In my vocabulary, yarn has always been a verb — it’s the act of having a conversation. My aunty is, in my dad’s words, “always on for a yarn”. The last time I was home in regional Victoria, I ended up talking with the old bloke who owns the town’s carwash and, as I left, he called out “thanks for the yarn! Get home safe!”
But, in recent years, it’s felt like every time I jump online and read a new story, article, breaking news item, profile, literally any type of digital media piece, I’m confronted with invitations from every media producer from Bondi to Fitzroy to please read their “yarn”. I cringe every time.
Something is happening in this transition that kills all the fondness and familiarity for me. When did the meaning change? And why exactly is it so frustrating?
‘Herewith a yarn’
120 years ago, Australian author Miles Franklin began the pitch for her debut novel with the words “Herewith a yarn…”. By this reckoning, a yarn is a fictional story or a narrative piece of some kind — or at least, that’s what it meant in 1899.
According to ABC linguistic expert Tiger Webb, it’s a classic case of what linguists call “semantic shift” (“when some words start to mean something else”).
“Yarn is a pretty generic example of it, really: you get a generic noun that’s existed since the 11th century — yarn, used for any spun fibre used in weaving — and by the 17th century, ‘yarn’ develops an industry-specific noun sense, referring to one of the single threads that are tied together to make rope.”
“[Then we got] this New Zealand/Australian noun sense of ‘yarn’ by itself to mean a story or tale. These are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as colloquial.”
It’s not really our word though. Merriam-Webster suggests that the earliest print evidence of the phrase is from the early 1800s, used in both American and British English. They agree with Tiger in the understanding that the term came out of the sailing world, with sailors using rope (rope — yarn — spinning a yarn). Given modern Australia was founded by convict settlers who sailed here from the UK, it would make sense we picked the term up along the journey.
Tiger takes it further though, explaining why it is Australians feel such strong possession of this word, in the same way we do “bloke” or “mate”. “In the Australian context, ‘yarn’ does have quite a lot going for it. Throughout the 19th century, you see various sense of ‘yarn’ used in quintessentially Australian publications: Punch, The Sydney Bulletin.
“These senses of ‘yarn’ also pop up in the work of distinguished authors: Marcus Clarke, Henry Lawson, or Patrick White. There are also inflected and phrasal forms of the verb (‘yarning with’, ‘yarn up’), that are specific to Aboriginal Australian Englishes.”
These days “yarn” is closely tied to people in rural Australia and the outback… as well as the media class, many members of which have never set foot in regional Australia.
As a media degree holder who spent years at an Australian university, and years further spent working in the arts, not-for-profit, and government sectors, I have never once heard someone use the word “yarn” in the way it’s now being used by my colleagues — nor with such frequency by anyone I know in rural Australia.
In 2018 BuzzFeed Australia even launched a social vertical named for the term. BuzzFeed Yarns was purportedly designed to tell stories that relate to Australian people: “from viral news to big time investigations, our nation is built on monumental stories”.
Tiger agrees that the term’s recent popularity with a younger, metropolitan audience is slightly jarring. It’s a fact that has been sporadically debated online, recently by writer Eleanor Robertson who argued it was about relatability and a lack of media diversity. “I think [she was] right to locate this in a context where a rarefied class of media producers are under pressure to seem relateable to an imagined audience they are divorced from in any real sense.”
“[But] this is hardly the first debate about authenticity and the Australian vernacular we’ve seen. If you think Pedestrian shouldn’t write ‘gronk’ in headlines, I have terrible news for you about Banjo Patterson.”
Indeed, the word wouldn’t be out of place on a website like The Beetoota Advocate — an Australian parody of small-town papers. Its founders, Archer Hamilton and Charles Single, have taken on the monikers Clancy Overall and Errol Parker and get around in Akubras and RM Williams, always in “character”. They run the site (and their PR firm) from their offices in Alexandria, Sydney — both having moved from rural Queensland.
Where The Beetoota Advocate is a parody (that some argue is patronising), the larger media landscape doesn’t act as a character study of small-town Australia in the same way. Youth website Pedestrian frequently employs the use of the words “gronk” and “yarn” without intending to be a cynical send-up of rural Australia. I don’t see the team behind BuzzFeed Yarns employing the term as a joke either.
Of course it’s fraught territory to wade into, to say that only people from certain areas of a certain class are “allowed” to say words. As a wealthy white media producer who lives in Melbourne’s inner suburbs I am happy to concede that, despite my family’s country roots, I am not a true-blue person of the people anyway. But I still find something confected and self-conscious about it all.
Are “yarn”, “gronk” and “strewth” just touchstones of our culture, appropriated to reclaim the cringe Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin (Crikey!) left us with? Or is BuzzFeed the Punch of our time; Pedestrian the Sydney Bulletin of the millennial age? Maybe “yarn” is just a goddamn annoying word I should mute on Twitter.
What do you make of Australian media’s love of “yarn”? Send your thoughts to [email protected].