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?

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