All in the Context

The use by Australians of the word “bastard” has been a source of confusion to many visitors to our shores. Although the word can be used with any of the conventional established meanings, ie. a person of illegitimate birth, an article of inferior design or performance, or an unpleasant or despicable person, we also sometimes use it to mean simply a person (nearly always a male) – without any negative connotation. I can refer to my friend as “a decent old bastard”, and it will be taken as a compliment. It’s all in the context.

We Aussies have a considerable collection of words which can be used to denigrate a person (quite apart from the vulgar ones). You can refer to someone as a mongrel, a mug, a ratbag, a drongo, a galah, a boofhead, a dag, a pain, a dill, a clown, a nong, a dipstick, a galoot, a waste of space, a drop kick, etc, etc. These words don’t require any context to convey the message. If I say “He’s a drongo”, there’s no escaping the conclusion that I’m alleging he’s stupid.

And they can be given more force by adding a qualifier, for example, “He’s a dead-set mongrel”, or “He’s a full-on galah.”

Even the word “bastard”, used without any qualifiers or negative context, will be taken as a criticism. “That chap who sold me the car is a bastard.” But if I’m talking to a group of my (male) friends, and I say, “OK you bastards, just listen up.”, there is a context of assumed mateship, and the term “bastard” is instantly devoid of any negativity.

You don’t have to look far to find references to bastards in Australian literature and social history.

  • There’s a well-known bawdy poem called “The Bastard from the Bush”, variously attributed to Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, or “Anon”, recounting a spirited encounter between “The Captain of the Push”, (The Push being a notorious Sydney street gang of the early 1900s), and “The Bastard from the Bush”. Lawson did author a similar – but not bawdy – poem called “The Captain of the Push”.

The bawdy version includes an attempt by the Captain to calm the ever-more-       aggressive Bastard by offering him a cigarette:

“Would you care to have a gasper?” asked the Captain of the Push;
“I’ll take the bloody packet,” said the Bastard from the Bush.

  • It’s interesting to note that there’s an enthusiastic Aussie reader of the Bobby Dazzler Newsletter who’s known in cyberspace as “The Bastard from the Bush”, and wears the badge with pride.
  • A few years ago, the Australian Meat Marketing Board mounted a national advertising campaign using the slogan “Eat more beef, you bastards.”
  • The Australian Democrats, a new political party, was formed in 1977 by Don Chipp, with the aim “to keep the bastards honest”, referring to the members of the major parties.
  • And then there’s the famous story from the so-called “Bodyline Series” of cricket matches played in Australia in 1932-33, where a member of the England team complained to the Australian captain that one of the Australian players had called him a bastard. The Aussie captain, Bill Woodfull, took the complainant with him into the Australian dressing room where all the Australian team were assembled, and said “Righto, which of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?”

So OK, you bastards, just keep on reading this blog, and I mean that most affectionately.

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About dazzlerplus

Writing about the things that interest me helps me to discover what I think. One of my loves is the Australian Outback, and I travel out there often, and when possible take friends with me.
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5 Responses to All in the Context

  1. Carmel says:

    Very entertaining. Love the cricket story

  2. Sue Emeleus says:

    Dear Rob, I like all your articles, but this one was especially entertaining from an old bastard pal of mine. S

  3. Lavinia Ross says:

    Every region has its colorful dialect. I also loved the cricket story!

  4. Err Rob,
    Was this exchange, that you remind us of, the nascency of sledging, or wasn’t it beyond the great W.G. to suggest to an opponent, that he might “sling ‘is ‘ook”?
    Cheers, Richard

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Hi Richard,
      I’ve no credentials as a cricket historian, but I’ve heard that W.G. was said to regard every match as “like a small war”.
      You don’t hear the expression “sling the hook” much these days, but I suspect not because it doesn’t happen.
      Regards, Rob

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