‘to come a gutser’: meanings and origin

The colloquial Australian-English phrase to come a gutser, also to come a gutzer, means to come a cropper, i.e.:
– literally: to fall heavily;
– figuratively: to suffer a failure or defeat.
to come a cropper.

Derived from the noun gut in the sense of the belly, the colloquial noun gutser, also gutzer, denotes:
– literally: a belly flop (i.e., an inexpert dive into water resulting in falling flat on one’s stomach), and, by extension, a heavy fall;
– figuratively: a failure or defeat.

The following two definitions are:

1-: From Digger Dialects: A Collection of Slang Phrases used by the Australian Soldiers on Active Service (Melbourne and Sydney: Lothian Book Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd., 1919), by the Australian barrister and lexicographer Walter Hubert Downing (1893-1965):

GUTZER (n.)—A disappointment; a misfortune. “To come a gutzer”—suffer a reverse of fortune.

2-: From Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1925), by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons:

GUTZER, TO COME A: To “crash” or fall badly. (Ordinarily an Air Force term with reference to an aeroplane.) Also used generally. To get into serious trouble, e.g., “He’s before a court martial and looks like coming a gutzer”. “Gutzer” is pre-war slang, and an old term among Scottish boys for falling flat on the water in diving, instead of making a clean header.

The first two occurrences of the noun gutser that I have found confirm what Edward Fraser and John Gibbons wrote in Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, that is to say, that this noun “is pre-war slang, and an old term among Scottish boys for falling flat on the water in diving, instead of making a clean header”. These two occurrences are as follows:

1-: From Humours of the Electric Car, published in The Evening Post (Dundee, Angus, Scotland) of Wednesday 10th July 1901:

Even to the most experienced it is no joke to attempt to jump on or leave a trolley when it is fully under weigh. Three rustics travelling by car through the Sandyford district the other day suddenly discovered they had been carried past their destination. The conductor being upstairs, no attempt was made to stop the car, bowling along at top speed. The first man to jump off uttered a yell like a wild Indian, sprang a few feet into the air, then gracefully landed on his ear among the tar blistered in the sun. Nothing daunted by his fate, the second man also jumped with his back to the driver, with the result that all the skin was scraped from his nose by contact with the granite causeway stones. The third followed suit, and experienced what boys who go bathing call a “gutser,” the crash he made resembling the bursting of a pneumatic tyre.

2-: From Notes on the Natural History of the Bell Rock (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1904), by J. M. Campbell:

The eiders […], when changing their fishing ground, wing their way with such rapid wing beats as to give one the impression that they are barely able to support themselves, and finally strike the water with an awkward splash, reminding one of the somewhat inelegant term with which boys designate a bad dive—a “gutser.”

In Australian English too, the noun gutser, also gutzer, originally denoted a belly flop. The earliest occurrences that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the column Swimming, by ‘Trudge’, published in the Sydney Sportsman (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 1st February 1905:

The newly formed Albatross team of comic divers provided a most amusing turn. Some of the headers and “gutsers” were, to say the least, unique.

2-: From the account of the carnival of the Life Saving Society, held at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney—account by ‘Trudge’ in the column Swimming, published in the Sydney Sportsman (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 15th March 1905:

The early struggles of the beginner were shown by the dog-paddle; then came the breast stroke, and so on, until the crawl, the most up-to-date speed stroke, was arrived at.
An evolution of diving was another comic display, the artists showing the novice as he gingerly went in feet first; then came the “gutser,” and finished off with graceful headers, fancy and trick diving.

3-: From the account of swimming competitions held at the Kalgoorlie Baths, published in The Evening Star (Boulder and Kalgoorlie, Western Australia) of Monday 4th February 1907:

The neat diving was a very poor exhibition, none of the competitors seeming to have an idea of what a really neat dive consisted of, going off the board and coming up to the surface in all manners. One very small juvenile amused the spectators by taking a “gutser” every time, but surprised them after the competition by going off the board really well.

4-: From the review of The Breaking of the Drought, a stage play produced at the Royal—review published in The Newsletter: An Australian Paper for Australian People (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 23rd February 1907:

The Cavill family, Purcell, and some others, give a good exhibition of diving. To give a more realistic effect, two or three of the performers are chronically guilty of what are known as “gutsers” at the Figtree Baths.

5-: From the account of a swimming competition, published in Truth (Brisbane, Queensland) of Sunday 5th April 1908:

“Kidder” Cavanagh was just as much disliked as ever, especially when he had the cheek to try and win the neat dive with a “gutzer.”

6-: From the column Swimming, by ‘Trudge’, published in the Sydney Sportsman (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 3rd February 1909:

Wickham, Punch, and Rosenthal are making a trip to Tamworth to enlighten the waybacks how to get in the crawl stroke and to dive other than “gutsers.”

7-: From the column Personal and Social, published in the Macleay Argus (Kempsey, New South Wales) of Friday 24th January 1913:

Australian slang is more brutal than smart. One of our young “cornstalks,” amidst a round of laughter from a number of brother “stalks” (caused by one of their number taking a “flat” dive off the springboard), was heard to say—“Didn’t he take a lovely ‘gutser’ onto his ‘bread basket.’”

8-: From Swimming Notes, by ‘A.C.B.’, published in The Forbes Advocate (Forbes, New South Wales) of Friday 30th October 1914:

A letter that I wrote to the “Referee’s” swimming scribe, in which was described the conveniences and general character of our pool at the suspension bridge, is quoted in their last issue, and the quoter is evidently pleased at our energies.
The diving tower is now in position and adjacent fishermen complain that “gutsers” from the top are scaring away the fish.

The earliest occurrences of to come a gutser that I have found indicate that this phrase originated in the slang of the Australian soldiers during the First World War.

These early occurrences are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From A Trench Dictionary, listing “a few of the words and phrases in current use amongst our Australian soldiers up at the front”, published in The Forbes Advocate (Forbes, New South Wales) of Friday 6th July 1917:

Come a gutser.—To “fall in the soup.”

2-: From Letters from the Front, published in The Federal Standard (Chiltern, Victoria) of Friday 6th July 1917:

In a communication of May 5 to Mr Joseph Brann, of Chiltern, Private George Tidyman, who landed in France with the first Australian troops, says:—Our lads are right in the thick of the fray. They have accounted for a good many thousand Fritzers lately. Only a week ago he counter-attacked in front of my brigade, but he came a terrible “gutzer.” He left 6000 dead in front of our lines. I don’t think there are any troops to beat the Australian.

3-: From From the War Zone, published in The Western Herald and Darling River Advocate (Bourke, New South Wales) of Wednesday 24th October 1917:

Driver W. Ash, writing to Mr. John Russell, the well known shearing contractor, under date July 26, 1917, from No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Dartford, Kent, England, says:—
“I promised in my last to give you a description of the battle of Messines, which I was fortunate enough to be in and came out of alive. […]
“[…] Fritz shelled very vigorously many of the roads approaching our front line, for several days, to try and keep our transport back, but we got through in spite of him. But men were killed; horses, waggons, motors and limbers were blown to pieces. The accuracy of some of his fire was wonderful. One place the road was hit every 30ft. for a distance of 1¼ mile. Holes, 6ft. deep, were knocked in a hard metal road. The shells dropped exactly in the centre of the road in a straight line. At other places the enemy has been searching for a battery (that is dropping shells every yard for acres), and he often comes what we term a ‘gutser.’ He has often fired from 600 to 1000 shells, looking for a battery, and hasn’t done any harm whatever, although, at times, I have seen shells drop within 12ft. of a gun and only throw a bit of earth on it, while the gun has continued firing.”

4-: From News of Kyneton Soldiers, published in The Kyneton Guardian (Kyneton, Victoria) of Thursday 8th November 1917:

Pte. A. G. Longstaff writes, under date 29/8/17:—
“[…] I am completely recovered from my wound; but am still a bit groggy in the legs from the effects of the last winter in France. I am now classified by the doctor as C.I., which stands for home service in England for the duration of the war. Anywhere better than France. […] When you are marked by the doctor B1 A4 you have come a ‘gutser,’ as the boys say—which means France.

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