Weather and the environment have contributed many words to Australian English, and a lot of these are regionally specific, as Australian National Dictionary editor Dr Amanda Laugesen, BA (Hons) ’97, PhD ’01 explains.
Jerry is an underworld slang term for ‘a fog, a mist’.
Place names, particular geographic features and specific environmental conditions can be found in many Australian weather terms, from the Albany doctor (a cool sea breeze) to the Cobar shower (a dust storm).
Two interesting ‘weather words’ come from Tasmania. The first is mutton-bird gale, a seasonal gale that coincides with the annual arrival of flocks of mutton-birds that nest on islands in the Bass Strait and along the coast of Tasmania. The term has also come to be applied to the arrival of the mutton-birds themselves.
This term is first recorded in 1887. A 1957 Sydney Morning Herald article provides an evocative description: "Down in Bass Strait they are awaiting the Mutton Bird Gales, one of nature’s most majestic and mysterious phenomena. Beginning about November 17, millions of mutton birds will come whirling up the strait on the pinions of the gales that bluster up from the Antarctic. (10 November)"
The term mutton-bird gale has not been well attested over the last couple of decades, but a variety of mutton-bird related vocabulary items exist in Australian English. Mutton-birds have been an essential food resource in the Bass Strait, especially as part of Indigenous food culture. Mutton-bird (yolla in Tasmanian Indigenous languages) has even made it onto trendy restaurant menus in recent years.
Another Tasmanian weather word with a story is Bridgewater Jerry. First recorded in 1905, the Bridgewater Jerry is a fog that moves down the Derwent River from Bridgewater (a suburb north of central Hobart) towards central Hobart.
Jerry is an underworld slang term for ‘a fog, a mist’ and is first recorded in James Hardy Vaux’s New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language attached to his memoirs published in 1819. Vaux recorded the language used by convicts and his work is an invaluable record of this language, most of which passed out of usage. Bridgewater Jerry attests to some retention of the flash language in Australian English.
Both of these weather-related terms are a testimony to the impact of the natural environment on Australian English beyond the flora and fauna that feature so significantly in our vocabulary. Both have long histories and tell us something about Australian life.
As climate change has an impact, and as we experience more weather extremes in Australia, new words may well emerge to describe aspects of our relationship with the weather and the natural environment.
The Australian National Dictionary (first edition) can be accessed online at bit.ly/rep_AND