An amusing Ozwords post features Australia’s national anthem (“Advance Australia Fair”), which includes the line “Our home is girt by sea.” This has attracted criticism “focused on the archaic and obscure word girt – a word that would otherwise be unknown to the majority of the population. The word has attracted much ridicule and calls to replace it, but there is also a recognition that its very peculiarity is part of a shared Australian experience. … Girt has become part of the Australian consciousness – learnt through repetition at school assemblies, reinforced at sporting and national events, and uniting Australians in what can be described as an in-joke.” There are some great quotes, like “Of all the nations on Earth, we alone raise our voices in a past participle that hasn’t been used in common speech since Chaucer was a rug rat.”

Unrelated, but it’s one of those deeply obscure questions that bug me and I have a faint hope that one of my readers might know: West Africa has a Little Scarcies River and a Great Scarcies River; does anybody have any idea what the correct pronunciation of “Scarcies” might be (and, for loads of extra credit, its origin)? I’m tentatively saying /skarsiz/ (SCAR-seez), but I have no confidence in it.


  1. How can you call it archaic when all Australians know it — perhaps even use it on occasion?

  2. And don’t forget the buckle on the Atlantic Ocean’s own girdle: Sea Girt, New Jersey.

  3. Melville could have used the word on page one of Moby Dick, but he opted for “belted:
    There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf.

  4. Regarding the Scarcies, some of the older English sources (late 18th – early 19th century) on Google Books have the spelling “Scassos”, as either the only or the alternative spelling ( ). Some also said that the name of the river in the local language(s) was “Mabayma” ( ).
    “Scassos” sounds like something that could have come from (or via) Portuguese (“Escasso”?), but I can’t find anything like this in Portuguese sources (such as ).

  5. Okay, so I’m American, and I don’t know this Australian song, but girt/girt by *seems* familiar… probably from reading Tolkien.

  6. @Marja: not from the King James Bible?
    “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth and having on the breastplate of righteousness…” (Ephesians 6:14)

  7. Yes, I probably learned it from the King James.
    The Tumbleweed Farm: Thanks very much! So it looks like the -r- of Scarcies is the same confusing nonrhotic symbol of vowel length/quality that I find so annoying in words like Burma/Myanmar and “pronounced Shar-day.”

  8. Or “lurve”, or “errr….”

  9. Jeffry House says

    “Girth” seems more familiar than “girt”, and I think it contributes to me understanding the latter without difficulty.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    There are probably a fair number of archaisms that are widely known because they appear in specific often-memorized contexts like familiar poems or religious texts, and a national anthem comfortably falls in the same category. That doesn’t mean they’re not archaisms. For example, someone who can correctly use thy/thine/art (as a 2d pers sg of “to be”) in the Lord’s Prayer can’t necessarily correctly use those words (or identify whether they are or aren’t being used correctly) in other contexts.

  11. I don’t know about the origin or pronunciation, but this is the earliest mention of the Great Scarcies River that I’ve found, and it also gives the name Rio dos Carceres, which is apparently River of Jail in Portuguese. If the English name is a corruption of the Portuguese, I’d guess your tentative pronunciation is right.

  12. Well, apparently that’s far from the earliest mention, but I still think the Portuguese name may be helpful.

  13. So, is there any connection between ‘girt’ and ‘girdled’?

  14. this is the earliest mention of the Great Scarcies River that I’ve found, and it also gives the name Rio dos Carceres
    Hey, thanks! That led me to P. E. H. Hair (ed.), Hawkins in Guinea, 1567-1568, p. 57: “The ‘Causserus’ is River Scarcies, an important waterway NW of the Sierra Leone estuary, whose local name was probably Kase but which became known to the Portuguese as first Rio de Case/Caces and then as Rio dos Carceres; hence, by English corruption, ‘Scarcies’.” I’ve added that to the Wikipedia page.

  15. iakon: Certainly. Girt is the older past tense of gird ‘encircle, enclose’ (the usual form now is regular girded). A girdle is something that girds (surrounds), whence the verb girdle with basically the same meaning as gird.

  16. Trond Engen says

    Is that -l the instrumental suffix? A yard is also something made by girding.

  17. Tom Recht says

    David Mitchell on the BBC’s “The Unbelievable Truth” gave a hilarious improvised riff a while ago on the subject of Girt-by-Sea, the little-known English hamlet that is the original home of the Australian nation.

  18. Trond: Indeed, though the suffix is not always instrumental. In bridle ‘that which pulls’ and saddle (whose root vowel is mysterious: sit cannot be the direct origin) it is so. But beadle (originally ‘announcer’) is the agent rather than the instrument (its vocalism is due to a round trip through French), and bundle is that which is bound rather than the binding agent or instrument.
    The OED says that there are “phonological difficulties” in connecting yard (OE geard) and its doublet garth (ON garðr) with gird (OE gyrdan), presumably once again in the vowel, and similarly with Latin hortus ‘garden’ and other reflexes of PIE *gher(dh)-. Russian grad, gorod ‘(enclosed) town’ is a borrowing from Germanic rather than a cognate.

  19. marie-lucie says

    JC: bridle “that which pulls” : perhaps more precisely “that which is used for pulling”.

  20. Thanks,JC, just as I surmised.

  21. A yard is also something made by girding.
    And us Australians love yards! We should probably just go ahead and amend the anthem to read “Our home is yart by sea.”

  22. m-l: Quite so, but in English we are rather fond of our verbs that can take instrument subjects: if I broke the glass with the hammer, then the hammer broke the glass. I understand this agent/instrument duality is quite rare in the world’s languages.

  23. Having grown up with this song, I had not noticed until reading this post that the word is considered archaic outside Australia. I comforatbly assumed it was one of the many words that everyone knows but rarely uses.

  24. D-AW: Or “lurve”, or “errr….”
    Or parsnip, from ME passenep, a linguistic hybrid between Lat. pastinaca and turnips.

  25. Piotr: The theory I have heard is that parsnip is hypercorrection of the early loss of postvocalic /r/ before dental fricatives without vowel lengthening that gives us ass, passel, bust, cuss < arse, parcel, burst, curse as well as bass ‘the fish’ < OE bærs and the moss-troopers, who came from the marshlands rather than the moss.

  26. In my native Devon, the unofficial anthem is ‘Where be that blackbird to?’. The penultimate line contains a metathesis of which I was reminded by this post: ‘With a gert-big stick I’ll knock ee down’.

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