Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 38

Australian First World War “slanguage”

Author: Dr Amanda Laugesen

{1} Tucked away in the Australian War Memorial archives is an unpublished typescript of Australian soldiers’ slang collected in the years following the First World War. Entitled a ‘Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F.’, it provides a fascinating insight into the “slanguage” of the First AIF. I worked on a project to annotate this glossary and to put it online (available at, but aside from its intrinsic interest as a source of often now obscure slang, the glossary has much to tell us about the culture of Australian soldiers during the 1914-18 conflict (or the Great War, as it was called before the Second World War came along).

{2} Language and slang can be a valuable way of beginning to understand a culture. Language performs important functions in defining identities, cohering a culture, and, in wartime, it can act as an important coping mechanism. In this article, I want to discuss various aspects of Australian soldiers’ language and slang (or, as the generation of the time labelled it, the “Aussie slanguage”): first, to discuss the typescript from a lexicographical point of view - why it was compiled, how it was put together, and how it relates to other collections of war slang of the immediate post-war period; second, to discuss it within the context of the ANZAC or digger legend, particularly as the legend was shaped through the cultural productions of the war, including this slanguage, and to discuss aspects of the slang collected in the typescript; and finally, to look at the lasting relevance of slang, both in how it shapes our understanding of the war experience and in its contribution to Australian English and national identity. It can probably be agreed upon that the Australian participation in the Great War had an enormous impact on Australian history; at the very least, I would argue, a study of the slang of Australian soldiers helps to illustrate something of this impact and the making of the culture of the Australian digger.

Language and war

{3} During the Great War, many new words entered the vocabularies of all nations who participated. War in general often contributes many neologisms, but the Great War appears to have been a particularly rich site of word creation. In comparison with earlier conflicts, much larger numbers of people took part in the two world wars; war also affected civilians, both as soldiers and on the home front, to a greater extent than in previous wars. For these civilians confronting such a tremendous experience, language was a key site in which their ideas, concepts and words were transformed. The First World War, in this sense, may have been an even greater transformative experience than the Second World War, although that is open to debate. Certainly in comparison to the Boer War, in which Australians also served, the later wars contributed much more to language creation, and had a more lasting impact.

{4} The Boer War − the first international conflict in which Australia participated as a nation − contributed only a handful of words to Australian English, few with lasting currency. Only a handful of memoirs or firsthand accounts of Australia’s participation made it into print; but even contemporary letters reveal a decided dearth of new words, which was also the case with British English. In addition, it is possible that the Bulletin’s opposition to the war meant that a periodical which played a key role in creating and maintaining Australian English played little part in the creation of a culture of war.[1] Or perhaps the experience of the South African veldt and the nature of warfare stymied rather than fired the imagination. However, the experience of the Great War made up for this.

{5} Technological developments in wartime led to many new words entering the vocabulary (or gaining much broader currency): people became more familiar with the jargon of air flight, soldiers had names for the various military developments from guns to gas warfare, and words like “oojah” (short for “oojah-ma-pivvy”) became current to refer to any “thingummyjig” when the vocabulary failed. The experience of trench warfare combined with exposure to a variety of different national cultures (and extensive travel for troops from the Dominions), meant that the First World War intensified language development. This experience did this for all participating nations, and certainly had a major impact on Australian English. Additionally, the masculine culture of the armed services allowed for greater use of slang and informal English.

{6} Few analytical studies have been made of language and war. Recently, Ann Linder has examined First World War slang in a cross-national perspective in her article ‘Magical slang: ritual, language and trench slang of the Western Front’.[2] She makes some useful observations (discussed later) but her analysis, while a good starting point, remains limited. Borrowing from Eric Partridge, a New Zealander who served in the Great War and has become perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest authority on war slang, she makes the point that jargon and slang are two different things and need to be considered separately. The military is an institution particularly prone to producing jargon (“special words or expressions used by a particular profession or group that are difficult for others to understand”[3]), and this includes the ubiquitous use of acronyms by the forces. This jargon is essential to the continuity and integrity of the professional forces.[4] Slang, on the other hand, is more likely to avoid technical terminology altogether, in favour of figurative, inventive and humorous allusions to the thing being described or referred to, and sometimes serves to make the unfamiliar more familiar.[5]

{7} Linder makes some interesting points about community and identity, to be taken up in this article. Most interestingly, she examines the way language during the war reflected divisions within national forces, principally between officers and the fighting men. She also argues that slang words took on “talismanic” properties in so far as they avoided mentioning the taboo topic of death too explicitly. This is part of the way words can function as a psychological coping mechanism.[6] Linder also suggests that slang, impropriety and mispronunciation were a form of rebellion by soldiers in an environment where opportunities for rebellion were limited.[7] I will examine some of these arguments in my analysis of the significance of the glossary.

Authorship and provenance of the Pretty glossary

{8} In the years following the Great War, the idea of building an Australian war museum began to be translated into reality. The idea had first taken seed during the war itself, with many participants being acutely aware that they were contributing to, as Michael McKernan puts it, “a moment of high historical significance in the life of their young nation”.[8] C. E. W. Bean, already evolving as the principal chronicler of this momentous event, was also a prime mover in pushing for the formation of some sort of cultural institution that could preserve the relics of the war. Such an institution could play an enormously important role in the future of Australia, shaping that future through its crafting of a truly national identity.

{9} Bean, and a number of other young men who had served overseas, worked in the post-war period to begin to make such a museum a reality, and to start writing the history of the seminal event. In the early 1920s, however, the enthusiasm for remembering and revisiting the war was waning. Guaranteeing any commitment to a permanent place for a war museum was already proving to be a difficulty (the struggle would continue for many years). It is in this context that the librarians who were collecting and organising the official documents and records of the war, worked to collect the glossary of AIF slang. Whose idea the glossary was is unknown. We might speculate that Bean suggested such a collection; perhaps even to go into his future official history of the war. Some of his war writings, such as Letters from France, had been published during the war and were in circulation and, with a thought in mind that many more war writings would appear through the coming decade, a guide to digger slang might be of great value. Perhaps it was intended merely to be like the other relics collected for the future museum - a souvenir of the war collected with history in mind.

{10} The glossary was never published in any form. A technical glossary appears in Bean’s Official history, but nothing more. Bean’s formal writing meant there was no necessity for including a slang glossary. Alternatively, the glossary, being illustrative of the irreverent vernacular culture of the soldier, rather than the idealised ANZAC version of the digger, did not perhaps fit the image that Bean was trying to create. For whatever reason, it was not included in any of the volumes of the Official history. It might have appeared as an independent publication: with 900 terms recorded, it could easily have made a pamphlet-length publication. But there seems to have been no move to undertake such a publishing endeavour. Certainly, for the staff of the Australian War Museum, soon to become the Australian War Memorial, the pressure of finding a permanent home and securing public and government support, and the numerous squabbles over the future of the museum, might well have distracted from the glossary. It seems it was filed away and forgotten about.

{11} Two drafts exist. The first is a typescript dated April 1922, and presumably the material was collected and compiled before this. This first draft is accompanied by a letter from Albert George Pretty, the Australian War Museum’s chief librarian, to the Museum’s director, John Linton Treloar, with a comment that suggests the glossary’s authorship: “Herewith a glossary of slang terms with definitions and theories as to their origin in so far as the members of the Library staff have been able to compile them.”[9] The letter also makes clear that a number of sections in the army had been given a chance to contribute to the list of words in its earlier forms. Pretty seems to have been the main co-ordinator of the project, hence I have chosen to attribute authorship to him, although “Pretty et al.” would be the most accurate attribution.

{12} Just how the librarians compiled earlier versions of the glossary is not revealed by the remaining evidence. An undated letter from Treloar to Pretty (the latter became acting director in August 1923 after Treloar was detached on temporary duty) makes suggestions as to how the 1922 draft should be organised. This also reveals the essentially collaborative nature of the exercise, with Treloar writing: “At the end you will find some additions by Lothian, a suggested addition by me, and a reference to a book from which you may be able to add still further”.[10]

Draft 1
The first draft of the Pretty glossary, c.1921.

Second draft of the Pretty glossary, c.1924, which incorporated amendments on the first draft. The handwritten changes shown are those of A. W. Bazley.

{13} Other surviving correspondence suggests that at least some attempt was made to solicit contributions from the general public, obviously targeting veterans of the Great War. One means of doing this was to run competitions in the newspapers. A letter from Pretty to a Mr Bradish of the Melbourne Herald argues that the subject would be of great interest. Pretty reveals the ambivalence to, as he terms it, “war matters” by 1924, but argues that “returned men are now evincing a desire to fight their battles and live the war years over again” and that their “humour would be tickled and interest created by the frequent additions to the lists and the explanations of the origin of the different words”, while also being “most enlightening and entertaining to the uninitiated”.[11] Melbourne Punch was also approached to run a similar competition. There is no evidence in the surviving correspondence that reveals whether these competitions were ever conducted, or if such a method contributed to the glossary. The fact that the 1924 draft is essentially the same as the 1922 one suggests that the competition never occurred. Melbourne Punch, at any rate, was struggling to keep afloat in the early 1920s.

{14} Arthur W. Bazley, close friend and associate of Bean and one-time director of the Australian War Memorial, has been put forward as the author of the glossary in the first edition of the Australian national dictionary. However, it is clear that while he made some significant contributions to the glossary, he was not its author. Bazley’s appreciation of Pretty’s glossary is preserved in a 1924 letter, where he writes, “I was very amused with your glossary, many of the words bringing back memories of other times and places.”[12] He also provided a number of extra terms with definitions, again reflecting the collaborative nature of the glossary.

AWM 93 18/1/1 pt2
Arthur Bazley’s additions to the glossary.
AWM 93 18/1/1 part 2

{15} There are a couple of further interesting points worth making about the glossary and its compilation. The issue of censorship was one dealt with by Treloar, who suggested that because of the “vulgar” nature of the glossary, a “male member of the staff must type” it up.[13] While this reflected the prevailing attitudes of the day, it is worth noting that staff members were in fact willing to include so-called “vulgar” terms, although some were only alluded to, rather than spelt out explicitly. Other dictionaries of Great War slang, most notably John Brophy and Eric Partridge’s Songs and slang of the British soldier: 1914-1918 (published in 1930), were far more censorious and also often made moral judgements within their definitions for the terms they included. A lengthy introduction to their collection of songs and slang apologises for the “bawdiness” of the soldier, and argues that obscenity was used “habitually, almost mechanically, as mere intensives”.[14]

{16} Censorship of obscenity and vulgarity during the early half of Australia’s twentieth century is well-attested. It is possible again to see why the glossary was not considered for publication: an authentic − that is to say, inclusive − glossary would be unpublishable without some censorship and editing; censorship and editing might have been something that the staff were not prepared to undertake. Returning to the point made earlier, the image of the digger presented by such an authentic collection of slang was somewhat at odds with the idealised ANZAC and returned husband and father. If slang was at least partly about identity, the Digger identity incorporated liberal use of “spicy” language; for a returned soldier working in a respectable job, such language might be revisited while attending a veterans’ gathering, but not otherwise.

{17} To a modern reader, the language of the glossary is not particularly shocking. Contemporary popular culture has desensitised us to offensive language, with only a few words remaining taboo. The glossary openly uses the word “fuck” in its definitions for terms such as “F.A.” (fuck all), “F.O.Q.” (fuck off quickly) and “F.F.F.” (frigged, fucked, and far from home). “Blow to fook” and “fooker” also appear. Such terms would not, of course, have appeared in any publication of the day. Interestingly, derogatory racial/national terms appear and would not have been censored at the time. Calling Germans the “Hun”, “Boche”, “Jerry” or “Fritz”, and the Turks “Abduls” and “Jackos”, was perfectly acceptable; “woolly dog” (rhyming slang for “wog”) also makes an appearance in the glossary. Even the British were referred to as “Poms” (“fooker” was defined as “an English private”). In our times, such racially sensitive terms might be edited out, while there probably would be little dispute over retaining “F.F.F.”[15]

{18} The next important point to note about the glossary is its relationship to the other major compilation of Australian war slang to be put together in the post-Great War years: W. H. Downing’s Digger dialects, which was first published in December 1919. Downing enlisted in 1915, served in both Egypt and France, and was awarded the Military Medal after action at Polygon Wood. On his return from the war, he went back to study at the University of Melbourne, where he wrote a collection of sketches of trench life, published as To the last ridge in 1920. Downing said little about the genesis of Digger dialects, apart from claiming in later years that he compiled it “in a weekend”.[16]

{19} The introduction to Downing’s work could well serve as an introduction to the Pretty glossary, and is worth quoting in full:

By the conditions of their service, and by the howling desolation of the battle-zones, our men were isolated during nearly the whole of the time they spent in theatres of war, from the ways, the thoughts and the speech of the world behind them.

It followed that the members of their little communities - batteries, squadrons, battalions - unique not only in the unanimity of their aspirations, but also in their keen and vigorous mentality, were thrown inevitably upon their own intellectual resources. This Glossary represents the sweat of those strivings; it is a by-product of the collective imagination of the AIF.

Australian slang is not a new thing; but in those iron years it was modified beyond recognition by the assimilation of foreign words, and the formul of novel or exotic ideas. This process of enrichment is common to every living language in all the ages.

Neither is it definite, for there are divergencies within every division; even within every brigade. In the Flying Corps it is different from the speech of the Infantry. In France, in Egypt, in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Salonika, the Caucasus, Russia, the Pacific Islands, it is nowhere the same.

But it savours of a new national type, and its characteristics are the same.[17]

{20} I think Downing’s introduction suggests the importance of both the Downing and Pretty et al. projects and their aspirations. Compiled by veterans, there was an attempt in the years following the war to try to capture the experience and culture of the soldiers in as authentic a form as possible. The desire to continue a soldiers’ culture was present in many of the organisations that veterans formed. In the continuing publication of trench papers such as Aussie, some attempt to retain the Aussie slang of the war was made. Yet much of the slanguage of war had little relevance beyond the trenches and ultimately remains more as lexical artefacts than part of the living language.

{21} Thus both Downing and Pretty are important historical documents. But, to return to their relationship in lexicographical terms, it is clear from a careful analysis of the Pretty typescript that a large number of terms were borrowed from Downing, or that Downing and Pretty shared a common, unknown source. The former seems far more likely, given that no third source has been found, and that such a source would have to pre-date 1919. Downing lists three sources in his acknowledgements: Mr G. F. Carmichael for Hindustani, Persian and Russian expressions; Captain E. T. Brown for Papuan and Pidgin-English phrases; and the Farmer and settler, a Sydney newspaper. None of these constitute a common source and given the sheer number of words (some 310 terms) common to both Downing and Pretty, it is unlikely that there is one. Yet the process of borrowing, which is common in lexicography, should not be seen as plagiarism. A likely scenario is that Downing was used as an important source for the compilers of Pretty. Many of the terms borrowed from Downing have been elaborated upon, suggesting a conscious process of picking and choosing familiar terms and adding (probably based on experience of using the term) extra information. For example, Downing’s definition for “Machonochie” [sic] is “a meat and vegetable ration; stomach (e.g., Knocked in the Maconochie)”. Pretty’s definition reads “The meat and vegetable ration, so highly esteemed by the troops the bulk of which was prepared by the Aberdeen firm Messrs. Maconochie; Stomach (e.g., Knocked in the Maconochie)”.[18]

{22} There are thus many unanswered questions about the glossary. We can only speculate as to the motivations of its compilers and what they ultimately aspired to do with it. Yet such speculations, and an investigation into the process of compilation, help to give us some context for a broader analysis of the Aussie slanguage during the Great War.

Slanguage, the diggers and the making of the ANZAC legend

{23} The ANZAC legend began to take shape during the war itself, both in the cultural productions coming out of the home front - patriotic poetry, art and other cultural responses, as well as more organised propaganda - but also in the cultural productions of the fighting front. Bean’s writings during the war, later formalised in his Official history are one example of this. But there were also many troopship and trench publications which helped to develop and record the soldiers’ own culture.

{24} Print culture provided an important forum for the development of a distinctive culture. In a fascinating study, David Kent has examined the troopship and trench publications produced by the Australian forces.[19] His primary purpose was to gain insight into the soldiers’ social existence through these publications and what they said about life (and death) for Australian soldiers during the Great War. But they are also extremely valuable because they are our primary documents for learning about the culture of the soldiers.

{25} Trench publications were produced by most national armies. French troops, in particular, were prolific producers of such publications, and they have been the subject of a book-length study by Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau.[20] Why did these publications appear? News was hard to come by on the frontline; the trench publications allowed for some news to be circulated, although obviously nothing of a sensitive nature. Nevertheless, publications produced by and for the troops, even if subject to the approval of the authorities, gave the troops a sense of control over information, and such publications were imbued with a sense of authenticity. Troops produced the publications, at least in part, to alleviate boredom and to sustain morale. They could function to bond units together, defuse tensions through allowing a “legitimate” forum for dissent and grumbling, and also serve as a form of memorial to the soldiers’ experience.

{26} It was within these publications, a print culture produced by and for troops, that a distinctive culture could emerge. Indeed, in many ways, soldiers developed a more intimate relationship with printed culture (and words generally) than they might ever have had before. Writing and receiving letters was one activity that most soldiers shared, but they also read newspapers and trench publications when the opportunity presented itself. A soldier might have little cause to read and write as much as he might in a war setting where news and reading material became something sought after and coveted. Certainly, in these unique circumstances the soldier took on the role of “author”, a role not common for many (except maybe in the odd school publication). While many of the editors and major contributors, such as Oliver Hogue, Philip Harris and Edwin Gerard were journalists, authors or artists in civilian life, many of the occasional contributors were amateur poets, artists and writers with little experience or familiarity with the arts.[21]

{27} The culture that began to be developed in the publications took on a distinctively national hue. The Australian identity within them conforms to the “schizophrenic” quality that Richard White has written about: the “noble ANZAC” on the one hand, mythologised as the athletic, bronzed hero embodying the best of the bush; and the “larrikin digger”, the anti-authority joker who occasionally misbehaved himself.[22] In the Australian soldiers’ print culture, there are two distinct types of cultural production: one is patriotic and sentimental (typically verse), which employs formal and “respectable” language; the other is humorous (story and verse) which employs a lot of informal and slang language. Both types of writing reflected aspects of soldiers’ beliefs and values. But it is worth remembering that all publications were subject to at least some form of editing. David Kent’s analysis of the ANZAC book, produced by the men serving at Gallipoli, concluded that C. E. W. Bean edited out many of the men’s contributions that reflected the death and suffering elements of the campaign experience. Many trench publications followed suit: with a focus on boosting morale through providing comfort and humour, any painful topics were avoided. In this way, the culture of the troops at least in part helped to shape a myth of the Australian soldier that emphasised a humorous or noble soldier facing death with no fear or complaint.

{28} The print culture of the soldiers provided a means by which slang (and oral culture) could be developed, circulated and accepted into the general lexicon. We can only uncover it through its traces in the print record and in collections of slang such as the glossary. Humorous stories and verse were the most likely to employ this slanguage, and they were partly modelled on the Australian national culture developed in periodicals such as the Bulletin. Through to the early twentieth century, Australian publications had helped to develop Australian English in their focus on a distinctive national culture and identity.[23] Their style, and often their slang, was picked up on by the soldiers. In addition, the Australian soldiers’ slanguage borrowed many words from the English-speaking forces with whom they served, sharing slang with British, Canadian, New Zealand, and even American troops. Here is a verse from a typical poem in a trench newspaper, which uses slang and a representation of the Australian accent to assert a distinctive identity (the author is pleading with a man in the War Office to obtain some leave):

We’ve barked and bent our skinny shins on Judah’s stony rocks,
And wept compassion’s bitter tears on ribs of bony crocks.
We’ve drunk from Jordan waters, with sad, colicky results,
And prayed for something stronger for us frolicky adults.
We’re fed up seeing dusky bints and toothless Arab hags,
And picture maids of fairer tints in smoke of issue fags.
We’d like to see some “Blighty” girls when time is running slack,
And spin ’em yarns of Palestine - they’ve ’eard about ANZAC.
We’d like to tell yer typist in yer office, Mister Mac![24]

{29} What functions did the slanguage serve? Humour obviously was very important as a means of coping with the impact of war. Soldiers, through slang, were able to deflect the true horror of warfare, but the slang perhaps also allowed for an articulation of that horror that they might otherwise have suppressed. The glossary records numerous expressions for death, some of which were Australianisms, others of which were shared by other forces. To be dead was to be “hung on the wire”, “pushing up daisies”, to have “gone west”, to be “up in Annie’s room”, to have been “smudged” or to be in “cold storage”. To kill the enemy was to put “fresh faces in Hell”; an identity disc was a “(dead) meat ticket”; a fatal wound was a “bellyache”. Numerous nicknames were found for the shells and artillery of both Gallipoli and the Western Front. There were “pineapples”, “minnies”, “flying pigs”, “rubber-heeled jacks” and many other particular types of shells; there were “Gentle Annie”, “Annie from Asia”, “Beachy Bill” and of course “Big Bertha” among the heavy guns, and the constant shelling was dubbed the “comforts fund”. A grim humour runs through these terms and it reflects the intimate relationship soldiers developed with both death, and the means by which death might happen. Behind this proliferation of slang, there is perhaps also a need to make oneself familiar with alien technology. Yet it can also be argued that this language made killing easier by making it more acceptable and familiar, thereby helping to keep soldiers on the front line and doing their duty.

{30} The use of offensive language also marked a distinctive soldiers’ culture. It served to reinforce the distinction between the soldiers and the home front. As mentioned before, such language would have been deemed unacceptable in “normal” society, but for the soldiers it helped them express their feelings about their situation and bond them together. Will Dyson perhaps best captures the motivation at work here (in the sentimental but moving style of the day):

what an invitation to grief is friendship with the regiments of foot … They are touchingly profane about the dead friend … They see that a cross comes from the battalion carpenter, or the especial friend like little “W——” makes a cross himself and carves an ornate rising sun on it - but they are movingly profane about it all, employing all those proper expedients of the Digger for the disguising of deep feeling - of the exhibition of which the boys are so timid that they have evolved a language compound of blasphemy and catch phrases in which they can unpack their hearts without seeming to be guilty of the weakness of emotion.[25]

{31} Language also helped to reinforce the masculine nature of soldier culture. Women in the countries where soldiers were fighting were seen as little more than potential sexual conquests, although Australian women were usually seen with respect. The glossary does not reflect overt contempt for women, merely dated attitudes: women are “bints”, “birds”, “bits of fluff”, “clinahs” and “tabbies”. Such attitudes did perhaps serve to emphasise masculine identity. Contempt for the home front is perhaps surprisingly muted in the language of the glossary: “conchy” (presumably applied to the British) and “deep thinker” appear, and there are a few other terms for those who arrived late in the war (“Noah’s doves”, “rainbows”, “Nat Goulds”) but they are not particularly pejorative.

{32} Contempt seems to be reserved to a greater extent for those who malingered or showed cowardice: “shell-hole soldiers”, “leadswingers”, and “broken-dolls” were targets. Sycophants were known as “hairy bellies” and “mother’s pets”, an overzealous officer was a “kiwi king” or a “puss-in-boots”. Distinctions were certainly made between the “brass hats” (officers) and the “PBI” (poor bloody infantry) within the slanguage of the troops. Anger was also expressed with the “eyewash” and “bumf” of military authorities, with the Australian troops concerned to get “the dinkum”, the “dinkum oil”, the “good oil” or the “good guts”. “Furphy” (a rumour) was also an Australianism coined during the Great War, and reflected the cynicism of the Australian troops with the information they received about the fighting in which they participated. Ultimately, the slang mutes rather than intensifies rebellion and dissent by allowing a humorous or cynical expression of such feelings in everyday language.

{33} The pejorative terms for other nationalities have already been mentioned - they helped to reinforce the Australians’ sense of themselves and perhaps even their superiority. Like propaganda which emphasised the “otherness” of the enemy to help justify war, slang could help to promote violent attitudes towards the enemy among the troops. Yet the slang of soldiers also revealed a less hostile attitude towards the enemy than the language of home-front propaganda: on the home front, the Germans were “the Hun”, but for the soldiers, they were more likely to “Jerry” or “Fritz”.

{34} An interesting aspect of the language of the war is the number of foreign terms, used and mangled by the troops. Words were adopted from Arabic and French (with some terms picked up from the British adaptations of Hindustani in preceding decades). For most soldiers, Arabic and, to a lesser extent, French were completely unfamiliar. Young Australian men would rarely have travelled beyond Australian borders, and their most likely travel experience (if they had one) would have been of England. The war put them into contact with foreign cultures, and the cultural gap would have been significant. Contempt for “niggers” (a word often employed in accounts of their African and Middle Eastern encounters) and their culture meant there was no real desire to understand these new and alien societies. Instead, foreign languages became something to be mocked and corrupted (sometimes consciously but sometimes merely through lack of knowledge). “Imshee” (go away), “maleesh” (never mind) and “macnoon” (crazy) were some of the terms picked up from Arabic. French words and expressions entered the Australian soldier’s lexicon to an even greater extent, most mangled into an Anglicised form: “buckoo” for “beaucoup”, “common-tally-plunk” for “comment allez vous” and “mercy blow through” for “merci beaucoup” are just some of them. But the words taken from foreign languages also reveal a fundamental point: that most Australian soldiers were being sent to a foreign country, where they could not speak the language and would have found it difficult to cope outside of the ranks of their comrades; it reinforced the fact they were far from home and had no choice but to fight through to the end so that they could get back home to a society they were familiar with.

{35} The use of distinctive Australian slang helped to reinforce a sense of national identity among Australian troops. It was, as Downing put it, “a by-product of the collective imagination of the AIF”. The use of distinctive Australianisms helped to forge a bond that in the years after the war fed into a distinctive national myth which emphasised mateship, masculinity and other values that had been forged on the battlefield. “Aussie” (meaning both Australia and an Australian) was first recorded during the Great War. “ANZAC” was created in 1915 and became seminal to Australian identity, while “cobber”, “digger”, “dinkum”, “mate” and even “bloody” all received new life and meaning in the Australian lexicon through the Great War experience.

{36} A number of the words and phrases produced during the Great War remain with us today, including “dinky-di”, “furphy”, “Aussie” and “the good oil”. Others have faded from the cultural imagination, many being too specific to the war experience. In the years following the war, the ANZAC myth was shaped by the work of Bean, the commemoration of ANZAC Day and the building of war memorials. The digger culture was retained to some extent with the veterans who chose to celebrate their contribution to the war. The culture and language that marked this digger identity was revived in the Second World War, as a new generation of soldiers looked to the sacrifices made by their fathers. A distinctive Australian slanguage remained in currency among these soldiers and in parts of the broader community but became less relevant to a changing Australian society. Nevertheless, the slanguage of the Great War remains as a significant part of the cultural production of Australian soldiers and a fascinating way of gaining some insight into how language shapes experience and identity.

© Dr Amanda Laugesen

The author

Dr Amanda Laugesen is a researcher and historian with the Australian National Dictionary Centre, Faculty of Arts, Australian National University. She annotated and edited the online version of A. G. Pretty’s glossary of AIF slang in 2002, and is also the author of Convict words: language in early colonial Australia (Oxford University Press, 2002). She is currently working on a book on Australian wartime slang from the Boer War to Vietnam, and is undertaking further research into the culture of the Australian troops during the Great War.


[1] For a discussion of the Bulletin’s attitude to the Boer War, see C. Wilcox, Australia’s Boer War: the war in South Africa 1899-1902 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 316.

[2] A. P. Linder, ‘Magical slang: ritual, language and trench slang of the Western Front’, .

[3] “Jargon” (noun), New Oxford dictionary of English (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

[4] It is worth noting that recent conflicts such as the Gulf War and the War on Iraq produce mainly technical and jargon terms which serve to make the technology of the war (and its impact) more unfamiliar and distant.

[5] Linder, ‘Magical Slang’, para. 11; see also E. Partridge, ‘In Mess and Field: the Jargon and Slang of Army Officers’, in Words at war, words at peace (London: Frederick Muller Ltd, 1948), p.156.

[6] Linder, ‘Magical Slang’, paras. 40-41.

[7] Linder, ‘Magical Slang’, para. 61.

[8] M. McKernan, Here is their spirit: a history of the Australian War Museum (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1991), p. 32.

[9] A. G. Pretty to J. L. Treloar, 10 April 1922, AWM 93 12/1/1 part 2.

[10] Treloar to Pretty, no date, AWM 93 12/1/1 part 2.

[11] Pretty to Bradish, Herald Office, 5 December, 1924, AWM 93 12/1/1/ part 2.

[12] A. W. Bazley to Pretty, 16 June 1924, AWM 93 12/1/1/ part 2.

[13] Treloar to Pretty, no date, AWM 93 12/1/1/ part 2.

[14] J. Brophy and E. Partridge, Songs and slang of the British soldier: 1914-1918 (London: Eric Partridge Ltd at the Scholartis Press, 1930), p. 15.

[15] F. Ludowyk makes the point in ‘The anatomy of swearing’ (Ozwords, April 2001, p. 3) that racist language is the new taboo language.

[16] See ‘Biographical note’ in J. M. Arthur and W. S. Ramson (eds.), Digger dialects (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. xii-xiii.

[17] W. H. Downing, Digger dialects: a collection of slang phrases used by the Australian soldiers on active service (Melbourne: Lothian Book Publishing Co., 1919), Introduction.

[18] Material in italics is the text added in the Pretty glossary.

[19] D. Kent, From trench and troopship: the experience of the Australian Imperial Force 1914-1919 (Alexandria, NSW: Hale and Iremonger, 1999).

[20] S. Audoin-Rouzeau, Men at war 1914-1918: national sentiment and trench journalism in France during the First World War (Providence, RI: Berg Publishers, 1992). The following points are based on Audoin-Rouzeau’s discussion at pp. 3-34.

[21] Kent, From trench and troopship, pp. 66-7.

[22] R. White, Inventing Australia: images and identity 1688-1980 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 136.

[23] B. Moore, ‘Australian English: Australian identity’, in B. Moore (ed.), Who’s centric now? The present state of post-colonial Englishes (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 50.

[24] The Kia Ora Coo-ee, 15 June 1918, p. 18.

[25] W. Dyson, Australia at war: a winter record (London: Cecil Palmer and Hayward, 1918), p. 26.