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As hot as a Qantas hostie* - Barry Humphries, who has sadly died at 89, on the Barry McKenzie lexicon

Blog | By Barry Humphries | Apr 22, 2023

Whacko-the-diddle-oh! Barry Humphries loves a new book about his native tongue and its rude expressions

It began when I strained the potatoes.

When I was very young, I once excused myself from the dinner table with the polite announcement that I was ‘just off to strain the potatoes’.

When I returned from the bathroom, my mother was still berating my poor father. ‘Where would Barry pick up things like that, Eric? Probably from one of your rough men.’ She added, ‘You should never taken him to those jobs of yours. Who knows what language he’ll pick up!’

My father was a successful builder of nice houses for the well-to-do, and I loved to accompany him to the building sites and talk to the workmen, Pat Bagot, Alec Gibson and Arthur Gallagher.

My father wore a grey, chalk-stripe, double-breasted suit, a tie from Henry Buck and an English trilby, while the men wore overalls, singlets and cement-spattered boots.

When he talked to the men, my father’s voice changed, and he once said ‘bloody’, which in those far-off days was a swear-word. Certainly not a word he used at home.

But, apart from those early encounters with the proletariat, and in the words of that poem by my late father-in-law, Stephen Spender, ‘My parents kept me from boys who were rough.’

I was always aware, however, that there was a gulf between us and them; between nice people and common people, between those who strained the potatoes and those who washed their hands.

It was my introduction to the vernacular.

At my Melbourne Church of England grammar school, a provincial parody of its English prototype, I joined the debating society. At an early gathering, I had to uphold the contention ‘Slang is detrimental to the language.’ I was not convincing.

I liked the forbidden vernacular; the language we never spoke at home. I began to jot down some of those words and phrases my father’s men used, and words I had overheard at school, in the street or over our back fence, where, owing to some municipal error of planning, a common family lived, if not for long.

In my late teens, I began to collect slang dictionaries and, in particular, lexicons of Australian slang. An early purchase, and a book I still own despite the depredations of time, travel, and multiple divorce, is Cornelius Crowe’s The Australian Slang Dictionary, containing the Words and Phrases of the Thieving Fraternity, published in Melbourne in 1895. This small volume in pink wrappers was intended for use by the police in order that they might, when furtively eavesdropping in pubs and brothels, understand what that villainous underclass was plotting.

In the sixties in London, I knew a very old Jewish artist called Horace Brodzky who had lived in Melbourne before the First World War. He told me that in the first decade of the 20th century, respectable citizens who worked and shopped in salubrious Collins Street would never venture two blocks east to raffish Burke Street, where its denizens spoke an entirely different language. A mere half a block further east were the brothels and the Chinese.

Now there is a new book about our colloquial language: Rooted, by Amanda Laugesen. It sits on my lexicography shelf between Digger Dialects and Sidney Baker’s Australian Language.

There have been many dictionaries of Australian slang since Cornelius Crowe first helped the police with their enquiries, some of them drily academic, others whimsical and a few slightly apologetic, and this is the best. I like it chiefly because it says nice things about me. Name a better criterion. It’s a history of ‘bad language’, which is just language in a process of growth.

‘Bloody’ has been called ‘the great Australian adjective’, and I had heard it on building sites. What is still coyly called ‘the F word’ might have been scrawled on fences, but I encountered the word in its full and expressive glory only during National Service, where it seemed to be the only word in the vocabulary of the tyrannical Regulars.

An old girlfriend of mine called Aviva hated the F word. ‘That’s bedroom talk!’ she protested.

The vocabulary of sexual desire in Australia is rich and voluminous. There are many words describing the closest of human intimacies, some surprisingly brutal and even, let it be said, vulgar.

The most popular and frequently used epithets for women are ‘hornbags’ and ‘ceiling inspectors’, which betray a slight hint of misogyny. Men of ambiguous or unorthodox sexuality are, not seldom, known as ‘shirtlifters’ and ‘pillow-biters’.

The term ‘shirtlifter’ was conveyed to me by ‘Shearer Bill’ at a Sydney AA meeting and it affectionately evokes a fastidious encounter. The word is also assonant with the traditional term ‘poofter’.

‘Pillow-biter’ was invented by my friend Bruce after the much-publicised incident when the Right Honourable Jeremy Thorpe MP enjoined Norman Scott, who was experiencing some initial discomfort from unlawful penetration, to ‘bite the pillow’ during congress. In some quarters of Sydney, no pillow goes unbitten.

All these words should be employed respectfully and responsibly, lest they alert the ever-vigilant PC lynch mob.

My great opportunity came when Peter Cook, the famous wag, asked me and the Kiwi artist Nicholas Garland to create a comic strip for Private Eye, a periodical still published today.

Barry McKenzie was Cook’s name for the protagonist, and we were to depict him stumbling though the moral quicksand of ‘Swinging London’.

In writing the speech balloons, I plundered every variety of Australian slang I knew or imagined.

The result was a curdled pastiche; a synthetic speech quite unlike contemporary usage in Sydney (Barry McKenzie’s city – I wasn’t going to drag my home town into this!) But it caught on.

When a chap from Ballarat Grammar had a skinful, he told me that there was a good chance he might ‘chunder’ later on. It was an expression known only to a few intemperate schoolboys, but I wanted to popularise this onomatopoeic word! So Barry McKenzie became regularly incontinent.

He had heard, moreover, that a certain type of lass, usually from a broken home, ‘banged like a shithouse door in a gale’. It was a resonant phrase, firmly in the Australian anti-romantic tradition.

Once, in my student days, I heard that terrible word ‘shithouse’. In an Italian restaurant, an intoxicated woman rose unsteadily from her table and stridently apostrophised the waiter. ‘This spaghetti is shithouse!’ she proclaimed, before being escorted out by her shamefaced husband.

It is still a word, once descriptive of a mephitic backyard shed, which might be better employed in the vocabulary of highbrow criticism. Few would dispute that the total oeuvre of Cy Twombly is shithouse, or that the quality of the murky and indecipherable photographic reproductions in recent publications of Weidenfeld & Nicolson were also slovenly and pretty shithouse. And there would be universal agreement were the epithet to be applied to the ‘non-contextual’ soundtrack to a recent television adaptation of a novel by Nancy Mitford.

When the Barry McKenzie strip became a film in the early seventies, it elicited howls of opprobrium from Australian critics. Bruce Beresford, the director, and I were excoriated for exhibiting a gross travesty of the dignified Australian character.

‘We’re not like that!’ my gravely maligned countrymen cried with one voice.

It was the same when Sir Les Patterson first appeared in 1975. I was branded as unpatriotic, almost a traitor, and a lawyer called Turnbull – later to hold the highest office in the land – said at a press conference, ‘Barry Humphries is guilty of caricaturing and denigrating his own country in a pretty gross and sickening way.’

Recently, members of Mr Turnbull’s own party were reported to have held sex orgies in the ladies’ lavatory at Parliament House. Conduct beyond the wildest dreams of Sir Les. We Aussies have Caliban’s reluctance to glance, however feelingly, at our own image.

In 1972, as we took off to London to film the first McKenzie movie, a senior accountant from the Australian Film Commission ran across the tarmac to have a final word with me.

‘I hope there won’t be too many colloquialisms in this fillum, Barry,’ he plaintively besought me.