Laurie Barber's My Word: The long history of beef between city and bush

The city: Laurie Barber looks into the words used in the argument between the bush and the city.
The city: Laurie Barber looks into the words used in the argument between the bush and the city.

In 1980 the NSW Education Department produced a book called Sydney and the Bush.

It was a hard-cover book selling for $4.50, unless you wanted it posted and then it would cost $6.

On page 232 it had a photo of Harold Wyndham, who was the director general of education – that’s how old it is.

But I remember thinking “the bush” seemed a put down of all things away from Sydney

But I did think of “the bush” when I read in a Sydney newspaper a headline that referred to the bush in unflattering terms, indicating that if you did not live in Sydney then you have not lived.

The headline produced at least one letter castigating the newspaper for implying that people should all live in Sydney. The letter asked: What of the people who live in country towns?

Anyway, my Australian National Dictionary says bush comes “frequently with the”. It has several pages of bush’s definitions and one of its definitions is “the country as opposed to the town, rural as opposed to urban life”.

Then it had “people lacking in urban sophistication”.

I was looking for bush week. The only example I found in several pages of small type was “what do you think this is, bush week?”

The Macquarie dictionary said bush week was “an imaginary holiday time when country people come to town” and “a time when people are taken advantage of”.

The Dinkum Aussie Dictionary said bushweek (one word) was a situation where everything was a bloody mess.

The Australian Dictionary of Insults and Vulgarities says bush week can be explained as if an ignorant cockie behaved in the city as if he was still in the bush.

Around 1919 some people tried to organise a Bush Week to publicise the attractions of living in country towns, but nothing came of it. Several other attempts have been considered with only minor success. Sydney people, and I expect people living in other capitals, did not want to know what life was like in country towns.

A long time ago, well before the bush week attempt of 1919, Morris’s Dictionary of Australian words said the bush was any place well away from the influence of the big towns.

The book What’s Their Story says bush has produced more compounds than any other word. 

The book Sydney and the Bush contains a joint pastoral letter on page 95. It condemns the principle of secularist education “because they are the seedlings of future immorality, infidelity and lawlessness”.

I still think they could have picked a better title.