LINGUIST List 17.1212

Fri Apr 21 2006

Review: Dictionaries/Dialectology: Laugesen (2005)

Editor for this issue: Lindsay Butler <>

Directory         1.    Clemens Fritz, Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War

Message 1: Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War
Date: 16-Apr-2006
From: Clemens Fritz <>
Subject: Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War

Announced at

AUTHOR: Laugesen, Amanda TITLE: Diggerspeak SUBTITLE: The Language of Australians at War PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2005

Clemens Fritz, Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin


'Diggerspeak' is a glossary of Australian military jargon covering a span of almost a century. Care was taken to filter out genuine Australian words and usages, leaving a comparatively small, but also well-researched and carefully documented set of some 400 lexical items. The glossary is ordered alphabetically and allows for easy reference.


The book is one of a number of recent publications emerging from the Australian National Dictionary Research Centre (ANDRC). Some of these cover regional vocabulary, e.g. Brooks and Ritchie (1994, Western Australia) and Robinson (2001, Queensland), others historical periods, e.g. Laugesen (2002, Convict Words) and Moore (2000, The Language of Nineteenth Century Australian Goldrushes). The ANDRC at the Australian National University, Canberra, was founded in order to conduct research into Australian English (AusE) and to provide Oxford Australian dictionaries with lexicographical expertise; both purposes have been expertly served as most of its publications have shown.

There are a number of related works 'Diggerspeak' can and should be evaluated against. For example, there are Arthur and Ramson (1990, Digger Dialects), a recent edition of a glossary of military slang used by Australians in World War I, and Moore (2003, A Lexicon of Cadet Language) covering modern Australian military jargon.

Laugesen today does not work as a linguist, but as a historian at the University of Southern Queensland. This is no drawback as can be seen in her thoughtful choice of sources and in the meticulous editing evident in this book.


Diggerspeak is divided into several sections, viz. 'Introduction', a guide to 'The Entries', a 'Guide to Sources', i.e. a bibliography of the sources used and some works for further reading, and an 'A to Z of Words'.

The 'Introduction' is a superb account of theoretical and practical matters pertaining to the publication of a dictionary of Australian military slang.

Laugesen rejects lexis that is in general use in the military of the English-speaking world. Her rationale is that ''The dictionary thus focuses primarily on 'Australian-only' words - that is, those words that became part of Australian English and were uniquely Australian. However, it also includes a selection of words shared with other English-speaking nations for which there is extensive evidence of Australian usage. These latter words have been included because they help to reveal something about the Australian experience of war.'' (Laugesen 2005:vii)

She also makes clear that hers is not an exhaustive collection of slang terms used by Australians during wartime. Only if a word could be attested in several sources and could be shown to have been used with some frequency, it qualified for inclusion. This decision leaves her with a limited number of entries, but, on the other hand, it also ensures that the items included are well-documented and can be rightly called an important part of AusE.

Laugesen cautiously points out that some of the words she looks at may have been around prior to the war when they were first recognized. Rather than being 'created' by war and wartime experiences, the use and applicability of these words was enhanced by certain circumstances to the extent that they entered mainstream use.

After these theoretical discussions Laugesen starts by recounting the major wars Australians have taken part in, from the Boer War (1899- 1902) to the Vietnam War (1957-75), thereby further delimiting her field of study. She critically evaluates the contribution of all of these conflicts to AusE. Since after the Vietnam War the army no longer contained any conscripted members and was an entirely professional one, she argues that it is at this point that ''diggerspeak'' ceases to be a feature of AusE in general and becomes just one of the many jargons used in that variety of English. Therefore she does not include material from later wars, a justifiable point of view.

Contributions to the Australian lexicon from the Boer War were fairly limited and often shared with their British brothers-in-arms. Food, fighting and a colonial identity have added a few, rare words to AusE, e.g. 'scoff', 'food'.

The case is much different for the next war. It is often argued that the First World War was a major step in the development of an Australian identity. It was here that 'digger' was first used as the common term for the honest and brave Australian soldier. There was also a clear recognition of the fact that Australians and the soldiers from other countries spoke distinct varieties of English and that they also differed culturally from each other.

Sheer numbers made the impact of the Great War on Australia remarkable. More than ten per cent of the entire population of Australia served in the army, an astonishing number.

Contact with other Englishes as well as contact with other languages contributed to the formation of army slang, which was further elaborated by the application of the distinctively Australian suffixes -o and -ie. These started life around 1900 and for instance distinguished the Australianism 'wakie', the last day of a soldier's duty, from the Americanism 'wake-up' with the same meaning.

Some Arabic words were borrowed between 1914-18 and rediscovered in 1939-45, e.g. 'faloosh', 'money'.

The Second World War was to some extent a different type of war from the previous one. There were different experiences, theatres of fighting, a new major enemy, the Japanese, and new types of warfare and military technology. No more trench-digging was required in an age ruled by tanks and powerful air forces. The experiences of Prisoner of War camps also added new lexis, specifically within Japanese camps.

The Korean War (1950-53) and the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) saw some Australian contingents, but almost no development in AusE military jargon.

The last conflict covered by Laugesen is the Vietnam War (1957-75). Language had become less censored with fewer restraints exercised by the army and the soldiers themselves. Although there were still genuine Australian coinages, the public view of this war became increasingly focused on America and Americanisms. The latter were even used by Australian soldiers writing about their experiences and the Australian media (Laugesen 2005:xvii).

'The Entries' all begin with a headword and a definition. This is followed by the term's etymology, at least as far as possible. The definitions and etymologies are extensive and add an ''encyclopedic touch'' to the entries. This sets 'Diggerspeak' clearly apart from the hundreds of glossaries that simply list military jargon.

After that the wars when this word was important are noted and representative quotes from each of these are given.

Next follows a 'Guide to Sources'. Laugesen has not tried to provide an exhaustive list of lexicons, glossaries and word lists. She has only selected those sources that seemed reliable and made clear where their terms, etymologies and definitions come from. The 31 publications she does provide are, however, not her only sources. She also frequently quotes from many other sources, especially trench newspapers and memoirs. These should have been listed in this section, too, one of the few points of criticism that can be made about 'Diggerspeak'.

A list of books for 'Further Reading' concludes this section.

The main body of the book is comprised by the 'A to Z' glossary, covering 206 pages and approximately 400 entries. The first entry is ABDUL, a nickname for a Turkish soldier, the last ZIFF, a beard.

Some entries are now discussed in greater detail.

DIGGER, ''an Australian soldier who serves in wartime, often used as a form of address in both military and civilian contexts''.

Laugesen discusses the possibility that New Zealand soldiers were called 'digger' first and that this epithet was extended to Australian soldiers only later. But it seems unlikely that New Zealand 'gum- diggers' could have committed such an act of linguistic imperialism, especially when 'digger' was so well established in AusE since the goldrushes of 1850s and already back then connoting qualities like bravery and honesty. Laugesen should have pointed this out with greater force and not present both as alternative explanations.

The Australian National Dictionary (AND), the leading historical dictionary of AusE, does not comment on the etymology of the term, but naturally has a much wider range of quotes to support its definition which is congruent with the one in 'Diggerspeak'.

Laugesen's entry covers more than three pages and is thus much more informative and useful than the entry of the same word in Arthur and Ramson (1990) which spans only half a page.

FURPHY, ''a rumour or false report; an absurd story''.

The etymology given is based on the theory that rumours spread with water carts manufactured by the firm J. Furphy and Sons, in WW I. This is in line with the AND and Arthur and Ramson (1990).

HUN, ''a German serviceman, the German military forces collectively; also the Germans as a people''.

This entry illustrates Laugesen's careful editing. From a number of disputed etymologies, disputed especially in Germany, she chose the right one and put it in the right historical context. Her entry contains much useful historical information which is laudable since neither the AND nor Arthur and Ramson (1990) list the term at all. Of course it must be mentioned here that HUN is neither a genuine AusE word nor that it has a special use in AusE that would distinguish it from other Englishes. But it certainly belongs in a dictionary of 'Australians at war'. On the other hand, this word shows how difficult it often is to decide whether the inclusion of a word is justified or justifiable.

POSSIE, ''an individual soldier's place of shelter or firing position; a position of advantage''.

The word is a real Australianism as the suffix clearly tells. In no other variety of English such a word formation would sound natural. POSSIE is also one the terms that made it into general AusE and which is still used today. The AND has a quote from a Tasmanian newspaper which wrote in 1984 ''locals say it could provide a good fishing possie''.


'Diggerspeak' can certainly be recommended for linguists and historians interested in AusE and the language and culture of Australians at war. The entries are of great quality and only restrictions of space sometimes seem to cut short the in-depth discussion of a term.

Since it restricts itself to a comparatively small number of lexemes, it does not suffice as a stand-alone reference work on Australian military slang. But the words covered are excellently discussed in comparison to other publications in this field. It could have been an even better book if Laugesen had listed all her sources which would have enabled the researcher to dig in deeper in his/her special points of interest.

Finally, from a corpus-linguistic point of view, it would also have been good to include frequencies telling the reader how peripheral or central a certain term was in AusE army slang. But this is a point that could be raised for most, if not all historical dictionaries.


Arthur, J. M. and William S. Ramson (1990) W.H. Downing's Digger Dialects. Melbourne: Oxford UP.

Brooks, Maureen and Joan Ritchie (1994) Words from the West: A Glossary of Western Australian Terms. Melbourne: Oxford UP.

Laugesen, Amanda (2002) Convict Words: Language in Early Colonial Australia. Melbourne: Oxford UP.

Moore, Bruce (2000) Gold! Gold! Gold!: The Language of the Nineteenth Century Gold Rushes. Melbourne: Oxford UP.

Moore, Burce (2003) A Lexicon of Cadet Language. Duntroon Slang 1983-85. Melbourne: Oxford UP.

Ramson, William S. (1988) The Australian National Dictionary: A Dictionary of Australianisms on Historical Principles. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, Julia (2001) Voices of Queensland: Words from the Sunshine State.


After studies in Regensburg, Germany, and Galway, Ireland, Clemens Fritz graduated with a master's degree in English and History in 1995. For ten years now he has worked and published on early Australian English. A particular focus is on Irish English and its survival in Australia. In 1998 he started a two-year teacher training programme and has been teaching English, history and drama in a German secondary school since 2000.