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What Makes a Bonzer Etymology?

Exploring the mysteries of bonzers, boshters, boskers, and bontodgers

James Lambert

 

 

[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 ‘potholes 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.

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Update #10: 30 April 2019

 

Welcome to the tenth and latest update of the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

 

As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 265 new slang terms, the majority from the last few years; 135 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and  new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. In all there are 2329 new citations, appearing under 1565 headwords. In total the database currently offers 55,213 headwords (within which are nested over 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by approximately 640,000 citations). All this material is on offer to every user.

 

For an overview, with the fruits of the last quarter’s research in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here.This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue. As pionered in recent updates, the format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of an entry, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see at once which part of an entry has improved.

 

As usual the research has focused largely on newspaper databases, notably those held by the British Library, the US Library of Congress and, for Australia, Trove. These, by their nature, tend to look backwards in time, but there is also an on-going accretion of up-to-date slang. Individual ‘contributors’ include four more works by the late Robert G. Barrett, a hugely popular Australian author and creator of his hero Les Norton, two from America’s Stephen Mack Jones (August Snow and Lives Laid Away), Nico Walker’s Cherry and from Joe Lansdale (best know for his Hap and Leonard stories) Leather Maiden. Older texts include the prolific Nina Wilcox Putnam’s West Broadway and from journalist and scriptwriter Ben Hecht (celebrated for the play, latterly movie The Front Page) A Thousand and One Afternoons, a selection of his columns in the Chicago press. Plain or Ringlets, another novel by Robert Surtees, already well represented, adds to his world of rural society and the fox-hunting it enjoys. Finally, the late 17th century’s pleasingly titled Catalogue of Jilts, cracks, prostitutes, night-walkers…and others of the linnen-lifting tribe.

 

The primary single contribution comes from contributing editor James Lambert who has looked more extensively than any other researcher at the multiplicity of terms that have been created around Australia’s bogan, a socially derided class which in local terms is the current synonym for the earlier hoon or ocker, and in the wider world, of the chav. The full entries, with usage examples, are to be found here, but for those who would enjoy a summation we can offer the following:

 

Derivatives:
■ anti-bogan adj. antagonistic towards bogans or the bogan lifestyle; not bogan in style or manner. ■ boganacious adj. bogan to an extreme extent, i.e. ‘bodaciously bogan’. ■ boganaire n. [bogan + SE millionaire] a very wealthy bogan, also attrib. ■ boganalian adj. [bogan + Australia] in context of Australia conceived of as a land of bogans. ■ boganality n. bogan behaviour and mentality; ‘bogan-ness’. ■ Boganator n. a fantasy super-robot which has the characteristics of the bogan and Hollywood’s Terminator; used to identify as an uber-bogan to satirise bogan lifestyles; also attrib. ■ bogandom n. the world of bogans; bogans collectively. ■ boganese n. the highly colloquial and slangy style of speech used by bogans. ■ boganesque adj.bogan-like; somewhat bogan. ■ boganette n. a female bogan. ■ boganfest n. an event at which many bogans are present; also attrib. ■ boganfy v. to imbue with bogan-ness. ■ boganhood n. the state or quality of being a bogan. ■ boganic adj. bogan in nature, bogan-like. ■ boganify v. to imbue with bogan-ness; to stereotype as a bogan. ■ boganification n. the process of rendering a place or person characteristic of a bogan mentality or style. ■ boganise v. to imbue with bogan-ness, e.g. in customizing an automobile, thus boganised. ■ boganisation n. imbuing with bogan values and styles. ■ boganish adj. casual, unfocussed. ■ boganism n. bogan behaviour, the bogan aesthetic. ■ boganista n. [bogan + fashionista] a ‘fashionable’ and/or glamorous female bogan; also attrib. ■ boganistan n. a notional place that is primarily inhabited by those who qualify as bogans. ■ boganistic adj. bogan in nature, bogan-like; thus boganistical, boganistically. ■ boganite n. var. on bogan. ■ boganitis n. a mythical ‘disease’ whereby the bogan aesthetic is communicable to the unwary. ■ boganity n. the state of being a bogan; bogan-ness. ■ Boganland n. Australia; any area with a high population density of bogans. ■ boganless adj. free of bogans. ■ boganmobile n. any vehicle favoured by bogans, especially a customized classic Australian car. ■ boganness n. the state of being a bogan. ■ boganing n. behaving like a bogan. ■ boganocracy n. bogans as a political force or ruling power. ■ boganology n. often joc. the academic study of bogans or boganness; thus adj. boganological, boganologist. ■ boganophile n. one who loves bogans; thus boganophilia. ■ boganophobe n. (also boganophobic) one who is (irrationally) hostile towards bogans; thus boganophobia, n. hostility towards bogans, boganophobicadj. hostile towards bogans. ■ boganopolis n. any place with a high population density of bogans. ■ boganosity n. (also boganocity) the bogan aesthetic; the essence of bogan behaviour. ■ boganry n. bogan behaviour, the bogan lifestyle. ■ Boganville n. (also Bogansville) a major agglomeration of bogans, sometimes applied to an entire town or city. ■ Boganvillean.(also Boganvillia, Boganvilia Street) [pun on Bougainvillea, a common garden creeper] a var. of previous, a major agglomeration of bogans, sometimes applied to an entire town or city, thus boganvillian. ■ bogany adj. bogan in nature; typical of a bogan. ■ brogan n. [bro + bogan] a fellow bogan; a bogan who is a brother or a ‘bro’; a sibling who is a bogan. ■ fauxgan n. [Fr. faux, false/fake + bogan] a phony bogan, usu. middle or upper-middle class; one who merely pretends to the type.
In compounds:
□ bogan army n. a large gathering or group of bogans, e,.g. as football fans; bogans as a social unit. □ bogan band n. any music group, especially hard rock or Oz rock, traditionally favoured by bogans. □ bogan boy n. a young male bogan; a demeaning ad hoc nickname for someone behaving like a bogan. □ bogan brew n. any type of beer favoured by bogans, especially traditional Australian mass-produced lagers. □ bogan central n. a place with a high population density of bogans. □ bogan champagne n. one of a variety of drinks, typically inexpensive and sugary, favoured by bogans. □ bogan chariot n. any vehicle make or type stereotyped as being driven by bogans. □ bogan chic n. bogan style or fashion of choice. □ bogan chick n. a female bogan. □ bogan city n. a city or town with a high population density of bogans; a fig. ‘city of bogans’. □ Bogan Day n. 1  a fictional day on which boganism is celebrated. 2  Australia Day (26th January). □ bogan dust n. 1  (also the bogans) any narcotic or recreational drug that comes in powder form, esp. methamphetamine (rather than the more expensive cocaine). 2  small pieces of broken glass that accumulate on the side of a road or highway [the assumption being that these are from broken bottles tossed out of vehicles]. 3 (also BD) instant coffee. □ bogan girl n. a female bogan. □ bogan heaven n. any place especially loved by bogans. □ bogan juice n. any drink favoured by bogans, e.g. bourbon whiskey and coca-cola. □ bogan magnet n. a place or event that attracts bogans. □ bogan name n. a given name considered indicative of the parents’ bogan lifestyle; typically with unconventional spelling, and often a surname used as a first name. □ bogan slogan n. an expression, aphorism, motto, or the like, expressing bogan sentiments or attitudes, often found as a tattoo. □ ex-bogan n. a person who used to be a bogan; one who eschews their former bogan identity. □ inner bogan n. a bogan personality that resides within all Australians whether externally noticeable or not. □ non-bogan n. one who does not espouse bogan values. Finally □ Violent Bogan, n. one of the multiple alternatives for Victoria Bitter beer.
In phrases:
■ bogan it up v. to behave or act as a bogan. ■ bogan-spot v. (also bogan-watch) to spend one’s leisure time watching bogans, thus bogan-spotting. ■ bogan up vtr. to customize or decorate a vehicle in a manner that appeals to bogans. 2  vi. to adopt the persona and/or dress of a bogan. ■ cashed-up bogan n. (also CUB) (Aus.) a uncultured but well-off individual who spends money on bad taste, trashy, gaudy merchandise. ■ de-bogan v. to purge oneself or another of bogan style or influence. ■ out-bogan v. to outdo another bogan in one’s own boganness.

GDoS Update #7: 31 July 2018

Welcome to the seventh and latest update to the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

 

As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 311 new slang terms, 319 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and 2,839 new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. The database currently offers 55,003 headwords (within which are nested over 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by approximately 630,000 citations). All of this new material can be seen by subscribers; the changes that are reflected by the predates  are also shown in alterations in the approximate dating used in the absence of citations: for instance ‘late 19C’ to ‘early 19C’, ‘1980s+’ back to ‘1940s+’, and so on. But as ever, for those who want or need to access the detailed and continually evolving and expanding heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.

 

For an overview, with the fruits of the last quarter’s research in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. As usual the research has focused largely on newspaper databases, notably that held by the British Library, the US Library of Congress and, for Australia, Trove. These, by their nature, tend to look backwards in time, but there is also an on-going accretion of up-to-date slang. Thus there are also a substantial number of terms from UK drill music, state of the art as regards London slang, and, to go back to the other end of slang’s history, some 17th century pamphleteering, often credited to women authors.

 

New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue. The format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of an entry, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see which part of an entry has improved.

 

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