFFs''.

My condolences, the results are in, it's worse than we first thought: ''bonza'' is on its last legs. It's booked a plot in the Australian word graveyard, right alongside ''drack'' (unattractive, unprepossessing), ''illywhacker'' (small-time confidence trickster) and ''brasco'' (a toilet). Nothing's ''bonza'' any more. Attractive and pleasing things are ''excellent'' and ''magic'' these days. Nothing's ''bosker'' any more, either, or ''boshter'' for that matter.

There was a time when Queensland and northern-NSW children carried their ''ports'' to school. Now everybody carries ''bags'' and ''backpacks''.

Once upon a time, a car-loving, flannelette-wearing, AC/DC fan from Queensland might have been called a ''bevan''. Such a man in Tasmania might have been called a ''chigger'' (someone from Chigwell). Such a man in Canberra in the early '90s was called a ''booner''. Such a man in Melbourne and Sydney might be called a ''westie''. Now all these men are covered by the less regional term, ''bogan''; one word threatening to destroy four more descriptive, more specific words.

These are dangerous times for words and, says Bruce Moore, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra, one can never be sure what word will pass next through the cemetery gates. ''It's impossible to predict what word and when it will become extinct,'' he says. ''Take a word like 'cliner'. It's a favourite of mine, meaning 'girlfriend'. ''This word first appeared in Australian English in 1895. It came with the Germans [Kleine] who came into Australia. It was very common. Someone like (poet) C. J. Dennis used it all the time. By 1930 it was dead. Language decided it wasn't needed. ''Anybody who used cliner is dead now, too.''

One year you're king of the lexicon - bandied about like an ''al fresco'' or a ''random'' - the next you're starving for an airing, like ''toey'' and ''scuttlebutt''.

One aspect of Moore's job is maintaining the status and relevance of words in the Australian National Dictionary. ''When words are starting to go out they are usually marked with the term 'dated','' he says. ''That means, to put it politely, they're only used by older people. The next step after 'dated' is 'obsolete'. ''These words should be highly worried. There are still people in Australia who would use the term 'drack', for example, which is dated, but there wouldn't be many, or any, who would use the term 'cliner', which is obsolete.''

And right next to the Australian word graveyard is a mass burial ground full of lost Australian sayings. ''How long has it been since you've heard someone say they feel like `the cocky on the biscuit tin'?'' Moore asks. ''It refers to the bird on the front of the old biscuit tins. It means you're on the outside looking in, out of the loop. It makes no sense to young people because we don't have biscuit tins any more.

''How many people would now use the term, 'Full as a state school hat rack'? That was very common, but we don't use the term because we don't have hat racks any more. It's almost completely dead.

''How long has it been since someone in a rush has said to you they're 'off like a bride's nightie'?'' Wonderfully descriptive. Brilliantly evocative. And almost as dead as a dead dingo's you know what.

How long can ''not within cooee'' last in the 21st century? Or ''sillier than a two-bob watch''; ''goes like the clappers''; ''like a lizard drinking''; ''kangaroos in the top paddock''?

''But it's interesting,'' says Moore, ``Words can come back when you least expect it. ''Take a word like 'dag'. It's been around for a long time in Australia. It was under threat in the late '80s, early '90s, in the face of American words like ''nerd''. But it has come back. We still have dags. Words can save themselves sometimes.''

Endangered words and phrases

Ripper: great, as in ''ripper Rita''.
More hide than Jessie: Jessie was an elephant at Taronga Zoo.
Drack: possibly derived from Dracula, meaning unattractive.
Port: something to hold your school books, from ''portmanteau'', a leather case which traditionally opens in two halves.
Full up to dolly's wax: Can't eat any more, from the time when dolls had wax in their heads.
Short of a sheet of bark: Not the full quid.
Bring a plate: bring a plate of food along to the party.
Rough end of the pineapple: the sharp end of the stick.
Toey: feeling amorous, but originally used in the sense of being fidgety, ''The square leg umpire is getting toey''.
Bottler: something to be admired, ''You little bottler''.
Laughing gear: mouth, ''Wrap your laughing gear around this''.
Drongo: slow-witted, possible Big Brother contestant.
Bludger: refuses to work, see above.


Old-time toys are the best

This may well be true but no research evidence is quoted

CREATIVE play with traditional toys and games is a healthy way to stimulate the imagination and support learning, childhood development experts say. University of Adelaide child psychiatrist Dr Jon Jureidini is concerned about the shift towards electronic toys and computer games. "The role of the child in play becomes more reactive," he said. "Much more of the content is going to be generated by the computer than would be the case if a child was playing with a doll's house . . . The danger is that children aren't having as much stimulation to their imagination and creativity."

Dr Jureidini uses play in therapy. "Playing through some distressing event helps children to come to terms with it and feel less bullied by their scary memories,"he said. "There's the working-through aspect and also the communication aspect."

Deakin University Associate Professor Karen Stagnitti said imaginative play also had been shown to expand children's vocabulary, comprehension and social skills.

Pembroke Junior School visited the Australian Museum of Childhood in Port Adelaide to see how toys had changed over time. Teacher Alison Woodcock said some children had to be taught how to play. "The children are very confident on the computers these days," she said. "We need to help them develop skills in creative play."

Student Julian, 6, said he liked playing with trucks. "I play with them and build things in the dirt, like building New York City," he said.


Conservatives dig in heels on carbon tax

MALCOLM Turnbull has locked the Coalition into a bruising fight with the Rudd Government over Labor's controversial carbon tax on big polluters. On the same day Peter Costello backed Mr Turnbull's decision to block moves to means-test the private health insurance rebate, Mr Turnbull reaffirmed his opposition to the emissions trading scheme in its present form. Asked if the Government's ETS was unacceptable to the Coalition, Mr Turnbull said: "At the moment, yes of course it's unacceptable, but it's not going to stand where it is."

The ETS is shaping as the most likely trigger for a possible double-dissolution election, which can be called if the Senate twice blocks the same piece of legislation more than three months apart. The Government's climate-change troubleshooter, NSW MP Greg Combet, was last night meeting with the Queensland Resources Council over concerns the ETS will gut mining jobs in Queensland.

Mr Turnbull said the Coalition also had major concerns with Labor's plan to set the income threshold for employee share schemes at $60,000. The changes, he said, would "effectively shut down just about every employee scheme around the country", affecting millions of Australians. "If it was (the Government's) intention, then I think it may prove to be one of most controversial and unpopular and unpalatable elements in the Budget," Mr Turnbull told the Queensland Media Club in Brisbane.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last week said he wanted the Budget passed in its entirety and threatened a double-dissolution election if key pieces of legislation or Budget measures were blocked in the Senate. But on the weekend, Mr Turnbull indicated the Opposition would no longer block the Government's tax hike on pre-mixed drinks.

Asked for comment, former treasurer Peter Costello said the important thing was to follow good policy. "These are always judgment calls," he said. "But I am not in the camp that says just vote for anything that Mr Rudd wants so that he can't get a double dissolution. For example, I think it is absolutely right to oppose the Government's attempts to restrict private health insurance rebates." Mr Costello said he did not believe Mr Rudd would rush to an early election.

The latest Nielsen opinion poll, the first to be taken after the federal Budget, showed Mr Rudd's personal approval rating had plummeted 10 percentage points to 64 per cent. "You would have seen last week that (Mr Rudd) was threatening an early election," Mr Costello said. "After today's polls, he may get a little less keen on an early election."

Mr Rudd said the Government had taken a hit because it had made tough decisions in last week's Budget.


Another forestry investment scheme collapses

Investors may lose $4bn. When will they ever learn? These schemes have been falling over for decades

THE nation's biggest forestry investment scheme has been swept into administration owing more than 40,000 mum and dad investors up to $4 billion. The collapse of Great Southern, which was structured to exploit agriculture tax breaks for investors, could lead to as much as 1.75 million hectares of agricultural and forestry land flooding the market, The Australian reports.

Great Southern, which has 43,000 investors, owes up to four times as much as Timbercorp, the group's biggest rival, which collapsed late last month under a mountain of debt.

The stock exchange-listed group used a network of 800 financial planners to attract investors into its "managed investment schemes", which focused on wood pulp, cattle and wine grape production. In the year to June 2008, Great Southern spent $62.4 million on "commissions, marketing and promotion of product and industry".

Great Southern and Timbercorp, both of which used legal loopholes to provide agricultural tax breaks to ordinary investors, have been hit hard by the global financial crisis as investors flee high-risk products. Great Southern administrator Martin Jones, of Ferrier Hodgson, said the group had called in the corporate doctors because it was in danger of being unable to repay investors. "Great Southern has a complex structure with numerous managed investment schemes and significant agricultural assets," Mr Jones said. "It's not a space you'd want to be in at the moment."

In a prepared statement, Great Southern managing director Cameron Rhodes said the group had been forced to call in administrators after it had been declined additional funding by its lenders. "Not withstanding the fact that the company remained within the terms of its facilities and no debt was currently due and payable, our banking syndicate declined our request for additional support," Mr Rhodes said.

Investors who bought into the managed investment schemes, which had life spans of between five and 20 years, effectively owned part of each agricultural company and shares in the profits of any produce and any gains on the underlying land values. In the past five years alone, the group raised $1.8 billion from investors.

Mr Jones said it was too early to tell exactly how much the group held at the time of its collapse. "People will look back and dissect in hindsight whether or not the decision to obtain a tax deduction was compatible to decide to invest in an agricultural product," he said. Mr Jones said he would need to examine each of the 45 investment schemes to determine whether they were to be wound up or kept afloat. Older, "cashflow positive" schemes were less likely to be wound up than newer schemes, which typically required more investment. The administrator would also examine the possibility of "substantially" restructuring the company by selling assets as a way to pay down debt.

Great Southern management, led by managing director Cameron Rhodes and chairman David Griffiths, launched an unsuccessful restructure last August. The group subsequently offered for sale hundreds of millions of dollars of property assets. "We will be working with management and key stakeholders to leverage the work already done to date, and to preserve assets and maximise the value of the Great Southern assets," Mr Jones said.

Great Southern owns and leases 1.5million hectares of cattle grazing land and a further 240,000ha of forestry land.


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