The book is called The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. It traces the life of the English language, from its beginnings as a minor German dialect, through the Norman Conquest, and its worldwide expansion through the British empire. The author of the book, Melvyn Bragg, was born October 6, 1939. He is a writer and broadcaster, well known in the United Kingdom. A prolific novel and non-fiction writer, Bragg has also written screenplays for TV and film.
The whole book is a fascinating read as it explains in quirky detail the survival and evolution of English. I was particularly interested in Chapter 21, which talks about how the settlement of Australia affected the English language.
When 723 convicts arrived in what’s now known as Sydney Harbor in 1788, they quickly began to add words to English. The “First Fleet” was sent from England to start a penal colony, and they borrowed words from the indigenous peoples to describe the world around them, such as boomerang, dingo, koala, wallaby, and wombat. The word for Australia’s animal icon— kangaroo—has a murky origin. It either came from the name the indigenous peoples used or it was adapted from the phrase “I don’t understand” in their language, a response to the foreigners who asked what that hopping animal was called.
Other musical words from the indigenous peoples entered the English language, like budgerigar, billabong, and barramundi (a type of bird, pond, and fish). Slang words soon followed. Some came from English dialect (like fair dinkum for fair play or cobber, which meant a friend). Other colorful slang came from the code criminals used (such as swag for loot and croak, which meant to die). Later in the nineteenth century, more slang was added, such as bonzer (excellent) and larrikin (a high-spirited rebel).
Australians also contributed to the language memorable expressions like “as miserable as a bandicoot on a burnt ridge” and “better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.” One song, “Waltzing Matilda” written by Banjo Patterson, is a staggering collection of Australian slang. Rather than a sweet song about a woman dancing, the phrase “waltzing matilda” refers to hitting the road. The song is about a tramp (a swagman) needing to move on quickly before a farmer and the police catch him.
After I finished reading this book, I reflected that it had traveled around the world, much like the English language itself.