Salties, shafters, and roos: Australian animal words
Australia is well known for its unique, and often dangerous, contributions to the animal kingdom. In March’s update, we’ve been working to bring some more Australian and New Zealand vocabulary into our dictionary, and inevitably this includes words and phrases that involve or describe some of the critters found in the bush.
Most people will automatically hear an Australian twang when someone writes about throwing something on the barbie, and it’s not just outdoor grills that find their names shortened in this way. A lot of creatures—great and small—lose a few syllables and gain a –ie or –y when spoken about informally in Australia or New Zealand. At the beach, you might discover an ocky (an octopus) or a muddie (a mud crab), or even a saltie (a saltwater crocodile). If you move up to the rivers, you might find a few more salties, and also a shoal of kingies (a kingfish). If the water’s right, saltie’s cousin freshie (the freshwater crocodile) may just be lurking in wait of a quick bite too. Closer to—but not quite—putting the pet in pet name is the shornie, found on farms, and referring to newly shorn sheep.
But of course not all Australian or New Zealander names for animals are formed in this way. The name shafter, historically used to indicate a bullock used to pull a cart, referred to the animal’s use to people: the shaft refers to the poles that a draught animal was harnessed to. The pig dog, similarly, is named for its use in hunting wild pigs, rather than for any porcine qualities it may have. In contrast, it is precisely the monkey-like qualities combined with its bear-like appearance that once gave the koala the name monkey bear. The kookaburra has earned the nickname settler’s clock from the racket the birds make at dawn, ensuring that anybody in the vicinity is up and alert with the sun. And, quite transparently, an adult male kangaroo may be referred to as old man kangaroo, because, well, as far as kangaroos go he is an old man.
Speaking of kangaroos…
Worldwide, the kangaroo is known as an emblem of Australia. However, in rural Australia, they may also be a pest, and this status is reflected in some of the language that’s jumped up around the bouncy marsupial. If they are getting onto your land, you might put up a kangaroo fence to keep them out. When out driving, you might think it wise to fit a kangaroo bar—a metal grille attached to the front of a motor vehicle—to protect your car from serious damage if a roo happens to leap into your path. If the kangaroo population is getting out of control, it may be necessary for licensed kangarooers to go out with their kangaroo dogs on a kangaroo drive in order to cull them and bring the numbers down. Afterwards, if the fancy strikes you, you might make a kangaroo steamer, or serve up kangaroo tail. Kangaroo may not be the most common choice of meat in either hemisphere, but it is at least relatively low in fat!
Kangaroos are not the only animal to make a nuisance of themselves in Australia. Rabbits have been breeding so much like, well, rabbits, that rabbit boards have been set up to deal with the population of them in specific areas. Rabbit inspectors enforce the regulations meant to keep their populations under control, and of course rabbit fences, if sufficiently rabbit-proof, should keep them from destroying your land. In the past, any spare rabbits may have found themselves sold as dinner by a rabbitoh, a vendor named for their cry of ‘rabbit-o’ to attract buyers to their wares.
Less of a nuisance, and more of a threat, the sharks swimming around the coastlines have also necessitated a few precautionary measures. The seas around beaches may be protected by shark nets, although larger beaches cannot reasonably be safeguarded this way. Instead, they require aerial shark patrols, which survey the water from helicopters and report on any potential dangers.
Running like a hairy goat
English is not short on phrases that refer to animals, and Australian and New Zealand English have a lot to offer in this area too. In the same way that someone or something excellent might be described as the cat’s whiskers, Down Under you might also call them the ant’s pants. If, rather than being excellent, something is running or performing badly, you could say that it runs like a hairy goat.
The notion of controversy or excitement being something that can be stirred up is familiar to many English speakers, and on this theme Australian English gives us stir the possum, bringing another marsupial into the linguistic landscape.
You might say that we’re within a bull’s roar of the end of this article, which means that it is nearby. On the other hand, if you wanted to describe something that was isolated or exposed—which there must be a fair number of occasions for in a country as vast as Australia—you’d say it was like a shag on a rock, referring to the seabird, which can look very lonely indeed perching on a rock out at sea.
Now, though the night’s only a pup, I’ll say goodbye and thank your mother for the rabbits!