Let’s Welcome Home a Hero
A Litany of the Corrupt

Musty, dusty books & the goldmines that lie within

Murphy's Pidgin BookPHIL FITZPATRICK

I’M AN inveterate rummager among the narrow aisles of second hand and antiquarian bookshops.

I frequent the second hand bookshops in the hope of stumbling across some treasure that the bookseller hasn’t realised is valuable or which interests me but perhaps no one else.

These discoveries are few and far between because I must sort through mountains of dross. This is especially so if the bookshop is disorganised. Sometimes the disorganisation is so great, I don’t even bother.

Booksellers who sort their shelves by category and arrange the authors alphabetically are blessed.

The antiquarian booksellers are a different matter. Not only are they organised but they know the value of what they sell. But they are worth a look if you are a PNG-phobe.

Even antiquarian booksellers don’t value books about Papua New Guinea highly. You can still pick up things like Jack Hide’s books at a reasonable price. First editions of Vincent Eri’s The Crocodile, in good condition, can be had for $30.

The other attraction of antiquarian booksellers is the opportunity they provide to check out the market value of the books you already own. This can be most satisfying. At least until you try to sell them something.

That’s when the used car salesman comes out in them. Something you’ve seen them selling for $500 is suddenly only worth $100. Best to hang onto it, you decide.

On my recent southern sortie into the Australian nether lands, I came away with a few good finds, including a couple of Papua New Guinean books.

The first was a copy of the seventh edition of John Murphy’s The Book of Pidgin English. This edition was published in 1962 but was largely unchanged from the original 1943 version. Cost me $10.

I haven’t seen a first edition but there were early editions floating around when I arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1967. In those editions, the word ‘lapun’ was inexplicably included out of place under ‘P’, where it remained in my 1962 edition.

Murphy’s book is a very interesting read.

When, after many years, I returned to Papua New Guinea in 1997, I attracted quite a few chuckles because of the archaic Tok Pisin I was using.

It took me a while to catch up but, in reading Murphy’s book in 2016, I’ve realised how dynamic the language has been.

Another interesting thing, which Murphy points out, is the large influence that World War II and Australian servicemen had on the language. Did you know, for instance, that the Tok Pisin word ‘nong’ means ‘stupidly silent’? It means the same in Australian slang.

Here is a random list. See how many words you recognise. A few were current in 1967 but others are new to me.

Aismalang – sodomist                                         Askit – jaw                                Atua – tuna
Bonan – kidney muscles                                     Bonon – dugong                       Esel – mule
Hansuit – right hand                                            Hapmak – sixpence                  Kais – left hand
Kalopa – one to be pitied                                    Kan – vagina                             Kapopo – fart
Karani – Malay                                                    Kiap – percussion cap              Lang – fly
Matakiau – blind in one eye                                 Me – goat                                 Mismis – clan brother
Nainsi – effeminate man                                      Nasau – dunderhead               Nok – flower cluster of coconut
Parai – lizard                                                        Patron – dynamite                   Pomut – potassium permanganate
Pram – a fathom                                                  Pus – sash or scarf                  Raring – pray
Ruru – meditate                                                   Sangana – inside of thigh        Sangsangana – twins
Sarat – stinging nettle                                          Sumatin – schoolboy               Tambilua – yaws
Tannem – mosquito net                                       Taronggu – unlucky                  Teret – coffin
Tuot – perspiration                                               Virua – death by violence         Wanwing – monoplane
Wetpus – Paramount Luluai

Some of the words, if you think about them long enough, are logical.

Hansuit’, the Tok Pisin word for ‘right hand’ is a case in point. It literally means ‘hand–shoot’, the hand you shoot with. Where ‘kais’ for left hand comes from is more obscure, although in Fr Mihalic’s dictionary of 1971 it was said to emanate from New Hanover.

Nainsi’ for ‘effeminate man’ is easy to deduce if you know something about 1940-50s slang. A ‘nancy boy’ in those days meant ‘girly’ or sometimes ‘homosexual’.

Given the rough-edged Australian troops in Papua New Guinea during World War II and a similar knowledge of slang and expletives the origin of the Tok Pisin word ‘kan’ for vagina is obvious. ‘Bokis’ is there but it refers to external organs. Subtlety and political correctness weren’t considerations in early Tok Pisin. ‘Kok’ featured as a word for ‘penis’, much as it does now.

When I arrived in 1967 ‘balus’ was still used as a generic term for bird in some places. By 1997 people thought I was nuts calling a bird a ‘balus’. They were ‘pisin’, a ‘balus’ was an aeroplane.

A lot of people gave me funny looks when I asked whether they had seen any ‘parai’ in the bush. They’d never heard that word for lizard, a long term interest of mine.

So too were my Western District Tok Pisin words a mystery. ‘Maraboi’ for ‘flying fox’ and ‘mamusi’ for ‘village constable’, both adopted from Motu.

There are other words lost to time, ‘hapmak’ for ‘sixpence’ obviously comes from half a German mark but ‘matakiau’ is a bit more obscure (although Mihalic says it’s from the Gazelle Peninsula). It means ‘a man with one eye’. ‘Kiau’ is Tok Pisin for ‘egg’ and probably refers to a white opaqueness typical of a blinded eye. Where ‘mata’ comes from I’m not sure. Perhaps it is a contraction of ‘masta’, in which case it might mean a white man with a glass or egg-shaped false eye.

Wetpus’ for ‘paramount luluai’ is explainable if you think of ‘wet’ as ‘white’ and ‘pus’ as ‘a scarf or sash’ i.e. the white cummerbund worn by such men.

Maybe you can think of an explanation for some of those other words. Or maybe you can dig up a ‘lapun’ to tell you.

Finally a word on spelling. Murphy stuck to phonetic spelling. If you look at modern Tok Pisin that seems to have gone by the board.

Maybe that’s a sign of a mature language, much as spelling in modern English often seems strange. Or maybe it’s just ignorance of the origin of the words.

PNG BroadcastingAnother book I picked up in my travels was Broadcasting in Papua New Guinea by Ian Mackay, published in 1976.

In those days television was not even on the radar as far as Papua New Guinea was concerned. It was deemed too expensive to establish and too sophisticated to interest Papua New Guineans according to the boffins.

In those days it was all about broadcast radio services.

I can hear you whispering about why anyone would want to read a 40 year old book about radio stations in Papua New Guinea.

There are a couple of reasons.

One is that I don’t think people realise the importance that radio broadcasting had in pre-independence days and how it contributed to the development of the nation. School broadcasts had a tremendous impact. So too did broadcasts in local languages and broadcasts related to tradition, culture and song.

Before the National Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation) was created there were two essential services in Papua New Guinea, one run by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the other by the Department of Information and Extension Services.

The former was part of the Australian service slightly modified for Papua New Guinean conditions but largely orientated towards expatriates and educated Papua New Guineans. The latter was a government-run service directed at regional and rural areas.

They were eventually amalgamated in 1973 when the NBC was set up.

Like most things in pre-independent Papua New Guinea, the services operated on inadequate funding and innovation was a big factor, not the modern Turnbull iteration for trendy technology but in the sense of making do with whatever is available.

The account of how innovation was utilised is quite fascinating. Obsolete World War II equipment housed in makeshift buildings was commonplace.

Also fascinating were the politics of broadcasting, particularly the internal machinations.

What becomes clear in the accounts of these events is the incredible chaos that existed. There were dozens of committees, often working at odds with each other producing myriad reports that were ignored or shelved.

Also evident in these pages is the vast chasm that existed between the coal face in Papua New Guinea and the mandarins in charge of the purse strings in Canberra. It reminded me very much of the disconnect between Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and what is actually happening in Papua New Guinea today.

To their credit, both the ABC and the regional services largely managed to avoid getting involved in politics. There were some notable exceptions however.

On the Gazelle Peninsula, where land pressures had spawned local opposition among the Tolais, the ABC was viewed with suspicion while the government service was looked upon more kindly as ‘our radio station’. This changed in the late 1960s as tensions grew when the station was used to try to undermine the proto-nationalist Mataungan Association and John Kaputin.

A few of the early Papua New Guinean politicians sought to either use the district services for political purposes or to censor the programs they broadcast. John Guise had a run-in with broadcaster David Ransom over a report about inadequate fire-fighting services on Samarai but lost and the broadcast went ahead.

A more serious breach of the non-political stance of the service occurred when the District Commissioner of Bougainville, Des Ashton, used the local station, Radio Bougainville, to attack individuals in the community opposed to mining and land alienation.

As you are probably aware, our esteemed master of ceremonies on PNG Attitude, Keith Jackson, was a broadcaster and he was brought in to Radio Bougainville as station manager in 1970 to clean up the mess created by Ashton.

There is a lot more interesting stuff in the book. Who remembers Sam Piniau, the first Papua New Guinean radio station manager and first chairman of the Nation al Broadcasting Corporation? Or, earlier still, Morea Hila, a Papuan announcer during World War II who wrote and sang the first Papua New Guinea pop song, Raisi Mo, on radio?

The old adage about history repeating itself comes home when you read books like this.

So don’t discount old books. You can learn a lot from them


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Geoff Hancock

When i have some time to kill I also like perusing books in secondhand shops looking for a PNG gem.

I rarely have any luck but about ten years ago i hit the jackpot.

It was in a small store in the Perth suburb of Maylands that i asked the proprietor if he had any books on PNG.Did he ever! There were several shelves of them.

He had lived in Port Moresby pre-independence and was originally from Europe.I had not met him in Moresby but he told me he was known locally for sailing his own canoe up and down the coast.He showed me photographs from his time spent in Papua New Guinea.

The books were part of his personal collection that he had decided to sell.He had hefty prices on them so i only bought a half dozen or so.

When i returned months later to purchase more books the store was empty and i never did find out what had happened to the man or his business.

A treasure trove of books had slipped through my fingers.

Garry Roche

Phil a few comparisons of your word list with Mihalic’s Jacaranda Dictionary.

Askit – Jaw = Wasket in Mihalic (chin, lower jaw)

Hansuit – right hand – cf “hansut” or “han bilong sut” in Mihalic

Nainsi = Nancy? English Cockney slang (not in Mihalic)

Tuot – Perspiration = Tuhat in Mihalic (perspiration – literally “too hot” ?

Me – goat = Meme

Virua – accident - violence - cf Birua in Mihalic - Accident, enemy

Finally the word Esel for Mule reminds me of the Gaelic “Asal” meaning donkey.

Ed Brumby

Interesting read, Phil. While 'Sumatin', 'tannem/taunem' and 'Taronggu/tarangu' were an integral part of my Tok Pisin lexicon in the late 1960s, I don't recall any of the other examples you cited.

And yes, I do remember, with fondness, Sam Piniau with whom I shared more than a few SPs on my verandah.

Sam was a great man, my onetime boss and a dear mate. You may be interested in this obituary I wrote of him in 2007 - KJ

Bernard Corden

Hi Phil, This is a fabulous subject and I managed to pick up a Tokpisin book by Geoff Smith during an open day at the Lae University of Technology. It contained a section on Tokpisin argot and many were quite innovative.

My favourites are meme for a goat and rokrok for a frog. I still haven't fathomed the derivation of pukpuk. Matakiau will probably mean dead eye ball or egg ( Matmat, matador, checkmate-the King is dead) and kiau is colloquially a testicle or more often egg.

I too can spend hours in a rural town bookstore and frequently visit the used book store in Charlotte Street in Brisbane and always check out its PNG section.

When an expatriate passes away his library often ends up there.

In responding to many of your blogs it dawned on me the other day that I had forgotten to mention the works of Upton Sinclair. His classic was The Jungle, written in 1906 and the US, despite many of its limitations, has delivered some absolute gems.

Would Des Ashton be related to Chris Ashton, the former AAP/Reuters reporter in Port Moresby? Chris is currently writing for The Spectator and did last week's editorial.

No relation, Bernard - KJ

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)