Q&A: The origin of “larrikin”

Where does Larrikin come from?
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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's larrikinship…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been hearing the word “larrikin” a lot this week. 

A: Ah yes, the quintessential Aussie “larrikin”. Most associate it with a person who displays jovial, cheeky, rakish behaviour – typically with some charisma to paper over the cracks. 

Q: Yeah, the classic Aussie joker.

A: So it might surprise you to learn that Macquarie Dictionary has it listed first as “a lout; a hoodlum”.

Q: Oh, that seems a bit harsh!

A: It quotes poet Henry Lawson from 1901 in backing this definition up: “their kids are generally little devils, and turn out larrikins as likely as not.” The dictionary does however go on to supply two further meanings; “a mischievous young person” and “an uncultivated, rowdy, but good-hearted person.”

Q: They sound a bit closer. These days it’s definitely viewed more as a positive thing.

A: Yes, it seems to have moved away from loutishness to the more mischievous, fun-loving side of the spectrum in modern times. In her 2012 book, Larrikins: A History, author Melissa Bellanta confirms that “larrikin” has positive connotations today, much like “scallywag”.

Q: Ooooh “scallywag” is another good word. Isn’t that a character from those banned Enid Blyton Noddy books?

A: No, you’re thinking of “golliwog” (a word that is considered racist today). A scallywag is described in Macquarie as “a scamp, a rascal” – typically applied somewhat affectionately to youngsters these days. It comes from “scalawag” – first appearing in American colloquial language in the 1830s as “a disreputable fellow”, likely from the Scottish word “scallag” for farm servant, and after the Shetlands island of Scalloway.

Q: Is that where the little ponies come from?

A: No, My Little Ponies are made at the Hasbro factory in China.

Q: No silly, I mean Shetland Ponies.

A: Actually yes! In fact, the original meaning of “scalawag” referred to small, underfed animals – likely in reference to the undersized ponies.

Q: Fascinating. Anyway, back to that woman’s book?

A: Ah yes, so Melissa Bellanta describes how when it first emerged in Australia in the 1860s, “larrikin” was a term of abuse – used to describe teenage working class troublemakers – male or female. They were often defined by their antisocial behaviour and dress codes; a reaction to authority in this relatively young penal colony.

Q: And the word itself?

A: There are a few theories – some claiming it comes from the British dialect of “laracking about”, similar to “larking about” – a dated verb meaning to play jokes or have fun. You might still hear people say “lark about” today.

Q: Yeah, that seems to make sense.

A: Another theory is that it comes from the name Larry and “kin” as in family. This seems a little less likely, considering it has been proven that early larrikins were both male and female.

Q: Maybe Larry had a very big family?

A: That is true.

Q: So to be called a “larrikin” 100 years ago meant you were someone undesirable who lived in a working class part of town?

A: Yes, they hung out in once-poor areas like The Rocks in Sydney or Collingwood in Melbourne. Places that have grunge-filled pasts, but now attract well-heeled, piccolo and prosecco sipping, air-kissing types.

Q: When did it all change? After all, to be a larrikin now is a compliment!

A: That’s right. The “lovable Aussie larrikin” is often used to describe such people, although some continue to question some of the questionable behaviour laughed off and lumped in as “larrikin” fun.

Q: Sure, but WHEN?

A: That’s not a knife. THIS is a knife.

Q: Excuse me?

A: Paul Hogan’s 1980s depiction of Crocodile Dundee took the Aussie brand of “larrikin” global. And crucially, it cleaned it up for a new generation of Australians. Suddenly, that inherent anti-establishment Aussie streak, which had in the past been shunned, was wheeled out and celebrated. All because the world was now in love with this cheeky, mischievous side of our psyche.

Q: Any other examples?

A: A famous one is swimmer Dawn Fraser – banned for 10 years by Swimming Australia in 1965 for her “larrikin” act of stealing an official flag in the middle of the night at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Years later, the term “larrikin” would be retrofitted somewhat to define this incident in a more positive, cheeky light. 

Q: So, Crocodile Dundee changed the definition of “larrikin”?

A: Essentially, yes. That, and an evolving Australian identity that grew to embrace this side of itself – perhaps combined with the bicentenary of 1988. Key leaders of the time also influenced the culture, such as beer-drinking 1980s prime minister Bob Hawke. A recent TV biography of his life was named “The Larrikin and the Leader”.

Q: What are some other famous “larrikins”?

A: These days the title is mostly bestowed upon men, and they often do things that divide opinion. Almost as famous as Croc Dundee was the Crocodile Hunter – the late Steve Irwin – who was generally beloved, but who saw the “larrikin” tag wheeled out after infamously “playfully” endangering his son in a crocodile enclosure.

Q: It’s all fun and games until someone loses a baby to a hungry croc…

A: Exactly. Sportsmen are also popular choices – more for the controversy that they court off-field than on it. Examples include footballers Warwick Capper and Sam Newman, as well as the late cricketer Shane Warne.

Q: Too soon.

A: Yes, it was…

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