From swaggies to snapback

by
September 2020, no. 424

From swaggies to snapback

by
September 2020, no. 424

Financial crises, recessions, and times of high unemployment have periodically affected Australia. They have also shaped our vocabulary. The first recording of the iconic Australian word battler, in the sense of a person who struggles for a livelihood, was in 1896 by Henry Lawson in While the Billy Boils. The ‘swagman, itinerant worker’ sense of battler was first recorded in 1898. The verb to battle in the sense of ‘to struggle for a livelihood’ was first recorded in the 1880s, and in the sense of ‘to seek to subsist while seeking employment’ from the 1890s.

A variety of words for itinerant workers and those in search of employment date to the second half of the nineteenth century: sundowner, swaggie, bagman, and swag carrier are just a few of them. If the swagman travelling on the wallaby track (or the hungry track or the tucker track) was imbued with some romance of life on the road, there were also words that spoke of contempt for the unemployed vagrant: toe-ragger was recorded as a term of abuse for a tramp in 1878, and suburban swagman is recorded in 1899, perhaps reflecting the impact of the 1890s depression on the city worker. The first decade of the twentieth century saw a handful of terms enter Australian English that continued this late nineteenth-century language around itinerancy. The most notable of these perhaps is knight of the road, first recorded in 1904.

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