Category Archives: Australianisms

“Tall Poppy”

In honor of my return from a five-week stay in Australia, a post in honor of one of the first Australianisms I encountered on my first visit there, four years ago. Stuart — who collected me and the student group I was leading at the Melbourne airport and drove us to town — commented, vis a vis the national character, on the “tall poppy.” I forget his exact explanation but here’s the OED definition: “chiefly Australian. a prominent or conspicuously successful person or thing, frequently with implication of attracting hostility from envious detractors.” Stuart suggested that the tall poppy syndrome — the reflex to attack anybody who stood out from the crowd by accomplishing anything — was a national characteristic and, to some extent, problem.

The metaphor originated in sixth century B.C.E. Rome — specifically, Wikipedia says, in

Livy’s account of the tyrannical Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. He is said to have received a messenger from his son Sextus Tarquinius asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger verbally, Tarquin went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what he had seen. Sextus realised that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists examples of the term being used in nineteenth-century Britain, but fifteen of the twenty citations from 1869 on are from or in reference to Australia or New Zealand, including this from Richard Beckett’s 1986 Dinkum Aussie Dictionary:

Tall poppy: Any Australian who reads more than the sporting results and knows how to use snail tongs. Someone who aspires to intellectual excellence and cannot tell the difference between one make of car and another. The species is much hated in Australia and is always being cut down to size.

Here’s what the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which contains 9 billion articles from 2010 to the present, says about the frequency of use of “tall poppy” by country:

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About half of the twenty-three U.S. hits are actually by or about Australians. But that still leaves a few examples.

  • Actress and singer Carrie Brownstein said in an interview: “How comfortable one is taking credit for their work depends on the person. I think tall poppy syndrome is endemic to smaller creative communities, but I also really value the fairly anti-capitalist approach of the more radical artistic communities from which I came.
  • Tech businesswoman Marian Salzman wrote in a Forbes article that Meghan Markle “may be under great scrutiny because the tall poppy often gets chopped down, but I think she’s a 2020 version of John F. Kennedy Jr. circa the mid-’80s.” (This was written in July 2019.)
  • New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in her scorecard for the second Democratic presidential debate in August 2019 (how long ago that seems), wrote of then-candidate Kamala Harris: “Tall poppy syndrome. After she garroted Biden in the first debate, everyone came after her, challenging her health care plan as she struggled to explain it herself.”

As we are wont to do, some Americans have tried to turn the expression on his head. In 2018, two entrepreneurs started a company to protect people, especially women, against online harassment. They called it Tall Poppy. One of the founders, Leigh Honeywell, explained it to Fast Company:  “The idea of tall poppy syndrome is that…anyone who becomes prominent in their field or in politics or whatever, they get cut down. So we protect the tall poppies.”

“Tipped to”

A recent New York Times article about the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards noted that the film Joker “had been tipped to win big at the awards.”

I’ve been in Australia for the past month or so, and that phrase “tipped to” is quite common here. Merriam-Webster online provides a definition: “chiefly British: to mention as a likely candidate, prospective winner, or profitable investment.”

The results for a Google News search for a phrase are all British, Irish, or Australian, for example this Daily Mail Headline: ‘Meet your new Bachelor! Jett Kenny is tipped to be this year’s suitor.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the term, since the OED doesn’t have an entry for it. It is, however, used in a citation for another word (“super,” meaning “superannuation,” which is what Americans refer to as 401 (k) plan). It’s from the Sydney Bulletin in 1973: “In some cases where the executive’s own company contributes substantial sums to his super scheme … the tax commissioner is tipped to take a far more sceptical view.”

Google Books has only use prior to that. It’s from the 1964 proceedings of the Kenya National Assembly.

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As for American use, there isn’t much. The only other recent use in the Times was in the article about last year’s BAFTA awards, which noted that The Favourite “had been tipped to win big.”

But it turns out that both articles were written by Times correspondent Alex Marshall, who is British. And so I dub “tipped to” a faux NOOB. But it is very much a British/Australianism, so shouldn’t it have an OED entry?

 

“Good on You” (not “Ya”)

The American clothing chain Men’s Wearhouse has a new ad campaign. You don’t have to watch the whole thing; the relevant bit comes in the last three seconds.

I’ve covered the expression “Good on (someone, usually “you”) a couple of times, and I’m slightly embarrassed to see that the second time I did it, I had forgotten the first time. Anyhoo, the Men’s Wearhouse spot is consistent with usual American–as opposed to the original Australian–pronunciation. That is, the announcer says. “Good on you,” as opposed to the Australian “Good on ya.” Of course, with the attempted pun (Men’s Wearhouse clothes supposedly look good on its customers), he would have to.

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“Mate” as Direct Address

I have covered “mate” a couple of times as a synonym for “buddy” or “friend.” But this sign in a men’s room in the Seattle airport is the first time I’ve seen it in America as a form of direct address:

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The capital M in “Mate” suggests to me that the writer wasn’t especially comfortable or familiar with the term. Meanwhile, both the excessive politeness and the “eh” at the end suggest that he or she might be Canadian.

In any case, the first two citations in the OED for this use of the word are both from Englishmen (Arthur Polehampton and Lord Robert Cecil) who noticed it in their travels in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.

1852   R. CecilDiary 31 Mar. (1935) 36   When the diggers address a policeman in uniform they always call him ‘Sir’, but they always address a fellow in a blue shirt with a carbine as ‘Mate’.
1862   A. PolehamptonKangaroo Land 99   A man, who greeted me after the fashion of the Bush, with a ‘Good day, mate’.

It had arrived in Britain by 1880, when this line of dialogue appears in a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “Who’s the magistrate hereabouts, mate?”

In the U.S., the comparable terms include “buddy,” “pal,” and, in recent years, “dude.” Those words are often used in a hostile, or at least passive-aggressive manner. “Mate” works well for this purpose, as the men’s room admonition illustrates. I’ll be curious to see if it catches on in these parts.

“Big ask”

This line appeared in a December 2018 New York Times review of the Nicole Kidman movie Destroyer: “That she’s also a better detective than a mother makes her somewhat of an outlier, at least in American movies. If Bell [the Kidman character] were a man and father, and played by, say, Denzel Washington, this wouldn’t be a big ask.”

That “ask” is a shift of the word from verb to noun, meaning, basically, “request.” (“Request” started as a noun in about 1400 and was being used as a verb no later than 100 years later.) The OED cites uses of noun “ask” back to the 13th century, including this from a 1656 Bible translation: “God saith concerning Christ, thou art my Son, there presently followeth an Ask of me and I will give thee.” The dictionary says it is now “somewhat rare,” with three exceptions. The first is in bridge and whist, where it means “A play or bid having the primary purpose of eliciting information about a partner’s hand.” (“Who has not suffered when he has played correctly second hand..from his partner assuming that there has been an ask for trumps?” Westminster Papers, 1872.) The second is in finance, where it means “asking price.” And the third is when it’s modified by an adjective like “big,” “huge,” or “impossible, as in the Times quote above.

I would tend to disagree with the last category. That is, I accept that the current popularity of “ask” as a noun started with “big ask,” as we’ll see, but I think it’s very much out there by itself, as are such similar nouns as “get,” “reveal,” and “fail.” See the title of a 2017 book about fundraising by Laura Fredericks, The Ask: For Business, For Philanthropy, For Everyday Living. So I would recommend including “big ask” citations in the main definition.

As I say, the recent surge in “ask”-as-noun started with “big ask,” and it started in Australian sport(s). The OED has a 1987 quote from the Sydney Morning Herald, the quotation marks indicating a fairly recent coinage: “Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer..that four pounds is ‘a big ask’.”

I believe I can antedate that. The Google Books database has a “big ask” from what appears to be a short story in the Australian journal The Bulletin, vol. 97, 1975. “A big ask, though. They wanted a grand. Anyway I got two spot bail and the case is still swingin’.”

The phrase stayed in Australia for a while. Writing on the American Dialect Society listserv, Peter Reitan reported checking the newspapers.com database and finding that “every single hit from 1988 through 2006 is either from an Australian newspaper, or quotes a native Australian, typically athletes.”

Some American uses in that period can be found elsewhere. The (California) Orange County Register, August 29, 1993, referring to a program at the University of California, Irvine, reported: “[The American-born director] bundled seven projects into one Big Ask, for a regional alliance called Defense Photonics Medical Consortium.”

A chart showing frequency of “big ask” in American newspapers in the Lexis-Nexis database shows growth that’s gradual in the decade of the 2000s, and dramatic in the 2010s.

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Over in the U.K., the phrase was in circulation no later than 2006, when Friends of the Earth started a “Big Ask” campaign to fight climate change.

And someone posted this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2012:

Misused by stupid British soccer commentators as a substitute for job, task, or assignment.

“He has to stop Messi from scoring tonight: that’s a big ask.”

 

“Sunnies”

A few days ago, Louise Linton, the wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, got into trouble for posting this picture on Instagram:

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The trouble stemmed from her hashtagging various items of her designer clothing–weird and creepy in itself, all the more so when accompanying a picture of getting off a U.S. military jet with official government markings.

What caught my eye was the reference to Tom Ford “sunnies”–sunnies being Australian shorthand for sunglasses. All citations for the term in both the Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang are from Australian or New Zealand sources.

Linton is a native of Scotland who has lived in the U.S. for more than fifteen years. Did she pick up “sunnies” in Scotland, or is the term prevalent in the U.S. circles in which she travels? Please weigh in if you know.

“Lost the Plot”

When a friend wrote in a Facebook post the other day that a certain political figure had “lost the plot,” my NOOB-dar came on. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase but it had the definite feel of a Britishism, and sure enough, it is.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “lose the plot” as “to lose one’s ability to understand or cope with events; to lose one’s touch; to go off the rails.” There is a dubious 17th-century citation, with the  next not coming till a 1984 quote from The Times, presumably about a fashion show: “Arabella Pollen showed sharp linens, lost the plot in a sarong skirt and brought out curvaceous racing silk and a show-stopping bow-legged Willie Carson.”

As to the phrase’s national origin, the OED doesn’t say. A 1994 article in The American Scholar claims it’s Australian. It would be interesting to hear about that from an Australian. In any case, it definitely is a Britishism, as shown in this Google Ngram Viewer chart comparing uses of the phrase “lost the plot” in books published in the U.S. and the U.K:

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Interestingly, the first time it shows up in the New York Times, in 1998, it’s also in a fashion article:

From the parade of Mao worker jackets with frog closures and cheongsam dresses at Ferragamo to the indiscriminate layering of tulle and other sheer fabrics over trousers and skirts at Anna Molinari, many designers in Milan had a story’s worth of ideas, but they had lost the plot.

It’s been used a few dozen of times since then, most recently less than a week ago, in a May 14 article about entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone:

The legal fracas has changed Mr. Redstone’s public image from a firebrand whose business acumen and ruthlessness won him control of Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS, a $40 billion empire, into something quite different. In the local parlance, he lost the plot.