Major events in history, like wars and pandemics, bring new words into the language and repurpose old ones. A common slang brings people together and helps us cope with events that threaten to overwhelm us. Coining quirky new words and phrases may even give us some sense of control and comfort when we’re isolated from our loved ones through war, border closures or lockdowns..
Some favourites that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic are ‘iso’ (home isolation during mandatory lockdown), ‘the rona’ (the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus) and ‘sanny’ (hand sanitiser). But what words did Australian and New Zealand troops repurpose in the First World War?
A flightless bird unique to New Zealand, the kiwi is held in high regard by the Māori people. In the early 1900s, cartoonists started to use images of the kiwi bird to represent New Zealand as a country. Then in 1914, when New Zealand joined the First World War and served alongside Britain and Australia, the kiwi was featured on some New Zealand badges, emblems and insignias. The nickname Kiwi quickly caught on to refer to New Zealand soldiers who were renowned for being unique, adaptable and a little quirky, just like the bird.
My best friend in high school used to call me a ‘dingbat’ when I had done something she thought was particularly stupid. Meaning ‘a crazy, eccentric, or foolish person’, the word ‘dingbat’ was current in Britain from 1879. The word is formed on ‘ding’, as in a bell, and ‘bat’ as in ‘bats in the belfry’. During the First World War, Australian and New Zealand troops used the word in the phrase, ‘to have the dingbats’ or ‘to be dingbats’. This word was used to refer to someone who was shell-shocked and suffering from delusions as a result of delirium tremens.
Bumf, or bumph, is short for ‘bumfodder’ which dates back to 1889 as schoolboys’ slang for ‘toilet paper’. While some people took the shortage of toilet paper during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 very seriously, the troops during the First World War had already found the solution to such a shortage. At that time, bumf referred to the portion of the enormous mass of official correspondence which was viewed as unnecessary. This superfluous correspondence was torn into strips and hung on a nail for use in the latrines. Since then, the word has been used more generally to mean correspondence and literature of little value.
Australians are well known for using humour to cope with difficult situations. Creating quirky slang terms is part of this comedy tradition. Although some of these terms may fall out of popular usage over time, understanding their meanings and origins gives us a unique insight into the lives of everyday Australians and New Zealanders facing frightening or challenging events.
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Oxford English Dictionary