Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Weekly Words No. 10

The Larrikin

LARRIKIN = adjective, chiefly Australian : hoodlumrowdy

Origin of LARRIKIN 
First Known Use: 1868
Merriam-Webster dictionary

The term larrikin was used to refer to "a mischievous or frolicsome youth", as reported in the Supplement, English Dialect Dictionary, editor J. Wright, 1898–1905.

The term was used to describe members of the Rocks Push - a criminal gang in The Rocks in Sydney during the late 19th and early 20th centuries - who were noted for their antisocial behaviour and gang-specific dress codes. It would appear the term 'larrikin' did not appear in our vocabulary until the early 1870s and its origin is said to rest with a policeman with a rich, thick Irish brogue who transformed the word 'larking' into 'laraking'.

Larrikinism is the name given to the Australian folk tradition of irreverence, mockery of authority and disregard for rigid norms of propriety. Larrikinism can also be associated with self-deprecating humour.

So, what is a ‘Push”?

A Push was a notorious larrikin gang, many of which dominated the Sydney residential area at the end of the 1800’s.

The Rocks Push dominated The Rocks area of Sydney, just near the wharves of Circular Quay and Darling Harbour (The Rocks being roughly, the area now under the southern approaches to Sydney Harbour bridge) from the 1870s to the end of the 1890s. In its day it was referred to as 'The Push', a title which has since come to be more widely used for cliques in general and the left-wing movement the Sydney Push.

The gang was engaged in a running warfare with other larrikin gangs of the time such as the Straw Hat Push, the Glebe Push, the Argyle Cut Push, the Forty Thieves from Surry Hills and the Gibb Street Mob. They conducted such crimes as theft, assault and battery against police and pedestrians in the Rocks area. Female members of the Push would entice drunks and seamen into dark areas to be assaulted and robbed by the gang.

They were 'nasty and unsavoury types'.

Australian authors of the time mentioned the Push in various of their works. A poem called The Bastard from the Bush, often attributed to Henry Lawson, describes in vivid and colourful language a meeting between a "Captain" of the Push and the "Bastard from the Bush". Banjo Paterson describes a group of tourists who go to visit the Rocks Push, and paints the following picture of the appearance of the gang members:

A member of "The Push"

"Wiry, hard-faced little fellows, for the most part, with scarcely a sizeable man amongst them. They were all clothed in “push” evening dress—black bell-bottomed pants, no waistcoat, very short black paget coat, white shirt with no collar, and a gaudy neckerchief round the bare throat. Their boots were marvels, very high in the heel and picked out with all sorts of colours down the sides."

Many commentators have noted the larrikin streak in Australian culture, and have theorised about its origins. Some say that larrikinism arose as a reaction to corrupt, arbitrary authority during Australia's days as a penal colony, or as a reaction to norms of propriety imposed by officials from Britain on the young country.

Larrikinism became a significant element in Australian culture, and has emerged repeatedly, informing Australian contemporary art, popular and youth culture and political debate. Evidence of the larrikin influence includes traditions of free, rule-defying experimentalism in Australian art and underground music (various renowned experimental ensembles that emerged from the post punk movement are examples).

It flourished as expressed in Australia's 'surfing culture' - nomadic young men and women who followed the surfing trail around the country and engaging in minimal work - usually work like fruit picking - just long enough to re-finance their wandering lifestyle.

Surfer boys and girls, Lorne, 1975
Photo Credit: Rennie Ellis

It can be argued that the larrikin tradition of disdain for authority, propriety and the often conservative norms of bourgeois Australia (as evident, for example, in the country's history of censorship and the nation's receptiveness to paternalistic leaders) are two sides of a self-reinforcing dynamic; the social conservatism of the mainstream fuels the undercurrent of larrikinism and rebellion, which, in turn, is seen as demonstrating that a firm hand is needed. This is sometimes referred to as the "larrikin-wowser nexus", ("wowser" being an Australian colloquial term for a person of puritanical mores.)

At the Pub, Brisbane, 1982
Photo Credit: Rennie Ellis

Today, the term ‘larrikin’ has evolved and is usually a term of semi-endearment, a way of describing a fun loving and boisterous male who means no-one any harm. The 'hoodlum' element has disappeared from the larrikin character and is replaced by the mischevious prankster who pokes fun at "authority".

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