Lost for Words


Australia’s lost language in words and stories. Wouldn’t that blow a hole in your nightie! Chosen as one of the “50 books you can’t put down”.

First published: 2006

Language tells us who we are: because we are the words we use. If we adopt the language of another society we lose our rights of memory in our own kingdom. The first time I realised Australia had lost its lingo was when I was writing a memoir about growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. To capture the era, I had to remember the phrases and words we used back then because most of them had disappeared from view. Readers wrote from all over Australia surprised that their parents had spoken just like mine in Brisbane. And they recalled other phrases that I’d forgotten: It’s snowing down southI’d know his hide in a tanneryKnow him? I’d know his bones in a stewHe’s all mouth and trousers.

Lost for Words is not Banjo Paterson or Bazza McKenzie or the bush, but rather the language of 1950s urban-dwelling Australians. It is not exclusively Australian; but it is how we spoke.



When some old man got a young girlfriend late in life, women would mutter: ‘No fool like an old fool’ — thinking that the girl must be a tart and only after one thing: his money. They knew that now he would have to fork out to give her the best things money could buy. But the man’s mates would admiringly call him the old sheik. Some would say: ‘Good luck to him. In my case, the wheel of that wagon is well and truly broken.’ Or another might say: ‘I don’t know how he does it. All I’ve got now is a dried flower arrangement.’ Or: ‘Ain’t love grandHe must think all his Christmases have come at once.’



_ He’s a fox terrier — he goes into a room and starts an argument or a fight, and then gleefully watches everyone from the safety of the sideline. Similar to putting the cat among the pigeons.

_ He’s gone to the dogs.

_ It fits like a sock on a dog’s nose — what a workman would say when he was proud of a job he’d just finished, or what a husband might say when asked what he thought of his wife’s new hat.

I’m as happy as a dog with two tails.

Every man and his dog was there.

_ Everybody knows hair of the dog, but in past times the whole expression was used. The cure for a hangover was another drink: a hair of the dog that bit you. A bit of sympathetic magic.

_ This medicine would kill a brown dog. There was always a brown dog about, and they were mongrel and hardy. They were also called bitzas because they had bits o’ this breed and bits o’ that breed in them.

_ He’s lying doggo — he’s pretending to be asleep, hurt or dead in order to surprise; he’s playing possum. Someone who might be pretending to be asleep so they won’t be asked to mow the lawn. Or they might be foxing, pretending to practise or train.

Barking mad — crazy.

Even the dogs are barking it — you think something’s a secret, but actually even the dogs know



Whenever Mum said she was as mad as one thing, you knew there’d be hell to pay if you hadn’t collected the eggs from the chook pen by dinnertime. Or if you and your brothers arrived home late, Mum would announce she was as mad as a hornet. ‘OK, you’ve done your dash. You’re all in strife, you’re in hot water,’ she would say. ‘There’ll be fireworks if you get home late for tea again. I’ll take it out of your hide. You kids better learn to toe the lineor else!’ Or else was code for you’ll get a belting or you’ll taste my stick.

Mothers didn’t hesitate to hit kids if they felt the kids deserved it. But they usually gave umpteen warnings first: Just because your father lets you get away with murder, don’t think you won’t come to griefYou’ll cop it if I catch youYou’re incorrigible. You’ll come unstuckI’ll give you curryI’ll blow my

stackI’m going to blow my top in a minuteI’m going to read the riot act.

Depending on what sins you were committing Mum would say:

Stop that malarky

Stop playing silly buggers

Stop being obstreperous

Stop that growling

Normally mothers just threatened their kids with a good tongue-lashing or the edge of my tongue or a piece of my mind. Her favourite warning when out was: Behave yourself. But if this didn’t work she tried: I’ll put you in a home for delinquent children. I’ll give you paddywhack the drumstickI’ll box your ears. Any insolence or disrespect was over the fence and upped the ante straightaway. Don’t be impudent, you ungrateful pup, a mother would say. Don’t you raise your voice to me. To shut you up mid- sentence if you were attempting to argue your way out of trouble, your mother would say: ‘Alright, Mouth Almighty’, or ‘AlrightKnow-all-Not!’ ‘OK, Smarty-pants.’

Mothers could be moved to increasingly unlikely threats, half said in jest:

I’ll slap you with a wet tram ticket

You need a good belting

I’ll tan your hide

I’ll give you a good flogging

I’ll thrash you to within an inch of your life

I’ll wring your neck

I’ll skin you alive

I’ll spiflicate you

When a Mum was really angry she did her lollydid her nana, was out of her tree, was very scottyBeltings were usually accompanied by explanations of the effect they would have on the child. This will shake up your liver bile. This’ll give you something to think about. This’ll give you something to be going on with. But if a mother was feeling put upon and powerless, particularly when frustrated by a naughty daughter, she might say: I could murder you. I could kick you, you wilful child. I should throttle you. The child took this for what it was. A totally idle threat.

Scariest of all for most kids was: Wait till your father gets home.


“To open Lost for Words up at any page is to invite an onrush of childhood memory, tinged with melancholy that so many of these colourful expressions are being driven out of usage by the unstoppable march of American-accented global English.” Annie Warburton, Hobart Mercury

“More than nostalgia with quality. It is a series of episodes, stories, word-lists and reflections, lovingly collected and recollected. Lunn’s is the spoken English of a wide swathe of Australia only half a century ago.” Professor Roly Sussex, Brisbane Courier-Mail

“Cleverly constructed to show modern readers its context, it’s not always about a dead vernacular…It shows the home-grown colour we could share before being swamped by US celebrity-speak.” John Hampshire, Sydney Sun-Herald

“This book is a valuable bit of Australian history because it is unique in that it is not yet another of the ‘bewdy bottler, strewt’h genre, but more an accurate reflection of how we spoke…Lunn cleverly intersperses his breezy, friendly discourses with 15 episodes of a radio serial. Lunn has done a great and entertaining job of covering just about every aspect of life in the suburban 1950s.” Malcolm Weatherup, Townsville Bulletin

Lost for Words comprises the words of mainly urban 1950s Australians. But what a colourful, ironic mob they were.” West Australian

“Hugh Lunn believes Australians have lost, perhaps surrendered, a language that was colourful and pithy and distinctively our own. This huge and sprawling collection … is often delightful. The delight comes from the recognition of forgotten phrases … his enthusiasm for the byways of the native tongue can be infectious.” Sydney Morning Herald

“Lunn’s bent is not only nostalgic, he also protests how much we have lost to US linguistic imperialism and government PC newspeak. Great value.” Lucy Sussex, Sunday Age

“A treasury of clever, funny and uniquely Down Under slang … a reminder of how much has been lost in today’s world of homogenized global media. Lunn’s skill is to not only bring together an impressive collection of inventive words, phrases and sayings, but neatly explain them in context.” Melbourne Herald Sun

“As Americanisms permeate our language, best-selling Australian author Hugh Lunn is clinging onto the past for dear life … Lost for Words captures some of the great Aussie phrases and sayings that have enriched Strine … a comprehensive compendium and an insight into another era.” Melbourne Herald Sun

“A compendium of Aussie lingo presented in the inimitable Lunn style — folksy and personal, just the way his readers like it.” Phil Brown, Brisbane News

“No debate about it. Hugh Lunn has hit the nail on the head.” Michael Jacobson, Gold Coast Bulletin

“Lunn was determined this important part of Australian culture would not disappear … phrases such as ‘a bludger who wouldn’t work in an iron lung’ will bring back memories of favourite uncles and old conversations. If you are one of many Australians regretting the Americanisation of our language, this book is for you.” Jean Ferguson, Illawarra Mercury