In the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Rolf Boldrewood is quoted 184 times in illustration of about 160 words. Appropriately so. Boldrewood (Thomas Alexander Browne, 1826 – 1915) was the first Australian author to capture faithfully the emerging Australian variant of the English language. Although born in London, he came to Australia as a child and spent the rest of his life here. He ran a farm in Victoria and was later a police magistrate and a goldfields commissioner in the Victorian and NSW goldfields.. He had a good ear for idiom and had the courage to write it down faithfully. His characters are the first in Australian literature to speak real Australian, with no sense of parody.
Boldrewood did for the Australian language what Tom Roberts did for the Australian landscape: he removed the European filter and saw Australia through Australian eyes. Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms is a comprehensive glossary of the language of bushrangers, and Dick Marston is the first truly Australian character in our literature. When Ned Kelly ambushed the police at Stringybark Creek he called “Bail up. Put up your hands”.
Much later, after his arrest, Kelly was asked by Constable McIntyre why he had ambushed the police party. He responded “If we had not done so, you would have found us and shot us. We had bad horses and no money and simply wanted to make a rise.”
Bail up and make a rise are early Australian colloquialisms. Make a rise is not used at all currently. Bail up is rarely heard, although you might occasionally hear of a person being bailed up in some awkward spot.
Surprisingly, bail up comes originally from dairy farming and was adopted ad hoc by bushrangers. From the early days of white settlement in Australia, the frame designed for holding a cow’s head steady during milking was called the bail (also spelled bale ). The farmer wanting to get his cows co-operating would shout “Bail up” as he pushed them into the bails. According to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this usage is specific to Australia and New Zealand. However Morris’ Dictionary of Austral English (1898) notes that this usage was also found in Ireland, and in the dialect of 5 English counties. In any event, the idiom was recorded in Australia as early as 1846. No doubt it had been in spoken use well before that.
By the time Ned Kelly told Lonigan and McIntyre to bail up, the expression had been current for several generations. As Sidney J Baker has noted (The Australian Language (1945)), the cry of bail up, in the general sense of demanding submission to the speaker’s will, would have come readily to the tongue of that group for whom bushranging was a realistic career option. And so it did. From 1840 to the end of the century, bail up was commonly used in the way Ned Kelly used it. One of the illustrative quotations in OED2 is from Kelly himself.
It is clear from the various recorded uses of bail up that its central meaning involves submission to the speaker’s will. For example, the quotation from Nisbett Bush Girl’s Romance (1894) reads: “Reginald … acted like a wise man and ‘bailed up’, that is, he dropped his knife and threw up his hands as a sign of submission”.
The first edition of the OED doubted whether the bushranger’s use of bail up owed anything at all to the dairy farmer’s expression. The question seems to have been answered authoritatively by Rolf Boldrewood in Robbery Under Arms, published in 1881. In chapter 47 he writes:
The same talk for cows and Christians! That’s how things get stuck in the talk in a new country. Some old hand like father, as had spent all his mornings in the cowyard, had taken to the bush and tried his hand at sticking up people. When they came near enough … he’d pop out … with his musket (and say) ‘Bail up, d___ you’ .
Given the etymological observation implicit in the passage above, it is surprising that the OED2 does not cite Boldrewood for the meaning of bail up . Homer also nods.
In the famous Jerilderie Letter, dictated by Ned Kelly but written by Steve Hart (actually it was Joe Byrne) in early 1879, Kelly criticizes many aspects of the colonial police force (“… a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splay-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as … the Victoria Police …”). He discusses the idea that police witnesses regularly perjure themselves and adds that “… it was by that means and by hiring cads they get promoted…”. This use of cad is puzzling. According to OED2, Cad means:
An assistant or confederate of a lower grade, e.g. a brickie’s labourer; or
A low fellow who hangs about the college at Eton, or Oxford.
Neither of these meanings makes much sense in the context of the Jerilderie letter. The second seems an unlikely usage for Kelly.
Another obscure meaning of cad is (specifically from Ireland) a cade lamb ; that is, a tame or pet lamb. This makes sense in context, but only just.
But there is another possibility. Cad was Australian slang for a cicada, now out of use. It seems likely that the reference was to police informers who, like a cicada, will make a lot of noise when prompted. (For some odd reason, we have developed (and since forgotten) a lot of slang terms for cicadas: baker, floury baker, floury miller, cad, green Monday, yellow Monday, miller, mealyback, red eye, and double drummer. I confess that, apart from the last, these make no sense to me at all. Clearly there is something about cicadas I have missed).
Kelly’s other interesting colloquialism, make a rise, sounds suitably revolutionary. It is clear enough that rise has, as one meaning, uprising . Whilst it is true that Kelly has had attributed to him revolutionary tendencies (tendencies now being recast as republican), it seems very unlikely that his comment to Const. McIntyre was meant as an admission of a revolutionary purpose. Apart from anything else, he was too astute to inflame a difficult situation by adding armed revolt to the catalogue of his crimes.
Make a rise means to strike gold , and is so used by Boldrewood in A Miner’s Right (1890) and later by Ion Idriess in Lightning Ridge (1940). In the more general sense of striking sudden good luck, it was used by W.T. Porter in Quarter Race in Kentucky (1836), where the luck came in the form of a gambling game which rejoiced in the improbable name chuck a luck.
At his fortified compound in the Wombat Ranges, Ned Kelly had been working for gold, as well as growing corn for whisky, and stealing horses. Gold mining was still a boom industry in Victoria in 1878, and fortunes were still being made. It was the one activity which offered the prospect of riches for the unskilled and unemployed. It is overwhelmingly likely that Kelly’s comment to McIntyre was an un-selfconscious declaration that he was trying to make an honest living. One hundred and twenty years later, the idiom has lost its innocent meaning and appears, mistakenly, to carry a sinister threat.
This essay was copied and re-formatted from Burnside’s collection A Bit About Words.
Copyright © Julian Burnside