Exploring the mysteries of bonzers, boshters, boskers, and bontodgers
[James Lambert is the Contributing Editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. In this special guest blog he has been looking into the etymology of one of Australia’s quintessential slang words: bonzer and with it a variety of associated terms. The conclusions he draws, based on extensive research, take our knowledge of this unique group of superlatives to a new level. Now read on. JG]
The Etymologist’s Art
Etymology is the science/art of determining the origin of words. As a discipline, it requires recourse to various linguistic subfields, especially phonology and semantics, but also an equal amount of historical research.
I say science/art quite deliberately as the wide-ranging field covers both ends of the spectrum. But, in all honesty, the watchword of all good etymologists is ‘common sense’. That common sense, however, must be predicated on cold hard evidence, without which etymological speculations are nothing more than speculations, and very often very poor speculations at that, not only because they lack any solid evidentiary basis, but because they often fly in the face of what evidence there is. In other words, etymology works best when the etymologist has a very deep understanding of the history and development of the language or languages involved (there is frequently more than one) and is also able to draw on considerable linguistic evidence.
In this blog we will examine some of the essential tools of the etymologist and see how they can be applied to sift through different and competing suggestions so that unverified and unverifiable speculations are sidelined and we are left with more realistic and likely theories.
One of the major analytic heuristics is analogy. The basic idea here is that if a certain sound or sense or spelling development is known to have occurred with a certain word or set of words some time in the past, then it is reasonable to assume that the same development could happen again. For example, take the relatively new word newb, meaning ‘a newcomer or novice’, which first appears in the 1990s. We can suggest a tentative etymology, namely, that newb is a clipping of the word newbie, which has the same meaning. Now, it doesn’t take an etymologist, nor a rocket scientist for that matter, to intuitively know that this suggested derivation is 100% correct – even to the untrained eye it is clear that newb is obviously a shortening of newbie. However, one of the reasons we can be so sure is analogy. For when we ask ourselves if there are any analogous examples, the answer is a resounding yes, there are countless analogous examples: pug ‘a boxer’, clipped from pugilist (1858); pub, clipped from public house (1800), rhino and croc clipped from rhinoceros (1858) and crocodile (1884); gym, from gymnasium (1871), and so on. One of the earliest examples being gent, a clipping of gentleman dating back to the 1600s.
In fact, the process of foreshortening words is a common formative process in the English language (and other languages besides), and as English speakers, we know this. This knowledge is part of our overall comprehension of our language and it is on the basis of our knowledge of these many analogous examples that we can be confident that newb is a shortening of newbie.
You will have noticed that I have given the examples of clipped words followed by a year in parentheses. These are, as you will of course have already discerned, the year of earliest record for each of the terms. This brings us to the next tool of the etymologist, namely, chronological precedence. Quite simply put, if a certain term is meant to be the origin of another term, then the first (called the etymon) must have existed prior to its derivative. This is just common sense. Importantly, all the examples of clippings I have given above antedate the appearance of newb, thus showing that the process of forming neologisms by clipping was already in place in the language.
Nevertheless, as common sensical as this may seem, amateur etymologists often put forward theories that completely ignore this essential point. A good example of a chronologically impossible (and therefore incorrect) etymology is for the birdwatcher’s term jizz, meaning ‘the overall structure of a bird’. The erroneous theory goes that this word was originally an acronym GISS, standing for General Impression, Shape, and Size, which was used by fighter pilots in the Second World War in reference to a method of recognising aeroplane types. The fatal problem with this theory is that the birdwatcher’s term was first used in the 1920s, considerably before WWII.
This leads us to the next implement in the etymologist’s toolbox, namely documentary evidence. As etymologies are by and large dealing with the speech habits of the past, sometimes the very ancient past, our only access to the way words were formerly used is if they happen to survive in historical texts. This is one essential that good etymologists always rely on. For example, with the jizz/GISS etymology discussed above, we know it must be wrong because there is documentary evidence that jizz was used in the 1920s (it occurs in the Manchester Guardian of the 6th of December 1921), and there is no documentary evidence that GISS was used before WWII. However, if, for instance, there were no surviving copies of the Manchester Guardian from 1921 – if say they had all destroyed during the Manchester blitz of 1940 – then the GISS derivation would have seemed eminently plausible, rather than entirely impossible.
This of course shows a weakness in etymological research – that is, it can only be as good as the documentary evidence allows. Etymologists, and lexicographers as well, are bound by the resources available to them. One can never see every use of a word, especially as most language takes place in speech and is for all practical purposes lost forever once it is spoken. Only the thinnest minuscule modicum of the daily language of billions gets written down or electronically recorded, and then only a paltry sampling of what is recorded ever passes under the gaze of the lexicographer or etymologist.
So, to conduct high quality etymology, one must have recourse to historical texts, and the more the better. Thankfully, these days more and more historical texts are being digitised and made available, and the task of the etymologist is becoming ever more easier with respect to accessing documentary evidence upon which they can conduct their careful and often painstaking detective work. And, as we shall see below, this can either make or break an etymology.
Another important string to the etymologist’s bow is historical knowledge, both linguistic and sociocultural; a knowledge of who was in contact with whom, of what languages or dialects or lingos were formerly in use and when and where they were. An absence of this can result in highly improbable folk etymologies, which, while often providing a pleasing story, are utterly ridiculous. A classic example of this I once experienced was the origin of the word pothole put forth by a tour bus driver in Bath, England. His theory, presented as absolute fact, of course, was that during the Roman occupation of England (roughly 43–84 AD) the native Celts needed clay to make pots and they took advantage of a ready supply of good clay by excavating it from Roman-built roads, leaving ‘pot’ holes behind. This explanation was generally received with much interest and ‘oohing’ from the bus occupants, while I bit my tongue reasoning that one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story and that to deflate the tour guide in front of everyone was just bad manners. Yet, anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge will see the gross impossibility of the tale. First, during the Roman occupation of England, Celts spoke Old Brythonic and the Romans spoke Latin. The words pot and hole are both Germanic words first brought to England around 450 AD, long after the Romans had left. Second, the word pothole itself is only recorded since the beginning of the 19th century. So, as a result of ignoring historical knowledge, the tour guide’s etymology of pothole was impossible by a distance of some seventeen centuries. Third, Roman roads did not use clay, or used clay mixed with rubble as one of the lowest layers, not easy to dig up, nor very useful for potting. (Actually, the proposed etymology also fails from an absence of documentary evidence, just for good measure).
Finally, the last arrow in the etymologist’s quiver is Occam’s razor, also known as ‘the law of parsimony’. For our purposes, this simply means that when a suggested etymology requires too many steps or too many assumptions, then it is probably wrong, and suggestions with the least complexity have a greater chance of being right. This is a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule, but it often comes in handy. A great example of a suggested etymology that violates Occam’s razor is the famously preposterous etymology for the word hoodlum first outlined in the fourth edition of Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1877), and restated thereafter by many authorities. Repeating a story he had heard, Bartlett posits that the word hoodlum originated by a printer’s error for the term noodlum, which is backslang for Muldoon, the name of the leader of a San Franciscan gang of street Arabs. This makes the assumption that there was a backslang version of Muldoon’s name (no evidence for this), and then the assumption that a printer made an error and typeset hoodlum instead of noodlum (no evidence for this), and then the assumption that from this single error the word entered general slang (there are, at least, a few examples of a single text contributing a new word to the slang lexicon, so this last assumption is not entirely fanciful). In any case, this piling up of assumption on assumption would make William of Occam spin in his grave, and makes the suggested etymology highly unlikely indeed. An alternate etymology suggests that hoodlum may be from German dialect words, such as hudelum ‘disorderly’, Hudellump ‘slovenly person’, and is to be preferred as it relies on less assumptions.
These principles of etymological investigation work in concert with one another, but depending on the derivation suggested often only one or two may apply. In the following, I will begin by making it clear when I am invoking one of the principles, but then will tail this explicitness off so as not to belabour the point and clutter up the text.
Application – Bonzer And Mates
So, now that we have our five pillars of etymological investigation – analogy, chronological precedence, documentary evidence, historical knowledge, and Occam’s razor – let’s see them in action by applying them to a set of slang words that have long been an etymological conundrum, namely, the Australian slang word bonzer and its numerous now-obsolete synonyms.
For some unfathomable reason, in the very early days of the twentieth century, there was a unique and unsurpassed burgeoning of slang expressions in Australia, which saw some fifteen or more wholly new words, all starting with the letters “bon-” or “bos-” and ending in “-er”, suddenly spring to life and spread over the entire continent in the space of a few years. Today the sole survivor is that iconic Australianism bonzer. But, bonzer, while perhaps the bonzerest of this novel set of neologisms, originally held no special honour amongst its siblings, and why it continued when the others did not is an abiding mystery. Bumping shoulders with, and jostling for acceptance alongside bonzer were three other two-syllabled terms: bonster, boshter, and bosker, plus four three-syllabled terms: bontodger, bontosher, bontoshter, and bontozzler, and then a host of derivative terms using the suffixes -ina and -ino, including bonsterina, bontosherina, bontosherino, bonzalina, bonzerina, bonzerino, boshterino, boskerina, and boskerino. Like bonzer, all these words mean exactly the same thing: great, fantastic, excellent, awesome, unreal, brilliant, fabbo. Not only that, they could all be used as both adjective and noun. You could say, for instance, “That was a bosker birthday cake!” (adjective), or equally “That birthday cake was a boshter!” (noun).
This dizzying array of slang words all burst forth onto the Australian slang stage between 1890 and 1910. Clearly there was some deep-seated expressive power in these words that appealed to Australians of the era, some intangible verbal quintessence that communicated precisely the epitome of worth and all praise. If something was worthy of acclaim and approval, these words just hit the nail on the head, they summed it all up to a T, they let out into perfect verbal form what was in one’s heart and soul, and as such, they were taken up with gusto and energy and spread like wildfire among the populace.
Indeed, this slangy efflorescence resulting in a wholly new set of terms, all similar in form, emerging en masse for no apparent reason other than to say ‘very good’ (for which fundamental concept the lexis was already perfectly well supplied) is unaccountably unprecedented. Neither myself nor Jonathon Green can recall anything like it in the annals of slang worldwide. Surely the popularity and spread of these uniquely and unashamedly Australian slang words were intimately bound up with the then burgeoning sense of Australian nationalism, supported in part by the print media of the day, especially, but not only, in the form of The Bulletin which championed Australianness across its pages and across the country. The advent of the Great War, which saw hordes of working-class Australians thrown into the horrors of that conflict, further cemented these slang words in the national psyche, as evinced in the writings of C.J. Dennis and other poets of the era. In addition, as with much Antipodean slang, the words bonzer, boshter, and bosker were prevalent also in New Zealand and had similar life trajectories. However, the Kiwis did not, it seems, connect with the bontodger, bontosher, bontozzler set, nor the bonzerina, boshterino extensions either.
That these slang words existed, their popularity, and their meaning, are all abundantly clear. The real trouble with bonzer and mates is their etymologies which have for over a century now steadfastly resisted repeated efforts to determine. The following analysis is based on a new collection I have recently put together of over 700 citations of these words (of which 12% are from NZ sources), mostly taken from the Trove database, supplied free of charge by the National Library of Australia, and the equally open access Papers Past database of the National Library of New Zealand. A representative selection of those 700 citations will appear in the relevant entries in GDoS (in the coming update). This collection unearths a number of significant antedatings, and in doing so sheds new light on, and indeed solves, some of the etymological conundrums and shows how important documentary evidence is. I shall go through the terms one by one.
Before starting, however, we must examine the suggestion that bonzer, bontodger, bosker, boshter, etc., are all variants of one another. A number of sources more or less confidently state this is so, but in the same breath admit that the exact method of formation remains a mystery. Etymologically, the notion that these are all forms of one another is a nonsense. Yes, they all have the same meaning and, yes, they all appeared at the same time (roughly), but that does not mean they are variant forms. Certainly, phonetically there are no obvious connections. For instance, under what laws of phonetic decay or alteration could bonzer be a contracted form of bontodger? or, could bosker be a variant of bonzer or boshter? What analogous cases can we find for such variations? Quite simply, none.
In fact, Sidney J. Baker, Australia’s leading slang expert for much of the 20th century, seems to be the first to suggest that boshter, bosker and bonzer are ‘independent terms, which merely have similarity in use and sound’ (1945: 125). As we shall see, to a certain extent, there is some merit to this idea.
We begin with the bizarre looking word bontodger (also spelled hyphenated bon-todger, or as two words, bon todger, and, less commonly, bontoger, bontojer). The only reasonable theory suggested to date is that this is an Anglicisation of the French bon toujours ‘always good’. This theory was first put forward in 1904, and again in 1908 and 1929, but has been universally discounted by later lexicographers, most of whom spurn mentioning it. Ludowyk (2003) particularly was not convinced, stating that “I have a strong suspicion that the French bon toujours theory is a bonzer red herring”, and further that “it is difficult to imagine under what historical circumstances Australian English might have borrowed a French word or expression in the first decade of the twentieth century”.
I myself, when asked to look into this theory some three or four years ago now, was disinclined to support the theory due to lack of evidence for it, despite the fact that phonetically and semantically the theory seemed altogether probable. However, given the new documentary evidence I have collected, I have absolutely reversed my position and accept the French origin entirely as the evidence very strongly supports it.
The earliest example of this word I have uncovered is from 1900, where it is used as a nickname for a pugilist. Here a meaning of ‘always good’ or ‘excellent’ is possible, though the text does not elaborate. A similar nickname use appears in 1901, again without explanation.
1900 The Sydney Sportsman 5 Dec. 8/6 On Saturday night last at the Gate a hard-faced individual was introduced by Don M’Donald, under the cognomen of Tommy Allen (better known to North Shoreites as the ‘Bon Todger.’) This gentleman challenged all and sundry whose avoirdupois does not exceed 140lb to do battle for a stake of from £25 to £100.
1901 The Cobargo Chronicle (NSW) 25 Oct. 2/7 A most enjoyable social was held at the residence of Mr. Bontodger. Towards 8 o’clock numerous lovers of the terpsichorean art might be seen (although the night was as dark as a blackfellow’s feet) wending their way (they always wend) towards the rendezvous.
More suggestive of the etymological meaning is the following citation wherein the term clearly means ‘an excellent person’ and is spelled in un-Anglicised form bon tojour. The explanation ‘a jolly white man’ is a not uncommon racially motivated expression from Australia’s colonial era, basically meaning ‘an honourable, upstanding person’.
1901 The Manilla Express (NSW) 7 Dec. 5/4 Ald. Wearne said they must not forget the Premier: (An alderman. And the Minister for Works). The hard-worked and jolly good little S. W. Moore was a bon tojour – which meant a jolly white man. Mr. Jenkins had started well towards the little Council.
To further cement this theory it would be good to know whether the words bon and toujours were known in Australia prior to (i.e., with chronological precedence), or at least contemporaneous with, the earliest examples of bontodger. In answer to this I have forborne examining the word bon, as even the most elementary knowledge of French includes this word, and it appears in such commonly known terms as bon-bon, bon appétit, bon voyage, tres bon, etc. As for toujours ‘always’, the Trove database attests to some 2600 examples of this word in Australian English newspapers prior to 1900. Many of these are legitimate French uses, such as in the expressions toujours gaie ‘always cheerful’ and toujours fidèles ‘forever faithful’, as well as the faux French toujours perdrix, literally ‘always partridges (a luxury dish)’, in other words, ‘too much of a good thing’. But there are also many examples of toujours implanted within English sentences:
1832 The Sydney Gazette 28 Feb. 3/5 [B]ut, Lucy, you often called me ‘toujours gaie’[.]
1840 The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser 8 Sept. 4/2 We come wid de great ship for your money you save; tank you, good Mr. Hume; vous est bon patriot. We shall have all your ship toot sweet; we only got to danse after, and maungy ros bif toojoor; no more soup, no more frog, Mr. Joey. Com, danse, my best friend, com.’
1842 The Sydney Herald 15 Jan. 3/1 [H]e imagines the Italian has cast ‘an evil eye’ on him and puts something into his food to keep him on the sick list, a prisoner here, toujours; but he is on the alert, he won’t eat[.]
1882 The Bulletin (Sydney) 14 Jan. 7/1 It is toujours Bunthorne; and toujours Bunthorne, unlike toujours perdrix, never becomes monotonous.
1883 The Bulletin (Sydney) 15 Dec. 9/1
This may be owing in some measure to his being, if not toujours, at least ‘frequently often,’ Bunthorne in other characters – and it may not.
1886 The Bulletin (Sydney) 2 Jan. 6/4 As the doctor is only a little slimmer than the Claimant in his best days, he didn’t quite fade away under the trying ordeal of beer and biscuits toujours, but it is not surprising to learn that he ‘lost weight.’
1890 The Illustrated Sydney News 23 Jan. 19/3 Most men paint miles of Hawkesbury – toujours Hawkesbury – but here are little glimpses of old-time life which are exceedingly charming, and which have never yet been put upon canvas.
1894 The Border Watch (Mount Gambier) 6 June ‘Oh, I am a poor crater. Too jours, yer Honour; too jours!’
In addition, there are two early examples of the expression bon toujours meaning ‘always good’.
1901 The Manilla Express (NSW) 7 Dec. 2/6 Ald. Bailey’s dream has been fulfilled – his opportunity for spending money during his first term of office has come. Gloria in excelsis! ‘Bon toujours!’ or trowsers, or something!
1902 The Cobargo Chronicle (NSW) 16 May 2/3 Here’s the ‘Chronicle’s’ bit: Rijiggidi-boo – pro bono footballo – Trumperus Nobelo – hors de combat – bon todger – cum grano salis Phillip Tarlintono!
Note here the macaronic texts, that is, texts composed of a hodgepodge mixture of languages, which emphasise for jocular effect the imprecision and imperfect control when handling languages that are not one’s own, as often occurs with learners as per the classic ‘school-girl French’ meme.
The use of French in these texts is also important in light of Ludowyk’s suspicions about ‘a French word or expression’ appearing in Australian English ‘in the first decade of the twentieth century’. Here historical knowledge comes to the fore. In fact, French was the premier second language for English speakers in the 19th and early 20th centuries particularly. The Trove database, for example, records over 990 advertisements for ‘French lessons’ prior to 1910, as well as thousands of advertisements for French textbooks and novels. And, of course, the above citations all point to a certain level of French knowledge in Australia at the time, for the newspaper editors would hardly have kept using expressions they thought their readership would not understand.
One objection to the bon toujours theory that has not previously been noted, but needs to be dealt with here, is that there is no such expression bon toujours in French. The French simply do not say it. However, that does not necessarily throw a spanner in the works, because (using analogy) there are in fact a number of other English expressions formed from French words that are not legitimate expressions in French. Three notable examples are mon cherie ‘my darling’ (the French simply say cherie), double entendre ‘a pun’ (the correct French is double entente or double sens), and nom de plume ‘pen name’ (for French nom de guerre or pseudonyme). Given these analogous pseudo-French Frenchisms in English, the pseudo-French bon toujours becomes an acceptable etymon, especially so with the documentary evidence supporting it.
A final point to make is that unlike the other three-syllabled terms in our set (e.g. bontosher, bontozzler, etc.), bontodger is quite commonly spelled hyphenated or as two words, a possible explanation for this being that those writing it were cognizant of its two word origin.
This particular word is the only one that has withstood the test of time and is still an active part of Australian slang, albeit nowhere near as popular as it once was. It also found some favour in New Zealand in the past but is practically moribund there now. The word bonzer is also the one which has garnered the most etymological speculation. Additionally, as we shall see, bonzer appears to one of those most rare of slang terms that originated in New Zealand and then was adopted in Australia, rather than the other way around. Indeed it may come as something of a shock, or at least a disappointment, to many Aussies that such a quintessential part of the Australian slanguage as bonzer was originally Kiwi (quelle horreur! heaven forfend!), but the evidence is abundantly clear and impossible to contradict.
However, we shall start with the less supportable theories before moving onto the genuine article.
The most frequent derivation of bonzer is that it is from Standard English bonanza ‘a profitable goldmine, a great profit, a boon’, an Americanism recorded in Australian English sources since the 1840s. This theory was originally suggested in 1904, and was subsequently favoured by Manchon (1923), C.T. Onions in the OED Supplement (1933), and Sidney J. Baker (1945) who stated that the change from bonanza to bonzer was through ‘syncope’, that is, the elision of a phoneme or syllable from the interior of a word (e.g. ne’er from never). However, to arrive at bonzer from bonanza would require omitting the stressed syllable (-nan-), or more precisely, part of it while retaining one of the n’s, which seems unlikely. At the same time, syncope would require moving the stress from the middle syllable to the first (i.e. a process of bo-nan-za > bon-an-za > bon-za), a great occasion to apply Occam’s razor. Additionally on the downside, there is no evidence at all of bonanza used adjectivally. That is, there are no examples of ‘The cake was bonanza’, or ‘We had a bonanza time’, and it is clear from our evidence that bonzer (as well as bosker and boshter) were always both noun and adjective. Ramson (1966) rejected the bonanza theory, and Ludowyk (2003) would only go so far as to suggest that bonanza had a possible influence on –z– spelling of bonzer, but, as we shall see, there is no need to invoke bonanza to account for bonzer’s zed.
The next most frequent etymological suggestion is that bonzer is some fanciful extension or elaboration of French bon ‘good’ (e.g. Ramson 1988, Lambert 2004). While this is plausible, it does not explain how one transmutes bon into bonzer. It could be conjectured that it is a case of bon + ‑er (a common suffix in slang formation, such as fiver, tenner, cigger, sanger) with an epenthetic sibilant (unvoiced -s- and voiced -z- variants) added for euphony. However, there are few if any analogous elaborations of this nature, and the theory lacks supporting documentary evidence.
Other more fanciful suggested etymologies for bonzer can be dealt with in short order. They are (a) that bonzer is from Standard English born star (suggested in 1904), (b) that it is from Japanese banzai ‘a cry of victory, hurrah!’ (suggested in 1910), and (3) that it is from Scottish bonny ‘cheerful’ (suggested in 1942). The unanswerable question arises, why not just keep saying and writing these words as born star or banzai or bonny? Why change the pronunciation and spelling? Additionally, there is no documentary evidence for such sentences as ‘He was a born star’, or ‘That was a banzai goal’, etc., and the sense of bonny does not match that of bonzer. Particularly for the ‘born star’ theory to work, the evidence would have show that the term was originally applied to people (animals too, I suppose) – because of the verb born – before being generalised to inanimate objects. But, bonzer was from the start applied to anything animate or inanimate or abstract.
An alternative theory is put forward in the latest edition of the Australian National Dictionary (Moore 2016) which suggests that bonzer comes from the earlier term bonster, as according to their records, bonster dates from 1901 and bonzer appears slightly later in 1903. This theory does not hold, however, in light of the antedatings uncovered by my recent research, in which more than ten examples of bonzer (in various spellings) were located prior to 1901, thus pre-dating the appearance of bonster and making it chronologically impossible to be the ancestor of bonzer.
However, Moore (2016) makes a further etymological suggestion, namely, that bonzer may be from the British dialect word boncer ‘a large marble’, which in turn comes from the British dialect term bouncer ‘something exceptionally large for its kind; also, a prodigious fellow’, venerable slang dating back to 1596, a theory originally put forward by Ludowyk in 2003. Support for this theory is provided in the Australian National Dictionary by citations for the spelling boncer – meaning bonzer – dating from 1902 to 1916, after which the spelling disappears in their records.
Indeed, Ludowyk and Moore appear to have hit the nail on the head here, even though their citational evidence only provided enough evidence to be speculative rather than certain. To be certain of this etymology, one would need documentary evidence that boncer meaning ‘excellent’ (adj.) and ‘an excellent person or thing’ (noun) was in use before bonzer first appeared, and also evidence that boncer meaning ‘a large marble’ was also in was in use at an earlier or contemporaneous date. Happily, such evidence is now available, however, not from Australian English sources alone, but in concert with evidence from New Zealand.
The Papers Past database provides numerous examples of the word boncer in New Zealand newspapers used with the exact same meaning and typical contexts of the word bonzer, dating as far back as 1893.
1893 The Observer (Auckland) 14 Oct. 20 There have been considerable changes in the betting over the Caulfield Cup, consequent on the running of horses at the A.J.C. Brockleigh, notwithstanding he will have to carry a big load of 9-8 has been jumped into the position of first favourite; and allowing that he is a ‘boncer’ over the distance, he will have to be something approaching a Carbine to win.
1897 The Auckland Star 3 Apr Suppl. 2 ‘Of course the hero of the meeting was A.H. Holder, and let me tell you he is a ‘boncer’.
1898 The New Zealand Herald (Auckland) 30 July 1 Ain’t it a Boncer? What? The Music Box at Jubilee Bazaar, top of Pitt-street.
1899 The Cromwell Argus 1 July 5 Just listen while I sing about our Boncer Boys in Blue.
1900 The Woodville Examiner 4 July 20 Lieut. Sommerville is a fair boncer, and we think a terrible lot of him.
1901 The New Zealand Herald (Auckland) 12 Jan. Suppl. 1 His chest must have swelled out considerably, and he must have felt that ‘life was worth living,’ amid the acclaims of ‘Good Old Dick,’ and ‘Seddon, you’re a boncer,’ ‘Kia Ora,’ ‘Tenakoa,’ and ‘Ake, ake’.
Examples such as these given here continue in the New Zealand data up until the 1940s, with a variety of alternative spellings including bonsar, bonser, and bonsor, all indicating a pronunciation with an unvoiced sibilant /ˈbɒnsə/. This tallies with the earliest Australian evidence uncovered by my recent research:
1898 The Bulletin (Sydney) 18 June 20/1 Then he was in the employ of various Chinese storekeepers, acting as clerk in one for three years, at the end of which time he ‘start[ed] a partner business with Mr. Chow Shum in Blenheim. In the year 1892 Blenheim was lively place, that time doing a bonsor trade.’
1901 The Molong Express (NSW) 20 July 1/1 What they term ‘a bonser’ frost, turned up last Monday morning.
1901 The Molong Argus (NSW) 26 Jul 2/6 I wish Steve every success. He is a ‘bonsor’ little chap.
1902 The Windsor and Richmond Gazette (NSW) 8 Mar 3/4 Billy made what is considered the finest hit ever seen on Waverley Oval, the ball going clean over the pavilion, out of the ground, on to the tram lines. The hit was what the crowd called a ‘real bonser.’
1903 The Cobar Herald (NSW) 26 Dec 2/4 In the afternoon a large number of friends visited the happy couple at their residence, partaking of wine and cake (the cake must have been a boncer), and wishing Mr. and Mrs. Coulton a happy future.
These unvoiced forms continue in the Australian data up until 1920. Note that both Australian and New Zealand English are non-rhotic and so do not pronounce the final /r/.
Spellings with -z- include the iconic bonzer as well as bonza, bonzah, bonzar, and bonzor, indicating the voiced pronunciation /ˈbɒnzə/. Such a change (from /s/ to /z/) is an expected phonetic variation given that the sibilant is nested between two voiced phonemes /n/ and /ə/. The earliest citations for the -z- spelling begin to appear a few years later than the original forms, with the earliest in 1901 from New Zealand:
1901 The Lyttelton Times 20 Apr. 1 [advert] ‘BONZER’ In the vernacular means excellent: OUR REMINGTONS Are ‘Bonzers’.
1904 The Argus (Melbourne) 23 July 5/2 ‘Not venomous! Rats! He’d squeeze you to death in one act. I say, Bill, ain’t his noo skin bonza?’
1904 The Truth (Sydney) 28 Aug.1/7 King Ned is a ‘bonzer’.
1904 The West Australian (Perth) 10 Oct. 10/2 [advert] Now on view, a Bonzer assortment of Bats (by leading manufacturers) Balls (Composition and Leather), Stumps, Pads, Gloves, and every accessory to the game.
1906 The Greymouth Evening Star 15 Feb. 3 The discoverers, who, though working in pairs, were dividing mates, have applied for a claim which all hope will prove a ‘bonza’.
1906 The Laverton and Beria Mercury (WA) 14 Feb. 2/5 They Say […] That if you want a real bonza night’s amusement roll up to the Workers’ Hall on the 24th.
All these indicate clearly that the earliest forms are boncer/bonser/bonsor, first from New Zealand and then later occurring in Australia, and that the bonzer/bonza forms appear later.
Now we must examine the connection with marbles. The game of marbles along with its terminology was brought to the Antipodes from England where it has been a common children’s pastime since medieval times. The great English Dialect Dictionary notes that the term boncer meant a ‘very large marble […] used to strike marbles from the ring’, citing a sole source, namely, William H. Cope’s Glossary of Hampshire Words and Phrases of 1883, where it was specified as occurring only in the north of Hampshire, i.e., a very localised term. Nevertheless, it would seem that this very term did make its way to New Zealand, presumably via a colonist from north Hampshire, as evidence by the following:
1881 The Poverty Bay Herald 29 Mar. 2 Away he runs to the Post Office, draws out his stamp money, and goes in for ‘alleytores,’ ‘stoneys,’ and ‘bonsers’.
Further evidence of boncer as the name of a marble is given in Orsman (1997) with citations from the 1970s, but with a correspondent claiming to have used it as early as c.1918. Importantly, the earliest citation for the marble sense (1881) predates the appearance of boncer meaning ‘excellent’ (1893). The semantic connection is clear to anyone who has played marbles as a child where marbles are ranked according to estimated worth and the typical set up is a bag of marbles (the alley bag) having numerous small marbles (known as alleys or commonies) and a few, often only one, large-sized marble (known variously as the bonker, taw, tombowler), the last of which is always the most prized of marble possessions, the marble that stands out from all other marbles not only in size but overall magnificence.
As for the more remote connection between boncer the marble and British dialect bouncer ‘something exceptionally large for its kind’, this is hard to determine. Orsman suggests that bouncer is derived from boncer, while Moore suggests the opposite. In either case, it does not effect the etymology of our bonzer, for it is clear from the evidence that bonzer ‘excellent’ is a voiced pronunciation variant of earlier boncer, which is a metaphorical use of boncer the marble, which came from British dialect into New Zealand English in the nineteenth century.
This term first appears (alongside the synonymous boshter) in the early 1900s, both in Australia and New Zealand, and despite originally being as common as bonzer, it has now all but fallen out of use.
Apart from the suggestion that is a variant of bonzer, which we have already discounted, there have been at least two etymologies put forward for bosker. The first claims that it is from the French phrase (plus) beau que ça ‘more beautiful than that’, first suggested in 1918. This is immediately problematic. First, an Anglicisation of beau que ça should give rise to boksa, and so requires an extra step of metathesis to get to boska. Second, the resulting form should retain the long vowel of beau /bəʊ-/, not have a short vowel /bɒ-/. There is no textual evidence to support any of this. In fact, the only examples of beau que ça in the Trove and Paper Past databases are merely repetitions in various newspapers of this proposed etymology. This suggestion relies on too many unproven assumptions and is a prime candidate for the application of Occam’s razor.
The second theory, dating to 1918, claims that bosker ‘is the Australian equivalent of a word that has fallen out of general use in Britain for over a century’, namely, the word bosky meaning ‘drunk’. According to the theorist, ‘a bosky time meant a good time, the same as bosker time now does’ and that people ‘who saw the bibulous one on his way home would say, ‘He’s been having a ‘bosky’ time’.’ Actually, the collocation bosky time doesn’t mean ‘good time’, but rather a ‘drunken time’, an instance of getting on the piss, which may or may not be good depending on how messy it gets. There is some evidence of bosky meaning drunk in both Australian and New Zealand texts, but semantically there are no analogous examples of a word meaning drunk being converted into a word meaning excellent or something great.
In form, bosker appears to be from bosk + -er, but I can offer no explanation of where bosk may have come from. In British dialect, bosk (also busk) means ‘an underwood thicket, a bush’, which cannot be related. Meanwhile, dialect busker has a range of meanings, such as ‘a person who beats game towards hunters’, ‘a boy too long unweaned’, and ‘a fisherman who dares all weathers’, none of which match or even approach the meaning of bosker. Nor do these British dialect words seem to have ever been used in Australian or New Zealand English.
Interestingly, there is the occasional variant form boshker, which seems to blend boshter and bosker, or is merely a variant pronunciation of bosker. Historically, there are analogical pronunciation variants that occurred in English resulting in pairs such as busk/bush, bosk/bosh, but this type of variation belongs to the distant past, not the early 20th century, and hardly helps to illuminate the mystery.
First appearing with bosker in the early 1900s, both in Australia and New Zealand, this term was formerly as common as bonzer, but has now fallen out of use. The only etymology ever promulgated for this word is the unlikely suggestion that it is from Arabic hooshta ‘a call used to urge a camel forwards’, first suggested in 1910. Actually, as camels were widely used for transport in the Australian outback in colonial times, the word hooshta does appear in Australian texts from the 1890s onwards. However, a term for commanding a camel is hardly likely to become a word meaning ‘excellent’. Also, hooshta is ever and always an interjection, not an adjective. Finally, there is no explanation possible for the change from initial hoosh- to bosh-, no analogous examples of such a phonetic shift occurring elsewhere.
In form, boshter appears to be from bosh + -ter, but I can offer no explanation of where bosh may have come from. The common slang meaning of bosh is ‘nonsense, rubbish’, a borrowing of Turkish boş, but this is the opposite of ‘excellent’, so cannot be the etymon of boshter. In British dialect, bosh (also bash) has a range of meanings, none of which appear to be pertinent, such as ‘the front part of a bull’s head’ and ‘the bottom of a furnace where iron ore is melted’. However, there is the dialect phrase to cut a bosh meaning ‘to make a fine figure’ or ‘swaggering appearance’, and so a boshter, in this sense, might mean a fine looking person – but, this is pure speculation, of course, and we must avoid baseless assumptions. In any case, the early citations of boshter clearly show it being applied to a variety of things, not necessarily a fine looking person, and so do not support this conjecture. Nor is there any evidence of the phrase cut a bosh in Australian or New Zealand sources.
This term is found in Australian texts from 1901 up to 1950. It appears to have had scant success in New Zealand with only two citations in the Papers Past data. On the surface it appears to be a variant of boncer/bonser with the suffix ‑ster substituted for the usual ‑er. The -ster suffix is ancient in English, used to create agent nouns such as songster, trickster, youngster, and has been a common stalwart of slang formation: dabster, hipster, magster, oldster, etc. A similar variation in the final syllable is seen in bontosher/bontoshter.
Alternatively, bonster could potentially be from French bon ‘good’ + -ster. A similar etymology was put forward in 1904 with the suggestion that bonster is a ‘blend of French bon ‘good’ with Standard English monster meaning, not ‘hideous’ but ‘great’, ‘fine’, and, in a way, ‘admirable’.’ This sounds plausible, but there is no documentary evidence that monster was used to mean ‘admirable’ in Australia back in 1904.
BONTOSHER / BONTOSHTER
Appearing in 1904 in Australia (but not New Zealand), these appear to be phonetic variations of the earlier bontodger. I suppose that the move from –dg– to –sh– may have been influenced by boshter, especially so with the form bontoshter. Simply devoicing bontodger /bɒnˈtɒdʒə/ should give bontocher /bɒnˈtɒtʃə/, rather than bontosher /bɒnˈtɒʃə/, but there is no evidence for any spelling suggesting a –ch– pronunciation (i.e. no citations for bontocher, bontocha, bontotcher, bontotcha). Moore (2016) suggests a possible influence by Scottish tosh ‘neat, tidy, trim, smart’, but there is no evidence for this speculation, nor could I locate any evidence that this Scottish word has ever had any currency in Australian English.
This beaut of a word is a relative late-comer, arriving on the scene in 1906, and is recorded in no other dictionary or glossary of the Australian variety of English. Clearly, it is a variant of bontodger or bontosher with the ending converted to –zzler taken from the synonymous terms dazzler, bobby-dazzler, and sizzler. A rare variant is bontozzer.
-INA and -INO
Here we can group together a large number of morphological variants using the well-worn suffixes -ina and -ino. These appear in pairs for the more common words: bonzerina/bonzerino, boshterina/boshterino, boskerina/boskerino, but with some of the less common terms only one of a potential pair is found, such as bonsterina and bontodgerino. Based on their Italian origins, the -ina forms should be feminine and the –ino forms masculine, but this distinction does not seem to have been maintained in Australian slang in this case. The exception to this is the form bonzerina, which is sometimes applied generally, and sometimes specifically to mean ‘an exceptional woman’.
Finally we come to abbreviated forms. The most common of these is bonze, essentially bonzer reduced to one syllable. A contributor to The Bulletin in 1904 noted that ‘a bonser or bonster is comparatively superior to a bons’, which seems to indicate that ‘bons’ was the earlier form, but this is not borne out by the evidence. The next earliest evidence is:
1907 The Sun (Kalgoorlie) 31 Mar. 7/2 The latest abbreviation of a new slang word ‘bonz’ was applied to the splendid supper provided by the ladies.
An extension of this abbreviation is bonzo, namely bonz(er) + -o, the classic Australian colloquialising suffix, which first appears in 1918. The –o suffix has a long history in Australian slang, being originally an exclamation (oh!) tacked onto words used by street vendors peripatetically promoting their trade. It first appears as a noun suffix in the 1860s, and so clearly has the necessary chronological precedence. The rule for using the ‑o suffix is that the original word has to be reduced to its first syllable before tacking on the ‑o. In New Zealand the form bosko also appears, being the first syllable of bosker united with the ‑o suffix.
Other abbreviated forms include bon (1906), bon tosh (1907), and bon todge (1910), though these last three appear to be nonce formations, invented for the occasion by crafty writers and lacking any corroborating evidence.
By attempting to unpick and prise apart the obscure etymologies of the uniquely Australian and New Zealand slang terms bonzer, boshter, bosker, bontodger, and cousins, we have been given insight into the thought processes and common practices of the etymologist. Readers should by now have a better idea of the way that etymologists, who are by and large also lexicographers, approach suggested derivations and attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff. Of crucial importance is the access to relevant documentary evidence to give credence to theories that begin life as speculation or conjecture. In fact, my own opinion of the origin of the word bonzer underwent radical alteration (as did the first draft of this blog) upon my discovery of new data that completely contradicted my own first thoughts and instead added abundant support for a theory I had initially discarded because of insufficient evidence.
Etymologies are cheap, it costs nothing to come up with one, and therefore they abound, as we have seen with our set of bonzer slang words. However, by careful recourse to analogy, chronological precedence, documentary evidence, and historical knowledge, and keeping in mind both Occam’s razor as well as common sense, etymological speculations based on solid evidence tend to rise to the top while others must remain as they began, nothing but the stuff of pure imagination.
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Lambert, J. (2004). The Macquarie Australian Slang Dictionary. Sydney: Macquarie Library.
Ludowyk, F. (2003). ‘A bonzer conundrum.’ Ozwords, 10(1): 1–3.
Manchon, J. (1923). Le Slang. Paris: Payot.
Moore, B. (2016). The Australian National Dictionary. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
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