August 2018

Vox

How to speak ‘farm’

By Sam Vincent
Warning: grubby work comes with grubby language

Farming in Australia largely involves swearing at the weather forecaster and swearing at the farm. There’s the odd fence to fix and ute to bog, but these jobs can usually be completed in time for morning tea.

The first time I heard my father use the c-word he was holding a newborn calf in his left hand and a syringe of Ultravac® 5in1 (one jab protects against tetanus, malignant oedema, enterotoxaemia, black disease and blackleg) in his right.

“You stay still now …”

I would’ve been eight.

“Ya MOVED, ya CUNT OF A THING!”

Maybe 10.

It was an exciting new variant on a familiar theme: “Mongrel bastard of a thing”; “You bastard of a thing”; “(Little) fuckwit/head/er of a thing.” The common denominator wasn’t the curse but its target: through an act that’s not so much dehumanising as de-­animalising, Dad would render the object of his frustration – a coochy-coo, six-week-old, labrador-sized black Angus with doleful eyes, lanky legs and velvety fur – a thing. Dad maintains it’s a turn of phrase, but I’ve never heard him turn it on a human.

I asked Dad recently if there was some Freudian clue to this construction – you can be as angry as you like with property, but abusing a being risks eliciting empathy. He admitted that farmers are at their angriest when working in the stockyards: marking, mulesing, branding, crutching and docking. When, in other words, they are hurting animals. But his rationale was that animals panic in the stress of these environments, in turn frustrating farmers who “don’t like wasting time”.

Time that could be spent swearing elsewhere on the farm.

I once met a dog named Fuckwit. Fuckwit’s master, an itinerant agricultural labourer (albeit one sustained by servo pies and flavoured milk instead of damper and billy tea), roamed our valley doing odd jobs. He shall remain nameless, if only so I can state the obvious of someone who calls their dog that – he was one himself. But farming, Dad says, is all about increasing your productivity. Rather than curse his mongrel when it failed to heed his commands, old mate cut his overheads by combining the mutt’s proper name with its improper one.


Naming a dog Fuckwit would’ve been a bit vulgar for my grazier grandfather. But he got into the spirit all the same. My aunt Amanda tells me he used to have a tangible marker on his farm where decorum ended and the gutter began: beyond the gate to the cattle yards, and only beyond it, you could say what you wanted. (Amanda, a gun horsewoman in her youth, crossed another threshold at the gate – she didn’t have to wear her riding helmet. While returning, her dad would say, “Now mind your language in front of your mother.” And Amanda would put her helmet back on.)

My grandfather’s idea of swearing was to call his cows “old bitches”. My mum, an uncoordinated, dorky kid, would be called a “clot of a girl” if she didn’t open or close a gate fast enough to keep up with her father’s livestock drafting. Even his favourite dog went by Biddy the Bitch after a telegram from her breeder arrived: “Biddy the bitch arriving tomorrow’s train.” Most offensive were the names of two of Biddy the Bitch’s predecessors: Boozer and Darkie.

But the most memorable name for a working dog I’ve come across isn’t Fuckwit, Boozer or Darkie. Maggot was a squirming grub of a pup. She transformed into a beautiful Fly.

We don’t have working dogs on our farm. And our cows and calves don’t have names. But our bulls do. Cricketers were once in vogue. There was Gill’pie (in honour of the MCG scoreboard’s inability to accommodate the full nine letters of Gillespie), McGrath (as angry as the paceman; not to be backed into a corner) and Warnie (when the cows were on heat, there was no better performer). There followed a period where our bulls didn’t have names so much as character slurs (Young Fella with the Dicky Knee, Old Bloke with the Useless Prick). James Herd marks a departure from this tradition. A recent purchase, he was so named because his rippling muscles looked suspiciously to have benefited from a peptide program.

But slander isn’t reserved for animals. On our farm, paddock names include Rear End (the definitive back paddock), Dead Horse (aka Tomato Sauce), Shit Creek (it was full of rubbish when we bought it) and Hy-fer (how a family friend visiting from Germany pronounced the word for a young cow).

Sometimes, farmers tip the farmyard confetti on each other. Dad likes to refer to contemporaries who’ve eaten a few too many CWA scones as having “been in a good paddock” or, should the weight-gaining prove irreversible, “gone to seed”. A farmer who succumbed to succession planning has been “put out to pasture”. One dimwitted neighbour is said to have “a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock”, and not a cattle sale goes by without Dad referring to livestock agents – tongues wagging, responsive to whistles – as “sheepdogs in riding boots”.

Then there’s the infamous business card that is kept in a secret location on my best friend’s family farm and only brought out on special occasions. Operating in the Bungendore region in the early 1980s, the Mob of Cunts were a team of fencing contractors. The slogan they chose to make a lasting impression on potential clients? “We cum anywhere, anytime.” It is not known if the MoC were much chop with the wire strainers, nor if they kept their word.

Curiously, the one aspect of animal husbandry that seems to avoid dirty language is that which, among many humans, generates the most: mating. Bulls are said to “serve” cows, and, if successfully “joined”, the cows are “in calf”.

Keep this in mind next time you visit a farm. Nothing will mark you as an out-of-touch, inner-city Monthly reader quite like asking if the bulls are currently rooting the heifers, and, if so, how many they’ve knocked up.

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a writer, farmer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars and My Father and Other Animals.

@samcvincent

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