Reprint: "Cobbers" and Correctness: The Need for Idiom by Nettie Palmer (Part 2)

The Novelist's Art

We may as well give up the attempt, then, to write down just what we say as we say it, except now and then in a phonetic script for students. How do you pronounce "castle," for instance? Whatever you reply, you will add, "of course." Is it "cassel," "cahsel," or something in between? No matter. We shall hardly trouble to indicate it if we put you in a novel. What we may hope to do, though, is to entrap some of your characteristic words, some of the metaphors that come naturally to you, your colloquialism, your rhythm of speech, your slang. Modern novelists of the sincerer sort, including some in Australia, have been aiming at just this kind of idiomatic rendering of their characters' speech and thoughts. And what they have got for their pains has been more kicks than ha'pence. Pained rule-of-thumb critics have remarked severely, "This author shows at times that he can write sound English, while at other times he seems to have no idea of it." On examination we find that the "unsound" passages are usually those that take infinitely more trouble to write. It would be easier to express the random thoughts of a banker or a farmer in formal phrases than to discover what Beethoven called "unbuttoned" rhythms for them, and to suggest them in racy words.

To return to "cobbers." The word is not in the Oxford Dictionary yet, at any rate in its "concise" edition, but it undoubtedly will be. The Oxford Dictionary is always putting out its tentacles for new words. That fine octopus, with its splendid appetite, issues S.O.S. lists inviting the whole world's collaboration. On one recent list we were invited, as usual, to give an instance of the use of several Australian words: could anyone quote an instance of the word "eucalyptian" earlier than 1870? of the word "eucalyptis-green" before 1923? Well, can anyone do this? And does the Oxford Dictionary know that one of our poets has used the word "eucalyptive" instead of "eucalyptian"? Even if it does, the dictionary would not express preference. The next request, undated, is for an instance of the phrase, "Fernshaw gums," which strikes me as strange, because almost every bush district could be used in the same way. The final word in the list is not introduced to please the magistrate. Here it is, "fair (=absolute, Australian)." Do you know that word, in "a fair scorcher"? Not the same word, you see, as in "a fair bit." Perhaps you can supply the Oxford Dictionary with an early instance of its use. (You are kindly requested to send in your quotation on slips measuring 6in. by 4in.) Perhaps the clearest use of "fair" is in this emotional comment, of which unfortunately I cannot give the date:- "Australia, the only country where you can call a dark horse a fair cow and be understood." I would suggest that to "cut out" such slang would be a sin, except to cut it six inches by four, for preservation in that most hospitable dictionary.

First published in The Argus, 6 June 1931

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Note: the first part of this essay was published here last week.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 7, 2009 8:48 AM.

100 Australian Poems 6.0: "Bell-Birds" by Henry Kendall was the previous entry in this blog.

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