The always lively Ozwords (“For the dinkum oil on Australian English”) has a post by Julia Robinson on the centennial of children’s author May Gibbs and the popularity of the characters she created, which “has also left its mark on Australian English.” I was particularly struck by the “Banksia Men” who serve as villains; even though I never read the books, just seeing that illustration makes the cone of the Banksia look evil.

The idea of the banksia man as bogey still resonates in adult life: ‘Is “globalisation” the cause of many of the world’s economic troubles, or has it merely become the big, bad Banksia man of our era?’ (Australian Financial Review, 1 September 2001)

If you go to the Ozwords post, you will also learn (if you do not already know) about the gumnut twins Bib and Bub; “the similarity of their names and appearance has given us a way of referring to a pair of people or things who are inseparable or virtually indistinguishable.”


  1. Ah yes. Banksia men were the stuff of nightmares, when I was four.
    Banksia are named after Joseph Banks, the naturalist who accompanied James Cook on his 1768–1771 voyage. New South Wales nearly got called “Banksia” instead, such was his importance. No less notably, he was a pall-bearer for a great lexicographer.
    So “Banksia” is an eponym; and “Banksia man” is like the reflex of an eponym, right? And I suppose May Gibb is the Banksia man woman.

  2. I know Banks as a nonfictional background character in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, of which I am a huge fan. But O’Brian also wrote a biography of Banks. I tried to read it once, and rI ecall it as being deadly dull.

  3. jeff del col says

    Banks’ journal of his voyage on the Endeavour is highly entertaining. He collected specimens and enjoyed himself with native women around the world.

  4. The problem with the Banksia Men from the contemporary point of view, of course, is that they look suspiciously like racist caricatures of Aboriginal Australians (note also that the gumnut babies, perpetual victims of the Banksia Men, are lily-white and wear clothes). I read and enjoyed the books as a child, but looking through them as an adult is, for me at least, an uncomfortable experience.

  5. Matt: I am reminded of work on Newfoundland folklore (I might be able to find the exact reference, should anyone be interested) which showed that inherited tales and beliefs involving witches were conflated with beliefs about Micmac Indians.

  6. Etienne: Shouldn’t that be Beothuk Indians?

  7. Rodger C.: No, it definitely referred to the Micmac, not the Beothuk.

  8. Uncle Muffler says

    I was glad to read your comment Matt. I have always felt like Gibbs was poking fun at my mob with those evil bastards. They are unquestionably a racist caricature and I would like to see all of Gibbs’ books banned from libraries and schools. I would also like them to be reprinted showing the real version of history with white folk stealing black babies.

  9. John Cowan says

    I read that as gummint twins ‘government twins’ at first: just my brain rearranging the minims.

    Have I mentioned that sans-serif sucks on a language blog?

  10. Georgina Banks says

    More of you should read the posts of Zachar Laskewicz. He is totally amazing.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Have I mentioned that sans-serif sucks on a language blog?

    Do you see vertical lines that much better than horizontal ones?

    The only problem I have with sans-serif here is the lack of difference between uppercase i and lowercase L.

  12. John Cowan says

    Well, be glad you aren’t having to routinely distinguish between fun and ſun on this blog or elsewhere. (I realize that this is not a historically correct use of the long s, but the English minimal-pair resources I can find strongly prefer monosyllables and initial contrasts, so that medial minimal pairs aren’t readily available.)

    Sans serif for body text began in the 1920s but didn’t really catch on until the 1960s, being part of the infamous International Style. Its alternative name is Grotesque for a reason. Does it look cool? For now, yes. Is it legible? At small font sizes, yes (serifs just turn into blobs); at larger ones, not so much.

  13. January First-of-May says

    read that as gummint twins ‘government twins’ at first

    Ditto. I don’t think it’s a sans-serif problem, though; just substituting an exotic word with a similar-looking common one.

  14. David Marjanović says

    fun and ſun

    On my screen, the horizontal stroke on the f is almost as wide as the vertical one. Serif fonts routinely make it much harder to tell these apart, especially because ſ usually had a corner there that can be almost as large as the left half of the horizontal bar of f.

  15. John Cowan says

    For me the distinguishing factor is that the top of “f” is a semicircle in a serif font like New Heterodox Mono, which I use for writing code, whereas “ſ” has a mere rounded corner. Here in Arial-land (which is what this website calls for), both letters have the same rounded-corner shape.

  16. Even though your font makes it somewhat easier to differentiate ſ and f, it must throw off your colleagues when you use ſ in your code.

  17. It would, especially as they are reading it in Ghu-knows-what proportional font, most likely, and yellow on blue to boot.

  18. I’m still unclear as to why you’re choosing fun and ſun to illustrate your problem with sans-serif. The long s seems about as irrelevant to current English as anything I can think of.

  19. If you had ſ in your password, you could type it in at the coffeeshop with a known Russian troll factory spy sitting right to you, and he’d send the wrong thing back to his handlers.

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