Works in the Herald 1934
A Claim Confuted

Much as I abhor imperfect English, I seem to remember that I - or somebody very closely resembling me - was guilty many years ago of writing three or four books in what I (and most of my readers) confidently believed to be the original Australian vernacular.

Further, for those benighted people who had scant knowledge of the Australian "slanguage," I took the trouble to compile a glossary defining certain words and phrases which, I feel quite sure, were typical examples of the "dinkum Aussie" dialect.

For some years afterwards, since these books achieved a rather remarkable vogue, a strange pride possesed me, not so much because I believed I had won even a very moderate success in literature, but because I did believe - and was persuaded by reviewers in many countries that I had become arch-protagonist and chief promulgator of an argot hitherto little known in the English-speaking world - in short, of something new under the sun.

Then, with the passage of years, this absurd pride of mine began gradually to disintegrate, as quite well-meaning people, thinking I would be interested, began to write to me pointing out the derivation of this cant word or that. One, for example, was almost pure Yiddish; another came from the rhyming slang of London thieves; another, directly from the secret tongue of the Romany.

Yet another had been brought across by California's "forty-niners," who came to Australia during the early gold rushes. And so on, until my beautiful glossary was almost decimated through casualties.

Finally, out of the mists of Shakespeare's brilliant century came the final shaft to prick my ridiculous vanity and leave it defaulted, done for, and flat in the dust.

With the bets will in the world, a friend presented me with a copy of "The Gull's Hornebrooke and the Belman of London," by Thomas Dekker, born in 1565, died in 1632.

And here, in this slim volume, published over three hundred years ago, I found not only a wealth of unintelligible Elizabethan slang but here and there slang that had a strangely familiar ring. I found to, slang done into humorous verse - or I suppose it is humorous:

"Enough - with bowsy Cove named Nace,
Tour the Patring Cove in the Darkeman Case."

And so on. Even in that brief couplet one word is repeated that is familiar enough today. And clearly the "bowsy cove" is a "shikkered Bloke"; and been the latter is half Yiddish.

Furthermore, I found here a glossary of slang terms, or, as the gentle Thomas calls it "The Canters Dictionarie." And here I discovered, too, in the mouths of London thieves in the 16th century, words and phrases spoken today by "dinkum blokes," who deem their speech quite original and up-to-date.

This worthy Dekker had a prodigious knowledge of the slang of his day. I find myself lisping in the infant class when I compare my scant knowledge with his academic erudition. But I fear, for all his assumption of the manner of an elderly churchwarden, that Thomas spent too much of his young life in thieves' kitchens and "bowsing kens." The display of too much knowledge is sometimes a treacherous thing.

Yet even he finds himself compelled to go back beyond Julius Caesar for the derivation of even a chapter heading.

"This word canting (says he) seemes to bee derived from the latine verbe (canto), which signifies in English to sing that's to say to speake. And very aptly may canting take his derivation a cantando, from singing . . . "

And very aptly, too, may "a boshter shiela" take her derivation from some remarks of Adam's when he first "took a tumble" to his converted rib.

There is no space here to tell the full story of the disappointment that came to me from the pages of Dekker. I can only explain it by claiming that he was purely and simply a prophetic plagiarist of my own unique books.

It is enough to tell of my final straight left and uppercut that laid my head in the dust for the full count.

If there is one word that Australia would claim as racy of the soil it is that describing our familiar battler of the outback, trudging, with matilda up and billy-can in hand, into countless flaming sunsets of the vast Never-Never - the good old Australian swagman, a square-an'-all, a typical, a unique Australian figure if ever there was one.

Well, listen to Dekker:

"Like unto him in conditions in a Swigman . . . carrying a pack behind him instead of a wallet . . ."

Can you believe it? A Swigman! All we have done, after three hundred years, is to alter a vowel.

That was the straight left: now for the uppercut.

Do we believe in Ned Kelly? Is he not rapidly becoming Australia's most notable tradition - the counterpart of England's Robin Hood or Dick Turpin, of America's Jesse James? Is Ned Kelly our very own, or is he not?

In his early pages Dekker casually mentions one Kelly, a rogue and a robber who practiced "alchimy." In fear and trembling we turn to the notes at the back of the book.

His Christian name (will you believe it?) was - Edward! Ned Kelly! "Born at Worcester about the middle of the 16th century, imprisoned as a rogue, he died of a broken leg received while attempting to escape from prison." Ned Kelly! Born in the middle of the - Stone the Crows! There IS nothing new under the sun!

"C.J. Dennis"
Herald, 24 May 1934, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003-04