Champion racehorse Bernborough, being ridden by Billy Nielsen, in the early days of his racing career. Photo: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Battlers and a Bernborough finish: The words of 1946

Dr Amanda Laugesen takes a close look at the phrases and words popular at the time of The Australian National University’s foundation in 1946 – a time of post-war migration, BBQ slang, workers’ rights and curious sports.  

The Australian National Dictionary is a record of the Australian English lexicon that also tells us stories about Australia and its history. A brief survey of the words of 1946 reveals some fascinating insights into the Australia of 75 years ago. Bernborough finishpoor fellow my countrysausage sizzletrugo … a variety of words are first recorded in the year of The Australian National University’s establishment. 

Sports features in the new lexicon of 1946: trugo “a game in which a disc is struck towards a goal with a mallet” is a unique Australian game and the first quotation for it is from a caption for a picture of people playing the “curious game” of trugo (The Argus, Melbourne, 3 August). The term Bernborough finish has a sports (and gambling) connection: Bernborough was a 1940s racehorse, and to have a Bernborough finish was to have a “fast and successful finish to a race or other enterprise after the participant or competitor has been well behind”.  

If the war had brought new employment opportunities, there was also an assertion of workers’ rights, as well as words to describe those who took their chances where they could. The year 1946 saw the first recorded evidence for terms appearance moneyand attendance money, both payments a worker was entitled to when they presented themselves for work even if there was none available. The same year, a distinctive sense of battler, less common than the sense of “a person who works doggedly and with little reward”, was first recorded. This sense was “an unemployed person who lives by opportunism” and was somewhat derogatory; perhaps coming in the wake of the war, there was a sense that few should be unemployed by choice. 

The impact of a more diverse migration to Australia was also already making itself felt on the lexicon. The term migrant ship was first recorded in the Australian context in 1946, as was the word Greeks used to refer to a café or small restaurant (associated with Greek ownership). The term poor fellow my country, an Aboriginal English expression —  “my country is in a state of misery, sickness, etc.” — was first recorded in a book by Bill Harney who was taking down the words of First Nations peoples and indicated how they felt about what was happening to them and to Country at the time. 

Another word first recorded in 1946 is perv, “a sexual pervert”. The first quote for this word, taken from a review of Dal Stivens’ collection of short stories The Courtship of Uncle Henry and quoting the preface to the book written by Tom Harrison, provides us with some context: “While agreeing that the tales are ‘full of fanatics, dopes, bludgers, and pervs’, he suggests that it is only the stricter Australians, ‘the wowser belt which surrounds the continent and reaches its greatest depth (of stupidity) in Adelaide’ who will object to the low intellect portrayed.” (Western Mail, Perth, 3 October) The quote foreshadows the slow move to a more open and sexually frank literary culture, rather than suggesting an Australia populated by an increased number of ‘pervs’. 

Dr Amanda Laugesen is Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at ANU and Chief Editor of The Australian National Dictionary