Bogan vs Larrikin

8 Jun

The term ‘bogan’ is one we often hear bandied about in Australia these days, not least by websites such as Things Bogans Like, Bogan Bingo and For those not familiar with the term, it used to mean something between redneck and suburban hillbilly, referring to uneducated persons of low income and crude opinions dressed in ugg boots and flannelette shirts. Now it used in a looser sense, used as a label for any person deemed to possess vulgar tastes. Among its enumeration of bogan enthusiasms, for example, the Things Bogans Like site includes reality TV, Palazzo Versace Australia, Buddhist statues as home furnishings and Louis Vuitton bags bought in Thailand. The official website for the Kath and Kim TV series adds to this list Gucci Envy Me clutch sprays and tan-in-a-can.

The fact that so many people are being called bogans these days seems to reflect an anxiety about the expansion of credit-fuelled consumption in Australian society. It also springs from people’s desire to prove the superiority of their own tastes by ridiculing other people’s tastes as bogan.

Since the bogan phenomenon is concerned with recent developments, it obviously differs from the idea of the larrikin during the period I discuss in Larrikins: A History, the book I finally finished writing earlier this year – that is, the years between 1870 and 1930. When the word larrikin first came into common Australian parlance in the late 1860s, at any rate, it meant ‘hoodlum’ or ‘street tough’. It was used by journalists and police to refer to young rowdies or street-gang members, or as a defiant way for those young people to refer to themselves. Rather than tapping into anxieties about credit-fuelled consumption or attention-seeking antics among newly cashed-up boors, the term larrikin was thus more concerned with fears of youthful street disorder.

Even though early usage of the word larrikin was initially different to the way that bogan is now used, it is interesting to note that a series of caricatures, theatrical skits and written pieces were published in the Australian press at the turn of the century that poked fun of larrikin youths’ style in a way not too different from bogan jokes today. These caricatures implied that rough larrikins were the epitome of vulgar tastes: whether because of what they wore, or how they talked, or the way they chose to amuse themselves.

Fascinatingly, too, the Australian colloquialism lair, which seems to have come into usage sometime later in the twentieth century, was essentially a combination of the two terms. It referred to someone of rowdy manners and loud dress sense: a hybrid of the word larrikin as it was once understood and bogan as it is understood today. In some ways, then, the bogan name-calling phenomenon isn’t wholly new. It would be interesting to know when exactly lair came into use, and when it  fell out of currency – because in many ways it described colourfully vulgar lifestyle choices not too different from those called bogan today.

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