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shameless pleading

Chunder

Driving the porcelain bus.

Dear Word Detective: This isn’t in your archives and I have been trying to get to the truth on this word, which is “chunder,” meaning “to vomit.” There’s so many possible origins; for example, it might be a shortened version of “watch under,” which a thoughtful ship’s passenger might shout out just before they vomit over the rail of a higher deck endangering those on a deck below. Or it might have been derived from an Australian shoe polish advertisement which had a character called “Chunder Loo,” which may have been used as rhyming slang, as in “Chunder Loo = spew.” It would be great to know its true origin. I think the ship’s passenger explanation is the most credible I have heard, but my friend thinks its a word made up by Barry Humphries. Please help.– Kurt Goodwin.

Yowzah. That’s a heck of a question. I suspect, based on your mention of Barry Humphries, that you’re in Australia. For the benefit of readers who are not, I should explain that Humphries, Australian comedian, actor, author, writer (and more), is probably best known elsewhere as the creator of Dame Edna Everage. More relevantly for our purposes, Humphries also created the Barry McKenzie comic strip, which first appeared in Private Eye magazine and later produced two movies. Lampooning a boorish Australian “mate” transplanted to London, the strip popularized Australian slang, some of which Humphries evidently invented, in Britain and beyond.

There are, as you discovered, a number of theories about the origins of “chunder.” A Reuters article on Australian slang a few years ago noted the popular “legend” (smart reporter) that “chunder” as slang for “vomit” dates “from the time of the British ships that transported convicts to the new colony of Australia. It was a 12-month trip on stormy seas — a prescription for sea sickness. The convicts were housed in bunk-like beds, where they generally ended up when feeling ill. Anyone on the top bunk who was about to vomit would yell ‘watch out under’ to warn inhabitants of the lower bunks of the impending delivery.”

Much as I love any story that combines ocean travel, convicts and mal de mer, this theory doesn’t explain why the first occurrence in print of “chunder” wasn’t until 1950, long after Britain stopped shipping its malefactors to Oz. It has been suggested that “chunder” is actually military slang from World War II, and troop ships are a possibility, but there’s no contemporaneous account in that well-documented war that mentions “chunder.”

Michael Quinion, proprietor of the excellent World Wide Words website (worldwidewords.org) in the UK, makes a compelling argument for the other theory you mentioned. From 1909 to 1920, there were a series of print advertisements for Blyth and Platt’s “Cobra” boot polish starring a character named “Chunder Loo of Akin Foo,” and the name apparently did become rhyming slang for “spew,” first among schoolchildren, then service members in World War I. (Rhyming slang is a kind of code where a word or phrase is substituted for another, e.g., “trouble and strife” for “wife.”) From there it percolated through Australian slang until it finally made it into print in 1950. By the 1960s it apparently had become popular among surfers, and Barry Humphries, of course, gave it another huge boost with his comic strip in the 1970s.

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