Wednesday, December 14, 2011

John Roskam, Andrew Bolt, and take a shoveload of shekels and shove 'em where the sun don't shine ...

(Above: a handsome Carthage shekel from the wiki on Shekels)

Confronted by the vigilant guardians of the thought police, the question always arises as to who will guard the thought police guarding the thought police.

The Institute of Public Affairs is a bastion of libertarian thinking, so you'd imagine a free wheeling approach to the English language was part of the remit.

After all, one of the joys of English is the way it's generated all kinds of regional variations, yet still remains a vehicle of communication, and has plundered and pillaged words from all kinds of cultures - much like the empire itself - and yet grown stronger as a result. No Académie française to denounce Franglais, and its weakening of the essential bodily fluids of French speakers ...

In fact one of the great explosions of the language - during the time of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans and the King James Bible - saw a willingness to use all sorts of different words from all sources in a dynamic and expressive way.

How curious then to stumble across this media briefing in Crikey - If I had a shekel for every time I'd heard - and then, having been given the wink and the nod, to head off to the original source Crippled by its Crutches, by the redoubtable John Roskam to read:

"You've only got to look at the way the big banks give their CEOs - Kevin Rudd described them 'obscene' salary packages between $8 million and $16 million a year - to see that they're not short of a shekel" (Why Brown used "shekel" instead of a word like "dollar" or "quid" can only be speculated.)

Speculated? WTF? What on earth does he mean? Is there some implication it's un-Australian, whereas quid or dollar is dinky di?

Then you head off to Andrew Bolt, and you cop this load of lard, under the header Pardon, Bob? A rouble for your thoughts.

It jarred with me, too.


Back in the day, my father's favourite slang for cash was "shekel" - perhaps because he was always short of a shekel. It was part of the alliterative slang doing the rounds, and part of the defiantly Australian slang that was celebrated in books like Sidney J. Baker's The Drum - first published in 1959 - which my father insisted I read, so that I could endure a rite of passage, and become truly dinkum (let's not talk about the bush ballad poets, there's too much suffering in the world already).

I suspect my uncle, a shearer who was also always short of a shekel, got himself short of a shekel for the sheer pleasure of saying he was a shekel short. (Speaking of suffering, another uncle was fond of patting himself down, saying 'testicles, spectacles, wallet and fob watch' before heading out to do battle with the world).

Now this is heartland Tamworth stuff.

That said, I'm not convinced by Guy Rundle's explanation:

It’s a product of an Australia where Sunday school classes were general, and monotonous readings from the old testament – “and malachi gaveth him three shekels, saying here, get me some Winfields, etc” — abounded, and slang had not yet become dominated by US popular culture.

Actually shekel is common enough as a slang word for money in a number of countries, common in the UK in the nineteenth century, and with examples of usage in the United States to be found at the Internet Archive here:

1886. Fun, 21 July, 29. Now that
Henry Ward Beecher is over here, intent
on making SHEKELS Z the following anec-
dote concerning him is worth reviving.

1886-96. MARSHALL, Pomes [1897],
17. He'd a pedigree long, land and
SHEKELS galore.

1889. Referee, 6 Jan. H. is scoop-
ing in the SHEKELS, but you mustn't infer
from this that he is a " She "-nie.

1890. New York Herald, 16 April, 6.
Mr. Philips's . . . novels bring him in as
many SHEKELS as Ouida's.

1892. GUNTER, Miss Dividends, x.
Plenty of SHEKELS to hire legal talent
and pack juries.

1897. CasselFs Saturday Journal,
15 Sep. I do a great deal in the matri-
monial line. One individual, more full of
love than SHEKELS, was in here just as the
clock was striking nine one Saturday.

Yep, everybody loved a flurry of shekels in the old days, with the inspiration - as Noble points out - the Old Testament.

In the same way, everybody down under had their slang for the old units of money, and we learned them all like a ritual from the Latin mass, and when the new currency came along, wags ran about trying to invent new slang terms that matched the notes and coins. And if it meant borrowing a word from the United States or the old Dart, so what ...

But acknowledging shekel as universal slang doesn't get in the way of Rundle's basic point, which revolves around an almost lost Australian love of alliterative slang using dynamic rhythm, and taking an exotic, biblical 'high culture' word and appropriating it. Preferably in a humorous, ironic way ... (which is not to downsize the contribution of Cockneys and Celts to the art).

And Rundle's other point also hits home:

You’d think someone as keen on getting Liberal pre-selection as John would have a greater knowledge of aged Anglo-Australian culture, but hey, sounding like you don’t know your own country is a small price to pay for an anti-Semitism smear.

And even better:

Bolt gets a pass, I guess. He’s Dutch-born, and has never really assimilated to our way of life — which is why he keeps trying to foist his country’s dour neo-Calvinist ideology, with its obsession with notions of “purity” (usually racial) on a country that doesn’t want it. On the “shekel” matter his readership put him right en masse. Could aged Anglos possibly be over-represented in his fan base? 

Back in the day, appropriating all kinds of words and turning them into a recognisable local idiom, whether dough, bread, dibs, capital, cash, the necessaries, the needfuls, the readies, the silver, the crackling, the coins, the clams (much loved by another uncle), the lolly, the lucre, the moolah, the cabbage, sugar, scratch, pelf, boodle, and yes, even the wampum ... could all be turned to use.

Would wampum jar the ears of Bolt and Roskam?

Who knows, but then what's the guess they never staggered out of a Saturday matinee western in the nineteen thirties full of native American terms ready to be turned to local use. Because wampum was still a goer in Tamworth when the pond roamed Peel street ...

Isn't it amazing, as Rundle points out, that if you sound like an Australian from the first half of the twentieth century, somehow you're sounding un-Australian.

I think I hear the slow rotation of my father in his grave.

He loved his Australian variations on the English language ... he loved his Mo McCackie, and he loved his shekels too, even if he was always short of them ...

As Mo himself might have said, strewth, strike me lucky, don't come the raw prawn with me about shekels ... just hand me the lolly. (Yes before Hogan, Mo did the raw prawn).

Let's save the uneasy contradictions of Roy Rene as a Jewish comedian on radio in Australia in the thirties for another day ...

And just note that in attempting to do down Bob Brown in an aside, with a mix of ideological zealotry and bigotry and sheer woeful ignorance, how much Roskam of the IPA, and Andrew Bolt of the HUN reveal the way that old Australia is now a faded dream ...

They think they're defending that dream, but they don't have the first clue what was in that dreaming ... but the greater crime is Bolt's, because as a journalist, he really should get out more and explore the history of language down under ...

(Below: Roy Rene).


  1. Delightful as ever! You may have remembered your uncle's incantation in the wrong order. I know it as 'Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch' accompanied by hand movements that resemble the sign of the cross -- that is, it's a Catholic joke.

    Keep up the good work. You read these people so so many others of us don't have to

  2. David Irving (no relation)Dec 14, 2011, 2:29:00 PM

    You forgot spondulicks, Dorothy.

  3. Yes you're right shawjonathan, that's the right order, but my uncle wasn't of the proper faith. He'd grope his balls, his spectacles, his wallet and then dangle his fetishistic fob watch. I might have got the first two wrong, but I'll never forget the fob watch. And people wonder why there's a loon pond ...

  4. Strike me lucky! Mo's been immortalised in a Robert Hannaford life-size statue in his birthplace, Hindley Street in Adelaide.

  5. Couldn't give a brass razoo for Bolt, maybe he should spend more time in the real Australia!

  6. Bolt and Roskam are obviously very sad and lonely individuals ... but individuals they are by god and they'll defend there idiosyncratic ignorance to the last.


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