Australia

From rooting to #BonkBan: A history of Australian slang terms for sex

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In the list of things that Australians usually take a particular and unexamined pride in, slang terms rank up there with our perceived egalitarianism and the Great Barrier Reef.

Even Australianisms that predate Federation — happy as Larry, Buckley's and none,cobber — are often held up as proof positive of some unique larrikin spirit.

Fair dinkum, runs the line on the lucky country — that's the good oil.

Writing in 1952, Australian philologist Sidney Baker verged on jingoism in his celebration of the country's informal lexicon.

"Our greatest talent is for idiomatic invention," Baker breathed, "it is a manifestation of vitality and restless imagination".

And so it is, in many ways, for Australian slang terms for sex.

From bonk to #BonkBan

Bonk is quite an old word. Like all of us, it was not initially a sexual being, and had to come to coitus along the way.

Many of its initial senses in English — a knock on the head, an explosion, a loud bang — are what lexicographers refer to onomatopoeic, which basically just means the word sounds like the action it describes (other such words include mumble, splash, and honk).

German tennis player Boris Becker on the court.

Some onomatopoeic terms even translate across language barriers — once you learn mushi-atsui is the Japanese word for "humid", it sort of makes sense. Around about the 1980s, bonk matured to gain some sexual senses.

As is often the way after congress, other bonk-based compounds soon proliferated: Green's Dictionary of Slang has citations for bonkability (sexual allure), bonkhole (the anus), bonk-on (erection), and even bonkbuster (portmanteau with blockbuster).

No set reason is given for the shift from explosions to sex, though one (most likely retconned) theory holds that bonk is knob backwards.

In 2018, a new compound — #BonkBan — emerged in the wake of parliamentary indiscretions.

While probably not a Word of the Year contender, it is nonetheless morphologically interesting in that it avoids the trite -gate suffix that has plagued previous sex scandals (most likely due to aversion for consonant sequences with similar means of articulation).

'The great Australian verb'

When Puberty Blues — perhaps Australia's seminal aquatic bildungsroman — was released in 1979, the feminist coming-of-age tale plunged several Australian terms into public consciousness.

Fish-faced moll, sprung and shut ya face are several such, but none gained more prominence than root: a euphemism for intercourse that lexicographer Eric Partridge has since referred to as "the great Australian verb, corresponding in all senses, physical and figurative, to the British 'f***'."

A theatrical poster for the 1981 film Puberty Blues.

Puberty Blues was not the first source to use the term: Partridge dates it to "the 1930s", though Green's more comprehensive index shows citations from the plays of Alexander Buzo dating back to 1973.

That Buzo is an early source is fitting: discussions about the Australian lexis often make a point of our subversive nature, even though cultural censorship was puritanical until well into the latter half of the 20th century.

Buzo, a Sydney playwright and one of the earliest Australian sources for root, once courted controversy, litigation, and an attorney-general intercession for his use of the participial form of a barnyard epithet.

Very early terms for sexual congress

In the early 20th century, the Australian vernacular was given a substantial boost by a triumvirate of writers: Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, and C J Dennis.

Paterson was mostly focused on "the bush" and his cites, while transportive, are relatively staid: done like a dog's dinner (for beaten) and Hay and Hell and Booligal (a fictive inland Australian town) are two that spring to mind.

A portrait of bush balladeer Banjo Patersom.

Slang terms for sex, though, tend to proliferate in cities: hence CJ Dennis, whose Songs of a Sentimental Bloke focused on the urban Australian experience in post-Federation Sydney, gives us track with (for associating with the opposite sex), pick up (accost for sex), and a bit of skirt (a young woman).

"It would be easy to see these passages as representative of the vernacular from this period," lexicographer Mark Gwynn once wrote for the Australian National Dictionary (AND), "but we must take into account the artifice of versification".

In other words, Gwynn says, a need to fit within rhyme and meter may stretch the bounds of historical accuracy. Not everyone in the Australian frontier spoke like the Man from Ironbark.

Not all fun and games

It's worth mentioning that not all Australian slang terms for sex are nearly so cutesy.

Sang, as has been written, has no terms for love. And perhaps even in Australian terms for sex, we expect too much — rooting machine, spearing the bearded clam or tearing off a piece are all a bit combative, male-centric, denying of agency for any assumed female participant.

Perhaps that's why I like a new formation, X can hit my back walls, so much.

As a reference to particularly enthusiastic penetrative intercourse ("Young Jeff Goldblum can hit my back walls") the term both reframes the carnal act away from male perspectives and implies consent.

Tiger Webb is a researcher with ABC Language.

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