Inspiration From The Distant Past

Inspiration From The Distant Past
Found note in an old book... warms the cockles of my bookish heart...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mystery Aussie word

First of all, a lament about my beautiful pre-teen daughter who was perfect, and who now comes home from high school reporting about the different way she got in trouble today. Any words of wisdom from parents of teens? I am floundering.

Anyway, at the table tonight she confessed that she had forgotten to write her Indonesian homework in her diary and, of course, not done it. The teacher said, 'Being a bit of a berk, are we?'

Hubby, a born Aussie, says it's spelled 'burke' after Burke and Wills, the ill-fated Outback explorers who died. Burke wouldn't take advice from Aborigines, was ill-prepared, etc. That definition fits the situation perfectly, but I can't find that exact etymology in any dictionary, paper or online.

My Macquarie Dictionary of Australian Colloquial Language, which has been a faithful companion since my immigration from Texas, has:

'berk, also birk, burk, burke n. (offensive) an unpleasant or despicable person. [rhyming slang, Berkshire Hunt cunt]'

Do you know about rhyming slang? It originated from the Cockneys and is part of Aussie lingo. Hubby calls his friends 'China'. It comes from 'mate'--> 'plate'--> 'China plate'. Get it?

Merriam-Websters' online has the same etymology, with the addendum, 'fool British.'

What do you think? Fool I'll accept, even unpleasant, but not a despicable person or the rhyming slang for rude bits!


  1. Although I now live here in the US I was born and raised in the UK and lived there for 26 years. Although "burk" isn't an everyday type of word it was usually used as another word for "idiot". Never viewed it as an offensive word in any way as it's usually said in good humor. Interesting to see its origin though.

  2. agree with Bookmarc, I live in the UK and although Burk is generally used for 'idiot' its the sort of word used between friends, like if your friend does something silly you call him a 'burk' in jest. Thats funny to see the origin.

  3. Hope it was said as an aside and not in front of the whole class. Wonder what tone the teacher used--light and jokey or snarky-- smile or no smile-- that would help determine how the word was being used.

    I found you more info-- you know I love a quest! this is a great site-- bookmark it if you aren't familiar with it.

    Info from that site: Berk-
    "fool," 1936, abbreviation of Berkshire Hunt, rhyming slang for cunt but typically applied only to contemptible persons, not to the body part.
    This is not an objective, anatomical term, neither does it imply coitus. It connects with that extension of meaning of the unprintable, a fool, or a person whom one does not like. ["Dictionary of Rhyming Slang," 1960]

    this site explains a bit more: origin of berk

    Hmmm-- don't see anything about an aussie origin-- that may be a bastardization. Maybe the meaning has been bastardized as well. sounds like it began as a derogatory term used in contempt but maybe now just means 'fool' and used in good humor or between friends like Marc and Jess stated.

    But tone is everything-- I did see several references to this usage: 'You stupid berk!' Sounds like something shouted in anger/contempt at strangers who offend in public i.e. driving, cutting in line, ect

    Lot of words are like that 'dork' originally meant 'penis' but now just means a 'doof' or even 'jerk' depending on tone. Bitch can mean very different things as well depending on tone/intent and if it is used between friends or strangers.

    Interesting-- entymology of words is fun. Hope this info helps and sorry she has a 'berk' for a teacher.

  4. Hey! I'm actually texting my cousin right now, who's in England for the summer, and I had to ask her now what "berk" means. She said it's not a particularly nice word to use, but it's not supposed to be "offensive." So I guess I'd go with the British-fied term?

    Haha I was actually about to email you - just to make sure I've got it right, are you a Texan living in Australia? I'm in Texas right now and would love LOVE to live in Australia and I was wondering if I could do a Q&A with you for my blog about your experiences...if you're interested!

  5. Here's my advice: zero in like a laser on your daughter's behavior and forget what the teacher said. Notice how your teenager now has you totally obsessing about that one word the teacher said, researching the word, asking about the word. Classic strategy: distraction! I should know, my students conspire to get me off task all the time, and I recognize the ploy...As the mother of two women (21 and 23), I foggily recall some really big arguments and some sleepless nights. I was relentless and crazy at times (stopping by to check up on one or the other of my daughters--they called it a "drive-by"). And then it was over. Suddenly they were lovely young women. Whew! And good luck!

  6. So many to people to answer: how fun!

    Marc and Jess, I am going with you, re. berk being a 'silly' person, with little malice attached. 12 year old, have on occasion, been known to be silly...

    Wow, Lesa, you are a hunter, a dog with a bone. You are a quest-er. I will have a look at all those sites. And Hubby called the teacher a berk, too.

    Lesa and Amelia both mention a difference between British and Aussie lingo, and I think the gap is minimal. They are so much closer to one another than American English, in my layperson's opinion.

    Amelia, any chance for my moment in the sun! Email me.

    Bibliophiliac, you sound like a very wise woman. I am easily side tracked, but doing my best with Possums 1 & 2 (our 2 girls). I was subjected to 'drive-bys' with my mother (just ask Lesa), and am fully expecting to do the same when our Possums are out and about.


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