Pedal to the metal, and damn the roos.

Dear Word Detective:  G’day. This is probably not strictly within your bailiwick, but I would love to find out the origins of the term “ripper,” Australian slang (yes, I am a colonial) for “excellent.” I am unsure if this term derives from a British expression. Interestingly the Japanese word “rippa” is translated as “splendid or fine,” and if you check how it is written it is in traditional Japanese characters (Hiragana) rather Katakana which is the written form most often used for adapted words. This indicates that it is not a word adapted from another language but is a traditional Japanese word. My suspicion has always been that this word entered Australian usage from POWs during WWII. So, is this some form of convergent evolution of the word variety or can the Word Detective uncover another answer? — David Taylor.

Gee, you guys in Oz are still a colony? One of ours? I lose track. But I hope so. You are, after all, the world’s leading producer of unlikely animals, without which our vital nature documentary industry would collapse. Since movies are one of the few things we still make, that would be very unfortunate.

I kid, of course. “Colonial” in the sense you used it is simply popular shorthand for an inhabitant of one of Britain’s former colonies. I’ve always found the usage sort of heartwarming, as if Mother England were keeping your childhood room just as you left it.

That’s an interesting theory about “ripper” as slang for “excellent” being rooted in Japanese, but what you’ve found is almost certainly simply the kind of coincidence that is not uncommon between two languages. “Ripper” as Australian slang first appeared in print in the early 1970s (although it may be older in oral use), but it is clearly derived from “ripper” used as a slang noun in Britain to mean “something excellent” beginning in the early 18th century (“You have a ripper of a city to see,” London Magazine, 1825). That “ripper” is, in turn, clearly related to “ripping” as an adjective (meaning “splendid”) used in Britain since the late 18th century (“Sir! it is I that call, to inform your Lordship, there has been a great deal of shooting towards the Red Lyon, within this little while… Ripping work, my Lord!”, Battle of Brooklyn, 1776).

“To rip,” of course, means to forcefully tear apart or disassemble, and is derived from very old Germanic roots. A “ripper” is something that or someone who rips things, from someone who “rips” down trees or houses to a computer program that copies data from another (often copy-protected) medium, such as one used in “ripping” songs from a CD to your iPod. One of the most famous uses of “ripper” as a noun is in the name “Jack the Ripper” given to a famously mysterious murderer in Victorian London who “ripped” his victims with a knife.

The connotation of destructive energy in “ripping” and “ripper” (not to mention the association with a serial killer) would seem to make both words unlikely candidates for slang use meaning “excellent,” but “ripper” and “ripping” as slang primarily reflect the “energetic action” aspect of “to rip.” The same sense is reflected in the US slang coinage “let her rip,” meaning to let something (usually a car or other machine) run at top speed (“I think we’ll head for Cobham, and get on the A3. Okay, let her rip. Do you like going fast, girls?” 1987). To “let it rip” is also used in the broader sense of “allow something to proceed without restraint,” and “to let rip” means “to speak bluntly, often angrily, without restraint” (“Almost as soon as I had let rip, however, I realized the injustice of my complaint,” 1971).

So “ripper” and “ripping” as slang both reflect the sense of something that is not merely very good, but has been allowed to “rip” and is excellent in a very energetic, superlative sense. While “ripping” in this sense is now regarded as a somewhat archaic usage in Britain, it’s good to see that its cousin “ripper” has found success as an adjective in Oz.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page