Drongo was not a flyer

It is Australia Day this week so I have chosen a most Australian word as the word of the week. If you get called a drongo it is likely you have done something rather unintelligent in front of your mates. Drongo is a uniquely Australian, mild form of insult, defining a person’s wit as being at a level only slightly cleverer than idiot.

The word drongo originates as a word for a type of bird. The Spangled Drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus) is the only species of the drongo family found in Australia. The name originally comes from Malagasy, the indigenous language of Madagascar (where there are quite a few drongo species).

It is commonly suggested that the slang use of drongo came about as a reference to the bird’s apparently manic and almost comical behaviour as it swoops and dives in flight chasing insects. The strange behaviour was then metaphorically applied to people who were behaving idiotically. Another suggestion is that it refers to the idea that some species of the bird migrate to colder regions in winter, which is contrary to commonsense. However, the birds’ behaviour or migratory habits are not things that most Australians would be familiar with and are considered incorrect derivations.

The true derivation is from the Australian racehorse named Drongo of the early 1920s (which had taken its name from the bird). Now, while every Australian reveres Phar Lap—the thoroughbred that became a national hero a few years later (during the Great Depression)—Drongo is little remembered except that his name has passed into Australian folklore.

Drongo was not a particularly bad horse, he ran several seconds and a third in major races and even came fifth in the 1924 Sydney Cup. Although he came very close to winning major races, in 37 starts he never won a race (Phar Lap on the other hand won 37 races from 51 starts including the Melbourne Cup in 1930).

Soon after Drongo retired, racegoers started to use his name to describe other horses that were having unlucky careers or that had failed to live up to expectations. The word soon took on a more negative meaning and was applied to people who were hopeless cases, no-hopers or fools.

In the Royal Australian Air Force during the 1940s new recruits were known as drongos, which, in a nice little bit of word-use, recombined the bird meaning with the idiot meaning.

So if you get called a drongo this Australia Day remember poor old Drongo, who was neither a bird nor a flyer.