Dirty words lost in translation


If the English language were a person, it would surely be a hoarder.

I can see him holed up in a dank flat with words he had found in the gutter the day before scattered across a table of phrases from the 1600s that are infested with foreign word lice.

There is so much regional variation in our language it is a wonder we understand each other at all. Though what interests me most is when words diverge into two paths, often close enough to be confused, and why so many of these words are so very naughty.

Some words have diverged meaning sufficiently to be more than a little embarrassing. For example, the time I asked my new Canadian teacher for a rubber in front of the class and then watched her struggle to comprehend how to offer sex education to a nine-year-old.

And even after six months in the US, I was still giggling when someone told me they were rooting for their football team, and thought the sign asking me “got gas?” was rather personal.

Arguably the only laugh to be had watching the ’90s comedy The Nanny was in the theme song, when she was “out on her fanny”, which where I come from is – well, where I came from.

In the UK, fanny is both female genitalia and a not unpopular girl’s name.

Spunk is another dirty word with a fascinating history. Etymologists say the term meaning pluck or confidence comes from the Gaelic word sponk; a form of fungus that was good for lighting fires. So someone with a bit of spark might be spunky.

In Australia, a spunk is a very good-looking person, especially a bloke, and if you’re really keen you might go as far as to say he is a spunk rat. By that measure, Press Gang-era Dexter Fletcher (pictured above) is definitely a spunk rat. daresay the term is not used much outside the island nation (or, in fact, outside the early 1990s).

There is one other definition for the word spunk but I shall leave that to the Urban Dictionary to define (it does share its root with the fungus definition, however, and you can read into that what you will).

A few months ago, I Americanized my website. It was more difficult than I had expected and I resolved to keep as much of my Australianess as I could get away with.

The stories in our words


My fiancé (speaking of spunk rats) is an Austraphile and knows me well but sometimes I spout a piece of Australian vernacular so bizarre it stops him in his tracks. I’m no Barry McKenzie (pictured above with an early incarnation of Dame Edna) but I do cherish the idiom woven through everyday Australian phrases. We carry stories in our words.

I had a workmate once who spoke almost exclusively in rhyming slang – and what’s more, always referenced Australian vernacular. So when he said he was going to the rub a dub (pub) for a Ray Martin (carton of beer), you knew he would be planning to go out and pick up a tanned boot (a root). To decifer that, you need a linguistics degree or to have lived in rural Australia.

The Australian expression “back of Bourke” means outback, or “a long way past civilization” but the expression springs from an actual place, past which you don’t want to drive without a spare tank of gas and a satellite phone.

One of my favorite story-laced expressions is the term sweet Fanny Adams, meaning nothing. Poor Fanny was a girl whose murder and dismembering made gruesome headlines in England in 1867. Apparently, around this time, sailors served unpalatable mutton from tins started referring to it as “sweet Fanny Adams”, which in turn came to mean “nothing good”.

(Interestingly, most of my generation only knows the shortening sweet F A, which is assumed to mean sweet f*ck all.)

Author James Nicoll aptly joked: “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

Maybe that’s true but it’s a charmingly eccentric language and I for one am happy it is a hoarder.