Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Weekly Words No. 11

"Don't come the raw prawn!"

Following up on a past post - "Don't piss in my pocket ..." I mentioned that this piece of idiom is frequently used in conjunction with another - "Don't come the raw prawn (with me) ...". This is a typical 
traditional Australian expression meaning: "Don't try to put one over me!" or "Don't treat me like a fool!".
Particularly used to indicate that the listener is aware of the speaker's ingenuousness, for example where the person to whom it's directed feigns innocence or naivety. 

Some sources say it is a WWII Australian Army expression. As to why it arose: one suggestion is that the reason lies in cooked prawn being more palatable than raw prawn. However, anyone from a fishing background who has handled raw prawn flesh, will know that it is limp, wet and slippery; like the sort of people at whom this phrase is directed.
(Source: Urban Dictionary )

"come the raw prawn"  (Australian informal)
to pretend that you have no knowledge of what someone is talking about (usually + with )
 Oh, don't come the raw prawn with me, Scott, I saw you writing down her telephone number as I walked into the room!
Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006. Reproduced with permission.
(Source: The free dictionary )

But, are the reasons for the expressions origins accurate? The literal definition of prawn (a word which appears in the Middle English period, but whose origin is unknown) as an edible shellfish is obviously part of standard English. 

It is, however, the figurative use of the word to describe 'a fool or someone deserving of contempt' that seems to be predominantly Australian. As early as 1893 it is used to described the hapless worker:

"Well boys, the 'Worker' is a prawn - a fool for all his pains. He has the muscle and the brawn. The 'Fat Man' has the brains." -  D. Healey Cornstalk (1893).

It is used in this sense through the twentieth century:

1944 L. Glassop, We were Rats: - "What an odious prawn this Anderson is, I thought."

1977 C. McCullough, Thorn Birds:  - '" .... 'Jussy, this is Cardinal de Bricassart!.. Kiss his ring, quickly.' 

The blind-looking eyes flashed scorn. 'You're a real prawn about religion... Kissing a ring is unhygienic. ..."

In 1940 we have our first evidence of the combination raw prawn. This combination means 'an act of deception; a "swiftie"; an unfair action or circumstance, a "raw deal"; something which is "difficult to swallow".' Typical usages include:

1940 Any Complaints (Newcastle) 4 April: -  "Voice.. is invariably heard muttering something about a raw prawn."

1946 R.D. Rivett, Behind Bamboo: -  "Raw prawn, something far-fetched, difficult to swallow, absurd."

1954 Queensland Guardian (Brisbane) 20 January: - "Snow says he thinks that this is the raw prawn. We do all the work, the mob behind (Prime Minister) Menzies gets all the dough."

1965 E. Lambert, Long White Night: - " Looking like a reprimanded schoolboy, he flushed and apologised: 'Sorry, Johnny. That was a bit like the raw prawn. Seriously, what's she like?' ..."

In contemporary Australian English, however, the combination raw prawn is more likely to be heard in the idiom to come the raw prawn (on, over, with, etc.) meaning 'to attempt to deceive (a person); to misrepresent a situation'. The idiom is typically used in negative constructions - don't come the raw prawn with me

According to G.A. Wilkes, this expression originated in WW2 Services slang (A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms 1978) and indeed the Australian National Dictionary 's first citation for it is 1942:
"They argue there for hours - They start at early morn; Till a loud disgusted voice drawls out, `don't come the old raw prawn'. ..." A.J. McIntyre, Putting over Burst

The following citations indicate how the idiom is typically used in Australian English:

1963 J. Wynnum, No Boats to Burn:  - ".... `Don't come the raw prawn stunt with me,' the girl cried. 'That feller wouldn't shout his old woman a glass of water if she was dying of thirst out in the middle of the Nullabor!' ..."

1973 Woman's Day (Sydney): - "... `Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate,' he said. `I can get it back home at Woollies for that price.' ..."

1983 Canberra Times 17 Nov.:  - "Sceptical groans which were, if I translate them correctly, requests for (Prime Minister) Mr Hawke to stop coming the raw prawn."

No comments: