Push the meaning of LARRIKIN

Last week (7 April, 2008) five teenage boys were charged with attacking staff, students and property after their gang rampage through Merrylands High School in western Sydney. Would we describe the boys as larrikins? Probably not; but once we did.

Larrikin, held to be very much an Australian word, has disputed derivations; the romantic version tells that it was a Sydney Court journalist’s interpretation of an Irish policeman’s pronunciation of larking in larking about; in Yorkshire larracking about meant a giddy carelessness; and in Cornwall, larrikin meant mischievous young fellow. It is likely it came out to Australia from the latter English dialect, became mainstream in Australia and was re-exported (1).

Gangs are certainly not new to Sydney. In the 1850s the Cabbage Tree Hat Mob was reported in the SMH as insulting wealthy residents and knocking off their tall black hats (2). In the 1860s there was the Plunket Street Boys (2). Larry Foley a famous Australian boxer at the time gained his fighting skills leading the Green, Catholic, larrikin gang against the Orange, Protestant, gang in the 1870s (3).

In the latter part of the nineteenth century there were many known gangs engaged in warfare with each other: Rocks Push; Livers (composed mostly of butcher boys from Glebe Abattoirs), Burley Boys (from Woolloomooloo), Forty Thieves (from Surry Hills), Gipps Street, Golden Dragons, Gore Hill Tigers, Blue’s Point Mob, etcetera (1).

The members of the gangs were called larrikins and the gangs were called pushes. Henry Lawson’s the Captain of the Push (1892):

Let us first describe the captain, bottle-shouldered, pale and thin,
For he was the beau-ideal of a Sydney larrikin;
E’en his hat was most suggestive of the city where we live,
With a gallows-tilt that no one, save a larrikin, can give…(4)

In the 1922 Roget’s International Thesaurus larrikin was included alongside savage, brute, ruffian, barbarian, desperado, gunman, hoodlum, bludgeon man, and bully (5).

But with the help of the poets such as Lawson and CJ Dennis (in The Sentimental Bloke) we have romanticised the notion of the larrikin to mean a relatively harmless person who displays traits of mischievous anti-authoritarianism operating outside the norms of polite society (6). Hence we even have called several of our Prime Ministers larrikins.

1. Baker, S.J. 1961 The Australian Language Currawong Publishing Company (pp8-9 and pp119-125) 2. Moore, K. 2004 Bodgies, widgies and moral panic in Australia 1955 – 1959 3. Australian Dictionary of Biography online 4. Lawson, H. The Captain of the Push 5. Mawson, C.O.S., 1922 Roget’s International Thesaurus 6. Smith, K. and Hawksey C. 2005 Hegemony: Explorations into Consensus, Coercion and Culture