No more chunder from Barry Humphries

This week Australian comedian, Barry Humphries died (22 April 2023). I had often wished that we had seen more of Humphries and less of Dame Edna Everage, now they are all gone. His writing was masterful and he was an aficionado of the Australian vernacular language. A memorial to Humphries’ life will be the cementing of “chunder” into the Australian lexicon.

I went to see The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie at the local rural cinema where I grew up (that had no trouble letting 12 year-olds in to see an R-rated film) a few months after it was released in late 1972 (it turned fifty last year).

The film was written by Humphries (with Bruce Beresford) based on his cartoon strip in the Private Eye magazine. It is the story of a likeable Australian fool abroad, accompanied by his aunt, Edna Everage, later to become Dame Edna.

The film was the first to receive money from the Australian Film Development Corporation. The bureaucrats told the filmmakers not to include bad language. As Humphries described it:

“I hope there won’t be any colloquialisms in this fillum Barry”, said Tom Stubbings … Mr Stubbings was charged with administering the total production budget … He was nervous. Naturally I reassured him: “It’s a family film, Tom”, I said, lying through my teeth.

The film was described as vulgar by the critics and it was rated “R” for the language. However it repaid the government investment in the first few weeks.

Despite the critics’ opinions, the display of Australian slang was where it excelled and what gave the film its appeal (and its humour). Some of the most well-known are:

  • “technicolour yawn” for vomiting
  • “point Percy at the porcelain” for male urination
  • “sink the sausage” for sex

Some of these were invented by Humphries, while others were existing slang such as “chunder”  and “up shit creek”.

Barry Crocker playing the gormless hero rolls these off his tongue like a vulgarian thesaurus. He even sings a song about chundering.

In 2017 Humphries wrote a review of The Australian National Dictionary—in the Times Literary Supplement. He describes with pride the reintroduction into English …

This scholarly two-volume work contains a generous entry under the word ‘chunder’, a word unknown in my youth outside the Geelong and Ballarat Grammar Schools, until I relentlessly promulgated it in the comic strip of Barry McKenzie in Private Eye. There the eponymous hero regularly and compulsively regurgitated. This expressive, even onomatopoeic, term took off in trendy London circles and is now in universal, colloquial use.

I lived in London in the mid 1980s. I avoided all contact with Australians. The males I had met had completely missed Humphries’ vicious irony. They thought that they should drink Fosters to excess (then they chundered, of course), call females “sheilas”, and talk in a way that they would have never considered using in Woollahra, Pymble, Toorak or Kew where they mostly came from. Barry Humphries we are going to miss you.