Let's Talk Strine: How Charles Dickens's Great-Granddaughter (Inadvertently) Named the Australian Accent

Monica Dickens was more prolific than her more famous ancestor—but few know her today.
Monica Dickens was more prolific than her more famous ancestor—but few know her today. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Monica Dickens), bgblue/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (Australia)

More than 50 novels that spanned a half-century-long career—no, we’re not referring to the famously prolific Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. We’re talking about his great-granddaughter, Monica.

Love him or hate him, everyone knows the name Charles Dickens. But few today remember that Dickens's great-granddaughter, Monica Dickens (1915-1992), was also a writer. In fact, in terms of raw numbers, “Monty” Dickens’s output more than doubled that of her ancestor, whose career spanned 19 novels, including well-loved classics like David Copperfield (1849) and Oliver Twist (1837), and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Monty, too, was well-known in her lifetime and, like her great-grandfather, had a profound effect on the English language—if not quite in the way she intended.

Monty didn’t dwell in the soot-choked, 19th-century London of her more famous relative. She did not live in a world that yielded stories of misers swept away by ghosts or underground networks of street urchins, or orphans consigned to shoe polish factories. Instead, her novels were influenced by the two World Wars, especially the second. One of her most popular books, The Happy Prisoner (1946) tells the story of a young man who returns from World War II having lost a leg in battle. Unable to leave his bed, he develops acute abilities of observation which transform him into a confidant and advisor to the various members of his family.

Dickens published novels for adults as well as several children’s series, and her work was even adapted into two screenplays. A third original screenplay for a film called Life in Her Hands (1951), co-authored by Dickens, was written with the aim of recruiting more British women to be nurses, and likely drew on Dickens’s own experience as a wartime nurse.

But at least one of Monty’s achievements was unintentional: She is indirectly responsible for the coinage of the term Strine, the name of the dialect of English spoken in Australia.

While at a book signing in Sydney in 1964, Dickens was reportedly approached by a customer with a book in hand. The woman held the book out and asked, “How much is it?” Dickens, unable to understand the customer’s Australian accent, mistook her question for her name. Instead of answering, Monty took the proffered book and, before anyone could stop her, cheerfully inscribed it to “Emma Chisit.”

When Australian writer Alistair Ardoch Morrison got wind of Dickens’s gaffe, he had a field day. He came up with the Strine, an exaggerated transliteration of the word Australian in an Australian accent, as a name for the Australian dialect that had so thoroughly baffled Dickens. Then, under the persona of “Afferbeck Lauder” (“alphabetical order”), fictional “Professor of Strine Studies at the University of Sinney [Sydney],” Morrison began publishing articles in the Sydney Morning Herald as well as entire books that made good-natured fun of Strine.

Morrison’s books jokingly “translated” phonetic renderings of Strine phrases into standard English and documented Professor Lauder’s quest to study and master the dialect. His 1965 Strine dictionary, Let Stalk Strine, included such entries as Split Nair Dyke (splitting headache), Londger Ray (lingerie), Zarf Trawl (after all), Egg Nishner (air conditioner), and Snow White and the Severed Wharves. A later collection of short stories, Nose Tone Unturned (1967), consisted of a series of short stories told in the first person by Professor Lauder, chronicling his misadventures in his attempts to speak and understand Strine.

None of Morrison’s books revealed his true identity, but by 1968, he had been unmasked. “A lot of people think my real name is Afferbeck Lauder,” Morrison told The Sydney Morning Herald that year. “They genuinely believe there is a Sinney University with a Department of Strine Studies.”

Today, quite possibly to the gratification of the anonymous Emma Chisit, Strine is still considered an important part of Australian heritage and a point of cultural pride. “Aussie English isn't in the morgue—it’s on the beach … and having fun,” author Kel Richards wrote in his book, The Story of Australian English. Monty Dickens’s deliberate cultural contributions—her writings—are still waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of curious readers.