I’ve been reading, with increasing pleasure, R.M.W. Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker, and I find myself unable to wait until I’ve finished it before sharing it with you all. It’s by far the best book I’ve read on what it’s like to be a field linguist, which is what I think of as a “real” linguist—it’s all very well to sit in an office and pore through monographs, but to me (and this is, or used to be in pre-Chomsky days, a typically American point of view) a linguist should be out there engaging with living languages, preferably ones that can use his services for purposes of education or salvage. His mix of linguistic description (carefully explained so that amateurs should be able to follow it) and reportage (he’s properly outraged by the appalling conditions under which Aborigines lived in Queensland in the early ’60s, when he first went to Australia, and he draws vivid word-pictures of his informants and other friends) is exhilarating, and if this book had been available when I was in college I’m pretty sure it would have inspired me to drop Indo-European and head to Australia myself (and I’d probably still be a linguist today).
Rather than trying to select a few paragraphs, an impossible task, I’m going to follow the lead of Joel at Far Outliers, one of my favorite blogs; while he’s reading a book, he posts nice fat chunks of it over the course of a week or so, giving a good idea of what it’s like. So you’ll be seeing a series of Dixon posts here; I’ll start small, with a little anecdote that reminds me of a scene from An American Werewolf in London. Dixon and his wife Alison are driving through North Queensland on his first field trip:

The heat was overwhelming as we parked our caravan on the only available plot… We went across to Lucey’s pub. Alison sat in the lounge while I went through to the bar—into which women were not allowed, by Queensland law—to ask for a coke and a gin and tonic. The weatherbeaten, red faces of the cattlemen sitting on stools around the bar all slowly swivelled and surveyed me. “Pommy!” ejaculated one of them. I was made to feel that no one had ever asked for a gin and tonic in that pub before.

I should point out that Dixon is not, in fact, a Pommy but a Scot who had been doing graduate work at Edinburgh, but it was clearly a distinction without a difference as far as the cattlemen were concerned. Or are Scots in fact Poms? I welcome clarification from Australian readers.
Addendum. I am informed by Claire in the comments that Dixon is in fact a Pom by any definition, being from Gloucester originally. He sure doesn’t advertise it in the book; I guess those surly cattlemen made a deep impression!


  1. Ha! You still *are* a linguist. Just like there are no ex-Marines–it’s a stain that won’t come clean.
    By coincidence, I’m about to post on another kind of fieldwork–by social activist literary types (courtesy of the New Yorker).

  2. For me, a Pom can only be English, not Scottish, Irish or Welsh. My dad’s English though, so maybe I’m not typical of Australians for this word. But the phrase “as dry as a pommy’s towel” only makes sense if it’s English, as that’s who the stereotype applies to.
    Incidentally, Bob *is* English – he was born in Gloucester.

  3. Oh, man. Isn’t it good? When Dixon finds the old man who tells him the native word in his language for “dog” is… wait, you might not be that far yet.

  4. Bob *is* English – he was born in Gloucester
    Oops! Thanks, I’ll add a note to that effect.
    wait, you might not be that far yet
    Yeah, I am, and that’s definitely going to be one of my excerpts!

  5. Let me guess. 100 words for dog?

  6. No, better than that.

  7. The memoir was the second book of Dixon’s I read. The first was “Rise and Fall of Languages”, which you *must* read if you haven’t yet. That was the book that made me decide to go back to linguistics and do fieldwork.

  8. Michael Quinion in World Wide Words says it refers to “British immigrants” in a discussion:
    which concentrates on the origin of the term rather than its exact application.
    As an Australian myself, I have always assumed it refered to any British person in Australia, immigrant or visitor, and have never been conscious of any restriction to the English.

  9. As an Australian (born in Adelaide in the 70s), I’ve understood Pom to apply to both English and Scots, rarely to Welsh or Cornish, almost never to Irish; certainly not all English are poms nor are all poms English. The strongest identification “pom” == “English” is probably with regard to cricket teams, but there’s a definite sense of “stuck up”, “whinger”, etc, with the sense that if you’re not like that then you’re not a pom.

  10. I loved Dixon’s book, as well as his more technical monograph on Australian languages in general.
    Without question, the high point of this one is when he asks Arthur Bennett how to say “dog” in Mbabaram. Priceless.

  11. David Costa says
  12. Andrew Dunbar says

    I have always known “pom”, “pommie”, etc to only be applicable to the English. I’m 6th generation Aussie and we were always proud that our ancestors were Scottish, Irish, and Welsh – with no poms!
    The only time I call somebody from elsewhere in the British Isles a pom is when they prove their ignorance by calling Japanese people Chinese or such. And they always miss the point.

  13. Andrew – do I detect a slight family anti-English bias ! No offense meant, I’m fourth generation of Scots descent on my mother’s side.
    A friend back in Oz said firstly that he would “have a few dollars each way” on the definition, then added, unknowingly echoing Andrew:
    “Perhaps it depends on whether the subjects were whingeing at the time – that is, they categorize themselves.” (!)

  14. My vote: as an Australian, I have never understood Pom to refer to Scots.

  15. David Waugh says

    I distinctly remember meeting a rather opinionated australian in Scotland many years ago who was quite definite that the Scots were poms.

  16. This is clearly a controversial and too-little-studied subject. Galaxy and ACNielsen should do nationwide polls and determine the true state of Australian opinion on the topic Scotsmen: Poms or Not?

  17. Graham Asher says

    What a lot to be proud of! That must be a great boost to anybody’s self-esteem. Christ, what a lot of inadequates, if they can only feel good by slinging racial abuse at the one nationality – the English – who are supposed to take it and stick it. If anyone can’t see how crass all this is, change “pom” to “nigger”, changing the insults appropriately, and see how nice it sounds.
    Of course our 6th-generation non-Pom’s supposed racially purity is obvious nonsense. He probably has as a good measure of English blood. But if it makes him feel more virtuous to pretend otherwise, I only hope this fantasy doesn’t express itself in anything more than words.

  18. I think perhaps you’re taking the sentiment a little more seriously than it was intended.

  19. To be fair, many celtic people do tend to be overly concerned about racial purity.

  20. To be perfectly honest im English and do not find Australians or New Zeland people using the word Pom insluting, infact i think its quite cool and sounds fun. Im sure the Australians and New Zelands know that we sometimes refer to them as Kiwis I belive we calling you/them Kiwis is not insulting at all (sorry if it is). But could someone please tell me what a pom is.

  21. It’s short for pommy; beyond that, nothing is known for sure. The OED says:
    “The most widely held derivation of this term, for which, however, there is no firm evidence, is that which connects it with pomegranate… A discussion of this and of other theories may be found in W. S. Ramson Australian English (1966) 63.”

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