Words Fail Me


More Australian lost language. If you break a leg don’t come running to me!

First published: 2012

This is the second volume of Australia’s lost language. As we used to say when a new boss was appointed: Same horse. Different eyebrows. It re-creates the rich, inventive, and roguish language we used to speak before globalism stole it away. Hundreds of readers donated a torrent of forgotten words and sayings. So many arrived it was like trying to take a sip out of a fire hose. The need for a book like this was so obvious, my mother would have said: If it was a snake, it would have bitten you by now. Words Fail Me is not a list. The sayings and phrases are written in context in 100 lively sections of varying lengths, intertwined with many true stories illustrating what Australia used to be like in our living memory. It was a big job. As they used to say: He was always going to do something big. One day he’ll scrub an elephant. This book also casts a satirical eye on modern language madnesses: unhelpful road-signs, asterisks on advertisements, gobbledegook, U.S.-speak and the corporate-speak that has replaced our euphonious, direct language. As they would say today: We are having issues! Lovingly collected and recollected, it takes delight in the way we once were: a people with their own unique lingo: clear, exaggerated and joyful.


Every little bit helps

Before Australia became a very rich country, the post-War refrain that parents repeated to their kids was:

– Turn off the tap

– Turn off the light

– Turn off the stove

It wasn’t to save carbon emissions, and it wasn’t being green … it was to save precious pennies.

Because our parents and grandparents had grown up with rainwater tanks, they carefully husbanded water, even though there were no water restrictions. My grandfather, Jack Duncan, of Nerang, behind the Gold Coast, used to put about an inch of water in a bowl so that he and my brothers and sisters could all wash our faces and hands each morning. My father Fred, who came out of a West Australian orphanage, used to warn us, ‘You don’t want to wash yourself away.’

After the War, mothers would cut cloth into small squares and hem them to use as handkerchiefs around the house. These went by the delightful name of snot rags. Shop-bought ones were reserved for best.

It’s impossible to imagine now, but if you found a bent nail, you would actually take a hammer to it and straighten it out for re-use later. When a board was removed, the nails were always carefully extracted backwards through the board and straightened by hammering side-on to the curve.

During the Depression, my Aunty Ella says, the only amusement a wife could afford was to go to the pictures. ‘It cost one shilling before noon, and one-and-sixpence after. So my mother went before noon.’

In the Great Depression rabbits — underground mutton — were on the menu.

Recent research by Griffith University Professor Brendan Gleeson’s Centre for Urban Research found that up to a third of all food consumed in post-War Australian cities was grown in backyards. Many people grew their own fruit and vegies — even strawberries — to save money. If someone said they put liquid manure on their strawberries, a common practice back then, someone else would be sure to say, ‘We put cream on ours.’

Everyone was hoping to buy stringless beans. These days you are just happy to find fresh peas in their shells.

The recipe for Mock Chicken: Skin and chop a tomato and half a chopped onion. Cook until onion is cooked. Break an egg into it and stir until the egg is cooked, add a good pinch of mixed dried herbs. When cool, spread on Jatz Crackers.

You’ll spoil your dinner

Mum, I’m hungry.
Are you ice cream hungry or bread hungry?
Ice cream hungry.
Well then, come back when you’re bread hungry.

What’s for tea, Mum?
Windmill soup — if there’s enough to go around, you’ll get some.

What’s for tea, Mum?
Bread and duck under the table.

What’s for tea, Mum?
A duck’s dinner.
What’s that, Mum?
Nothing but a drink of water floating on a cold pond.


“If French linguists and philosophers are correct and language uniquely shapes and defines the world, then it must be true that as English becomes globalised our world is reduced to an increasingly bland and monochromatic place. This argument underpins Lunn’s explorations of Australian idiom…This is much more than a simple miscellany of antiquated phrases and expressions. Lunn understands the cultural traits of Australians and explores them through language…an anecdotal meander through forests of words and phrases…A discriminating reader can learn a lot about Australian attitudes and values from it.”
Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald

“Are we going to allow our once rich and colourful Aussie language to deliquesce into tapioca blandness – the range of human emotion and thought reduced to shrugs and grunts and catchphrases?…his compendious raking over of our past…does make the point that once we were specific, explicit – expressive even. She’s like two wirelesses going at once gives a vivid impression… And now? Omigod, like, I dunno, whuddevah.”
Annabel Lawson, Country Style Magazine

“Must read. This colourful compendium pays tribute to our vanishing language.”
Phil Brown, Brisbane News