MEANING OF AERIAL PING-PONG
The colloquial Australian-English term aerial ping-pong is a derisive appellation given to Australian Rules (football). (Australian Rules (football) is a form of football, having certain characteristics of both association and rugby football, played on an oval ground with an oval ball by teams of eighteen players.)
This is the explanation of aerial ping-pong in the Aussie Slang Dictionary (Sydney: Momentum Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd, 2012), by the Australian radio and television presenter, voice-artist, comedy writer and author John Blackman (born 1947):
Aussie Rules—Football game, sometimes referred to by ‘knockers’ 1 as ‘aerial ping pong’, because the ball is often kicked high into the air, requiring players to leap and catch it.
1 In the same dictionary, John Blackman explained knocker as follows:
To knock something in Australia is to criticise it, and when you ‘knock’ something you become a knocker.
And this is what Susan Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, wrote about aerial ping-pong in her column Australian word, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 25th November 2000:
This is a teasing reference to Australian Rules, made by those who don’t follow the game, so therefore mostly those from New South Wales and Queensland. But now that football is entrenched as a national game, we will perhaps hear it less and less.
The point of the jibe is that in football the ball is kicked long and high and the game flows from one end to the other quite swiftly.
In a sense the expression contains a sideswipe at table tennis too, the implication being that no real footballer would engage in something as delicate as ping-pong.
The ball should not fly high above the players but be firmly planted on the ground, preferably beneath a pile of crunching bodies.
Photograph and caption from The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Tuesday 23rd October 1990:
Aerial ping-pong . . . players got airborne in the Kangaroos’ match against Leeds on Sunday.
ORIGIN OF AERIAL PING-PONG
Several of the texts containing the earliest occurrences of aerial ping-pong that I have found indicate that this term originated in the slang of the Australian armed forces during the Second World War.
These are the texts in question, in chronological order:
1-: Brave New Words: Enlarging Our Vocabulary, an article by ‘P. M.’ on how “the Australian soldier of this war has […] enlarg[ed] the national vocabulary of slang and colloquial idiom”—published in The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia) of Saturday 24th November 1945:
The most popular Army gamble is the “swi game,” from the German for two 2. Rugby is “organised wrestling”; Australian rules football, “aerial pingpong.”
2 The German for two is zwei.
2-: Value Of Good Ruck: Essential Driving Force In A Team, by ‘Follower’, published in The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia) of Tuesday 22nd April 1947:
“Aerial ping-pong,” as the rugby exponents in the army termed the Australian game.
3-: Melbourne Newsletter, published in The Cairns Post (Cairns, Queensland) of Friday 17th October 1947:
Servicemen always found two things to argue about if anything else failed and these were the merits and demerits of beer and football in the various States. Victorians, and “Taswegians” 3 usually won the day about beer but no one ever won over football. If southerners referred to Rugby as mobile wrestling then there was the usual scathing reference to aerial ping-pong.
3 Modelled on Glaswegian, the informal Australian-English noun Taswegian designates a native or resident of Tasmania.
4-: Aust. Rules The Only National Game: Nearly 100yrs Old, published in many Western Australian newspapers on Thursday 16th December 1948—for example in the York Chronicle:
There’s only one national game of football here—Australian football—and it packs more thrills to the square inch of its broader playing field than rugby or soccer could pack into an acre.
It is typically Australian in temperament, in its neck-or-nothing tempo, and it was originated here. That’s something neither rugby nor soccer can claim.
So it might serve to remind Australians that it was on August 7, 1858, outside the present Melbourne Cricket Ground, that the first game of Australian Rules was played between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School with team of 40 a-side.
It took them 3 years to finish it!
Game has developed its own ways and means since, without a penny from either the dollar or the sterling countries.
Throughout the years it has shed all it [sic] influences from other games. They did begin once with the rival teams lined on either side of the ground and with one captain taking a kick-off from the centre, but that was too much like rugby.
They altered the rules immediately.
There was ever an exchange of banter when the men of the Australian forces got to arguing the merits and demerits of the 3 football codes. Naturally the New South Welshmen and Queenslanders would have nothing of Australian football; they called it “aerial pingpong.”
Men from WA, Victoria, SA and Tasmania replied in kind—and often very rudely.
These are the other early occurrences of aerial ping-pong that I have found:
– From What Sportsmen Do; Review and Who’s Who, by ‘Orion’, published in the South Western Times (Bunbury, Western Australia) of Thursday 6th March 1947:
[…] Sydney reports herald the advent of Amazons into the field of the “tougher” sports […].
[In] Sydney, we find the girls of Redfern, Balmain, “the ’loo” and even “the Cross” itself thumbing their noses at Melbourne’s “aerial ping-pong” artists and turning to Rugby League. League is a form of Rugby distinct from other types, and holds more public interest than any other game in New South Wales and Queensland. It is “tougher”! But what form it is going to take for the women is problematical.
– From Sports Diary, published in The Western Mail (Perth, Western Australia) of Thursday 7th October 1948:
When the State finalists in the A.B.C. 4 young farmer leadership competition were in Melbourne they attended the league football final between Melbourne and Collingwood. Afterwards at a radio quiz session the subject turned to football.
“You don’t play the Australian game very extensively in Sydney,” said the announcer to the N.S.W. representative. “No,” the young farmer replied. “We don’t go in for aerial ping-pong much in our State.”
4 A.B.C. is the abbreviation of Australian Broadcasting Corporation.