Fact-checkers beware: Did The Twelfth Man invent this famed Aussie slang?

As Socceroos tame their butterflies, prepping for Tunisia on Saturday night, new evidence has emerged that a piece of Australian slang may stem from an old Socceroo stoush in Hamburg. Back in 1987, the Aussies shocked the Poms 4-0 in an invitational tournament.

YouTube offers the audio highlights: “Australia goes on the attack now through Diggadic, good ball for Sonofabic … Youcanski … Icanski … Nice passki to Whocanski …” and so on.

The spoof belongs to Billy Birmingham, alias The Twelfth Man, back when woke was the past tense of wake, and PC was a Police Constable. No, that’s not true. Political correctness had landed by 1987, making “Goalski” (the Socceroo satire) both a dissident squib as much as a yardstick of how far we’ve since come as a multicultural mob.

It’s time to dive back into the origins of “goneski”, with a timely assist from the Socceroos.Credit:Jo Gay

Sampling the parody wasn’t tied to our Qatar quest. Rather, I was hunting a suffix, as tipped off by a Wordplay reader. The key was -ski, where the caller’s twitch was to add the syllable willy-nilly. Hence, the ballski hit the back of the netski for a second goalski, “stunning this England side”.

The tic soon turns manic, as a centre-kickski leads to four-nilski, “with England in deep shitski”. Everything but goneski, the word I’d been expecting, though the template was embedded. Could a popular piece of Australian slang come from Birmingham? Billy, I mean, the godfather of goneski?

Several readers thought so. Though others, like Warren Menteith, suspected playground language. Pig Latin converts you and me into ouyay and eemay, both of us demoting our initials, and gaining a Virgilian -ay for effect. In the same vein, Warren recalls “an upski, or uckski, language in the 1950s”, where goneski typified the game’s distortion. Could that be the slang’s origins?

Comedian Billy Birmingham (aka The Twelfth Man) and, inset, his 1987 album Wired World of Sports.Credit:Dean Wilmot

Perhaps. That’s the peril – and the benefit – of sharing active case-notes. As soon as you claim a word’s first citation, as I did with a goneski (plus a pox doctor’s clerk) last month, the sages pounce, the fact-checkers and armchair detectives. In short, the people who make this column tick.

Regarding pox doctors, the full phrase is “all dressed up like a pox doctor’s clerk”. Nobody seemed to know why. I’d claimed the idiom’s first user was Nino Culotta of Weird Mob fame, back in 1957. Wrong, said Jennifer Evans, who uncovered a mention in Sowers of the Wind (A&R, 1956), a wartime novel by Tom Hungerford.

Other sleuths unearthed earlier cameos. Yet what swank trait singled out a pox clerk? Robert Lyneham, a retired gynaecologist, believed “to most syphilis sufferers in centuries past, the doctor and his clerk probably looked pretty flash”.

As syphilis spiked in Europe during the 1500s and later, so did pox doctors. In 1957, in E. S. Turner’s Call the Doctor – A Social History of Medical Men (Kessinger), there’s talk of one heelmaker switching to pox doctor, using doggerels to recruit potential patients. A shyster, in other words, the original saltimbanco (literally jump-on-a-bench quack and his aide), clad in natty clothes to suggest authority, purity, a remedy. The image stuck, seeping over time into our own slang.

Lastly, let’s turn to a European car, as spotted by Sasha Jessop. “I wonder if the French knew about Australian slang when naming the Citroen Cactus?” Vernacular for stuffed, the adjective links to the prickly pear, imported by First Fleeters to harvest cochineal. The cacti soon went feral, inspiring the cocky term of cactus if your farm became overgrown and doomed. Equivalent terms include toast or history, shot or cooked. Or even goneski, much like our Socceroos might be, should we fizzle against Tunisia.

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