Friday, July 9, 2010

Pox Doctor's Clerks...



A few posts ago I mentioned the loss of Australian slang and the increasing Americanisation of language and culture.

Some years ago I read an article by Phillip Adams that dealt with the same issue. He made a proposal inspired by the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451, a story set in some unspecified future where books are banned and the job of firemen is to burn books discovered in the illegal possession of citizens. The government disseminates information via electronic communication, thereby controlling knowledge, information and thought. One fireman, Guy Montag, secretly keeps a book and begins questioning what he has been taught to believe. This leads to more books being kept and eventually to discussions with dissident individuals. Montag is forced to burn his books and house when he is reported, causing him to kill his captain and flee into the wilderness. There he finds a community of people determined to keep the subject matter of books alive. Admission into the community is allowed only where an individual has memorised a book..

Adams suggested that just as individuals in Fahrenheit 451 were each keeping alive a book, so we should preserve and keep alive Australian colloquialisms and slang by each person adopting one Australian slang expression and using it whenever possible.

That made a lot of sense to me so, with Mr Adams, I began doing my bit for the Australian vernacular.

I adopted as my expression the phrase “dressed up like a pox doctor’s clerk”.

The problem with adoption of that phrase, however, was that the usual response to its use was “like a what???”

The phrase was more common when I was young but these days it is as forgotten as Brylcreem and Choo Choo Bars.

“Gees, Nino, yer done up like a pox doctor’s clerk. Yer don't need no coat an' a coller an' tie. Too hot, mate. Take 'em orf.”

- They're a Weird Mob by Nino Culotta (1957)

I’ll be blowed, however, if I can find out where and how the phrase originated. The Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (4th edition, 1996) by G. A. Wilkes defines it as “dressed nattily but in bad taste” and claims it as an Australian expression, although conceding that it may have arrived from England. The expression is believed to have developed about 1870 but there were variants in the UK in the 20th century where responding that one was a pox doctor’s clerk or a horse doctor’s clerk was the equivalent of saying “mind your own business” when asked what one did for a living.

Maybe I’m fighting a losing battle to try to keep that expression alive and I should adopt something else, like:
- shoot through like a Bondi tram;
- out past the Black Stump;
- flat out like a lizard drinking;
- you’ve got two choices: Buckley’s and none.

What phrase or word have you adopted?

(Origins of the above expressions in future posts).

1 comment:

  1. Pox Doctor's Clerk was a general term when I was a kid in England in the late 1930 and early 1940s.

    As was ponce.

    Stan Froud

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