Poet Carl Sandburg described slang as “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”. And in pre-Federation Australia, slang was doing some serious yakka, forging a new glossary for the colony.
Yakka in fact first appeared round then, as did dinkum and Woop Woop. Yet the letter to bear the greatest load was B, where a bloody big boom burst. Back then excellence, or excellent examples, were not just bonzer, but bonster, boshter and bosker. Should the speaker wish to add a flourish, they could try bontodger, bontosher and bontozzler, as well as the Italianate brio of bonzerino.
James Lambert, a word detective, and editor of Macquarie Australian Slang Dictionary (2004), had never encountered such a vernacular cluster. “Clearly, there was some deep-seated expressive power in these words that appealed to Australians of the era,” he wrote. Plosive and effusive all in one. But if bonzer was the detonator, where did bonzer come from?
For years, the prime suspect was bonanza, a Mexican-Spanish word that rode its gold-laden burro into Texas around 1842. Romantically the root was Latin’s bonus, or good, like a bonzer bloke or a bonzerina sheila. Timing felt right, the rootstock, the excellence. But James Lambert needed more evidence.