‘the (great) Australian adjective’: meaning and history

The phrase the (great) Australian adjective designates the adjective bloody used as an intensifier.

In A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, 1990), Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020) wrote that bloody is

by no means distinctively Australian, but has always been conspicuous enough in the colloquial language to be seen as such by overseas visitors.

These interesting remarks about the use of bloody as an intensifier are from the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2012):

This word has long had taboo status, and for many speakers constituted the strongest expletive available. This is reflected in the regularity with which dashes, asterisks, etc., were formerly used to represent the word in print, and in the large number of euphemistic forms to which it has given rise, including bee, bleeding, blerry, plurry, sanguinary, and perhaps blooming. In the case of the adverb, the considerable public reaction to the utterance of the word on the London stage in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion in 1914 gave rise to the further humorous euphemism Pygmalion. In most contexts the word’s taboo status has now been largely or entirely lost; the process of normalisation seems to have begun earliest in Australia.
Following the original use in England, Scotland and Ireland, the sense spread to most other parts of the English-speaking world, with the notable exception of the United States, where it has apparently only ever achieved limited currency, e.g. among sailors during the 19th century.

These are the earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase the (great) Australian adjective, in chronological order:

1-: From The Queenslander (Brisbane, Queensland) of Saturday 9th August 1884:

The Sketcher.
Colonial Fragments.
By E. K. V.
“John” on the New South Wales Tin Mines, 1880.

The curtain rises on the tinfields of New South Wales; twenty-one years have elapsed since we left the Chinese on Ararat. Babes and minors then have now become majors and miners. “Time tries all;” how has it affected John? Has his intense conservatism been weakened by association with “those brutes from Europe?” This latter a translation of a common expression used by John. […]
Old chum John, if prosperous, becomes decidedly flash in his dress, manner, and conversation. His pigeon English is chiefly augmented by oaths and flash sayings; he expresses the greatest contempt and dislike for those in authority, as overseers and the police, and generally prefixes the Australian adjective to their names.

2-: From The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 10th December 1892:

When “Billy” Smyth, of Sydney Customs, was en tour on leave, he visited Balmoral and prowled round the lodge entrance in the hope of seeing Her Gracious. At last, he ventured to address the red-headed potentate who was doing sentry-go at the Castle gates: “Look here, officer,” said William, “do you know whether I shall be able to see Her Majesty the Queen pass this way to-day?” “Noo, look-a-here,” said the red-headed kiltie, “I have obsairved you prooling aroond the premises a’ the morn, wi’ no vara guid intent, I’ll warrant. So I tell ye to be off, and if you’ll no be going, I’ll help you awa’ by pitting an inch or twa o’ this skewer intil ye.” “You bloodthirsty monster!” roared Billy; “for two (Australian adjective) pins, I’d swing you round by your (A. a.) kilt, and bash your (A. a.) brains out against the (A. a.) sentry-box.” Which so flurried the sentry that he rang up the officer-of-the-guard, to whom the wrathful William explained that, as a loyal subject, and a loyaller Customs-house officer, and as a stranger from distant Australia, he was only hovering around on the off-chance of getting a sight of his Noble Queen. The officer expressed his sorrow that the Queen wasn’t on tap that day, and Billy wants to stuff his friends that the sentry was taken off duty! that the officer asked him to have a drink, and that he had three!

3-: From The Southern Cross: A Weekly Record of Catholic, Irish and General News (Adelaide, South Australia) of Friday 24th February 1893:

“Tommy Walker,” the best known of the few aboriginals who now pervade Adelaide, astonished a gaping crowd the other day by complaining thus—“It’s a strange thing that a (Australian adjective) gentleman can’t walk down the street without being followed by a lot of —— larrikins.” It was Tommy Walker who, when asked by Stock, M.P., how he came to be travelling in a first-class railway carriage, answered—“Just the same as a —— member of parliament: got a —— free pass.”

4-: A variant of the phrase occurs in the following from The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 1st April 1893:

A child administered a very neat rebuke to a bagman the other day. He (the bagman) was recounting one of his most racy stories at a customer’s table to everybody’s amusement, the author’s guffaw rising loudest of all, when a little boy of three who was present looked up in his face and said slowly and solemnly: “Ha! ha! ha! you (popular Australian adjective) fool!” “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” here fits in beautifully.

5-: From The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 24th June 1893—connuser means connoisseur:

Jem Shaw, once Mayor of Adelaide, is remembered chiefly by the enormous consumption of champagne he caused in his official capacity, and by the vividness of his language, which used to startle distinguished visitors. One day a noble lord, looking over the paintings in the Council Chamber, was languidly criticising their technique. The admiring Shaw, struck by so much unexpected knowledge, burst out, while playing with his gold chain of office:—“Why, damn me, my lord, you must be a (Australian adjective) connuser.” The earl was revived gradually and forwarded on a free pass.

6-: From miscellaneous theatrical news, published in The Lorgnette: A Journal for Amusements (Melbourne, Victoria) of Tuesday 3rd October 1893:

During Harry Lyons’ brief experience “on the boards” the co. played two pieces in a small Tasmanian town. The dresses (obtained from the local cobbler, who had taken them for a debt from a previous co. of tragedians) came in a box, and while a short curtain-raiser was being played Harry, who had a very small part in the main play, proceeded unmolested to adorn himself from the wardrobe box with the best clothes therein. When the “frontispiece” was over, the tragedians stepped back into the dressing-room to get ready for the other play, when they beheld Harry. They stared at him and he at them. After one convulsive gasp the heavy tragedian burst forth: “Are you going on in that rig?” “Of course I am,” said the gorgeously-rigged out Harry. “Then, in the name of Shakespeare,” said the tragedian, “if you are, what’s the (Australian adjective) King going to wear?”

7-: From A Study in Beachcombers: The Cook of the Spreetoo Santoo, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 11th November 1893—the anonymous author not only uses Australian adjective, but also red painted, crimson, gory and vermillion in place of bloody:

We were in Kitti Harbour, at Ponape, in the Carolines, when, at breakfast, a bleary-eyed, undersized, more-or-less-white man in a dirty pink shirt and dungaree pants, came below, and, slinging his filthy old hat over to the transoms, shoved himself into a seat between the mate and Jim Garstang, the trader.
“Mornin’, captin’,” said he without looking at the skipper, and helping himself to about two pounds of curry.
He ate like a starving shark, and between mouthfuls kept up a running fire of lies and blasphemy. When he had eaten three platefuls of curry and drunk enough coffee to scald a pig, the skipper, who was getting tired of him, asked him if he had had enough.
Yes. He had had enough breakfast to last him a whole (Australian adjective) week.
“Then clear out on deck and swab the curry off your face, you beast.”
“That’s always the way with you tradin’ skippers. A stranger don’t get no civility unless he comes aboard in a (red painted) gig with a (crimson) umbrella and a (gory) ’elmet ’at, like a (vermillion) Consul.”

8-: A plural variant of the phrase, purely-Australian adjectives, occurs in the following from Melbourne Punch (Melbourne, Victoria) of Thursday 28th December 1893—the Australian politician Sir George Richard Dibbs (1834-1904) was then Premier of New South Wales:

Sir George Dibbs, whatever else may be said of him, is no equivocator; when he rises to express his opinion there is nothing ambiguous in his remarks—“D—n Chicago!” is a straightforward statement that only reads one way, and Sir George’s opinion of the so called “Colonial Party” in the House of Commons is quite as direct. He told the Westminster Gazette interviewer he considered the Party “a useless humbug,” and added that the colonies want no meddlers. These brief statements seem to want additional, purely-Australian adjectives to make them quite characteristic of Dibbs, but, no doubt, the Gazette editor deleted the ornamental phrases. Sir George’s opinion of the Colonial Party comes back to us by wire:—
“My colony wants no meddlers”—
You hear the Dibbs’s wheeze;
No dashed, blank, bally peddlers
Of second-hand “idees.”
No meddlers, no fuddlers,
Whoever they may be;
No legislative muddlers—
Why, it’s even tired of ME?”

9-: From The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 28th April 1894:

The London Commission on Labour says of the Great Australian Adjective: “It is in general colloquial use among the lowest classes, and is frequently used as a qualifying adjective, but its derivation attaches no sanguinary meaning to it.” The said derivation being from the Anglo-Saxon “blodig,” which means “very.”

10-: From The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 30th June 1894—the author uses not only the great Australian adjective, but also Australia’s pet sanguinary adjective, the crimson epithet and the gory expletive:

The Great Australian Adjective.

Dear Bulletin,—Anyone taking a casual stroll through the busy city streets, more especially along those thoroughfares almost exclusively devoted to totalisators, expectorators, lamp-post supporters, inspectors of public buildings, and the unemployed generally, cannot fail to be more or less painfully impressed by the unpleasant iteration of Australia’s pet sanguinary adjective which assails his unwilling ear. Whether there is a something in our warm and genial climate which tends to the growth of the crimson epithet, or whether the use of the gory expletive is, in reality, not excessively abnormal, but only appears so to be because it falls upon our ears with such common frequency in the same prescribed area, I am not prepared to say, but certain it is that the use of this vigorous expression is not confined to any one particular class of the community, but permeates, more or less, almost every grade in the social scale, from the hypocritical chimney-pot and black-cloth frock-coat right away down to the realms of knitted ties and inflammatory scarves. At a recent suburban race-meeting, a young man, dressed in the height of fashion, but apparently respectable, was fortunate enough to draw a favourite horse in a sweep. The horse won; and, as the animal cantered past the judge’s box, a wild, unearthly shriek of “Hoo b ——y ray!!” rang out over the heads of the assembled multitudes and filled with dismay the heart of every listening soul within the radius of a quarter-of-a-mile around. Now, if there is one thing in this world that I abhor, it is playing the parson, for, conscious of my own individual demerits, I have, at all times, carefully refrained from censuring my fellow creature. But this wanton, ruthless, murderous outrage upon an innocent, inoffensive word was more than I could brook, and, forsaking my customary caution, I determined, as a matter of duty, to reprimand the young man, sadly thinking that, perchance, he had never known what it was to have had a kind mother’s fond love or the blessing of a doating old father’s paternal care. Calling him aside I ventured, in my mildest and most persuasive manner, to protest against the unwarrantable outrage of which he had just been guilty, and pointed out that the use of the expression, “Hoo blanky ray,” was not only profane—but even blasphemous—that it was rendered all the more aggravating by reason of its being superfluous. The young man looked at me for one moment in astonishment, and then, in a most unrighteous burst of indignation, yelled out at the top of his voice, so that all around might hear, “Super b——y fluous, be d——d! mind your own vacuum business!” This vindictive retort at once staggered and silenced me. With disgust and anger rankling in my bosom at the miserable failure of this one solitary attempt of my life to elevate my fellow man, I moved away.—Yours, R. Dup.

11-: From The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 18th August 1894— the towns of Dimboola and Warracknabeal are in the Australian state of Victoria:

Dear Bulletin,—A few words about the alleged Australian adjective. Why “Australian?” Is it by adoption or by virtue of new applications? I don’t know of any prior claim on either ground. The word is a part of our linguistic inheritance, and Max O’Rell notes it as an integral part of the vernacular of Britain. As an Australian I resent the implication that we have any monopoly in the lurid expletive. Listen to any English, Scotch or Irish crowd, or to the average American letting himself loose on things in general. Has not the conversation of all the same gory garnishment? Here in Maoriland it is the forceful vocable of all classes. Nor does its use denote poverty of thought or vocabulary. An eloquent democratic knight confidentially remarks that an opponent is “a —— fool,” and an ex-parson of proven ability sends the same epithet vibrating over the wires in Oxford’s cultured bleat. And though the man who “humped his swag from Dim-d——d-boola to Warrackna-b——y-beal” was probably an Australian; he was not more coarsely fantastic of tongue than Bret Harte’s Californians or Kipling’s Anglo-Indians. Finally, “bloody” is a better word than “bally” or “blooming.”—Cruor. [The Bulletin calls it theAustralian adjective” simply because it is more used, and used more exclusively by Australians, than by any other allegedly civilised nation. Whether the Australian’s expletive is “a better word” than somebody else’s expletive has no bearing on the case. The otherman’s expletive is his own affair.—Ed. B.]

12-: From an article about Sydney’s dumping ground, published in the Evening News (Sydney, New South Wales) of Thursday 27th September 1894:

They are not, at least some of them are not, a very polite people—these dustheap prospectors. They look with suspicious eyes on strangers. The competition for mouldy bones, the scramble for broken bottles, the greed for rags, the rush for old lead and brass—these are felt to be keen enough already, without any more labor making things worse. There is thus a fear of outside competition even on a garbage tip. Then, again, the ragpickers are suspicious of the press. It appears that they have suffered from the sensational reporter. Somebody in search of sensational “copy” had made statements about them to the effect that they resided on the tip, and that they earned on an average £2 a week—both of which statements they indignantly deny, and pile the great Australian adjective as well as numerous choice exotic varieties of curses on the head of the offending scribe.

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