Stephen Carleton, December 2015

I read Will Self’s edited address to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (October) with interest and enjoyment, as both a Darwin boy and a lover of language, landscape and literature in the Australian context.

My vocabulary expanded by about ten words and phrases as a result of reading Self’s essay. I think, though, that I might need to respectfully disagree with Self’s observation that the word “gammin” (actually, more often “gammon”) is Aboriginal in etymology.

I’ve wondered the same thing over the years. It’s one of those core Darwin kriol words that kids of all cultural backgrounds grow up using, as do people who’ve grown up in many northern Australian towns and cities. Friends of various ethnicities along the indigenous–Anglo-Celtic spectrum who grew up in Mt Isa, Brisbane, Stradbroke Island, Townsville, Cairns, Charters Towers, Darwin and the Kimberley all report its common usage throughout their childhoods. It’s in circulation these days mostly through the indigenous world.

I had assumed it was Aboriginal in origin until I stumbled across it in Dickens’ novels, where “gammon and spinnage!” and “I don’t want none of your gammon”-type phrases pop up among the criminal classes. I also found it in Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s bush play of the 1930s Men Without Wives. Ma Bates tells the blokes on the station not to give her any gammon, meaning not to bullshit her or sugar-coat bad news.

Two of the University of Queensland’s, and indeed Australia’s, finest Aboriginal language linguists confirm that “gammon” is most definitely originally an English word that probably entered indigenous lexicons through (cattle) Station English and into pidgin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in northern Australia. It became an archaism in Australian (and, presumably, British) English before re-emerging (by my reckoning) in the 1960s–80s.

All of this is to agree with Self’s conclusion that language can be a point of cultural and perspectival exchange between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians; that the word is English in origin is probably immaterial. It has been appropriated, forgotten (by whities), put through the kriol blender, and reintroduced as a far more subversive and plastic term than it originally was. It can be used as a verb, a noun and an adjective in myriad ways (mostly sarcastic, subversive, cheeky and derisory) that probably warrant a stand-alone article somewhere.

The word’s chief project these days is to shoot down vaingloriousness in all its forms, and to call out bullshit wherever it’s detected. It has been indigenised and shared back with those of us who’ve grown up alongside indigenous cultures in the late 20th century, and stands as a testament to the dynamism of indigenous and English languages alike.

Stephen Carleton
Rocklea, QLD