My Word: Laurie Barber


I heard a person describe another as a dingbat recently and my thoughts went back to my working days and to my days as a child.

Dingbats was such an entrenched word in the printing industry that I almost forgot that it had any other meaning.

In the printing industry it meant some type that was not the usual, I suppose you could call it a symbol.

Think of when you want to use a pair of scissors, or an aeroplane or some symbol that could not readily be expressed inwords. Yes, they were popular in their day. Some books had thousands of symbols.

Those in the printing industry would refer to dingbats and know exactly what they meant by using the word.

But many years before I joined newspapers I heard the word used in an entirely different sense.

Dingbats referred to somebody who was, I have to be careful here, a sandwich short of a picnic or somebody who was still in the back paddock.

Surprisingly, many of the dictionaries I consulted did not include the word at all. It was almost obsolete. Dingbats is one of those words that has many uses.

In the United States, for instance, it meant money or even a drink. Yet, surprisingly, my Webster dictionary did not include it. Neither did a couple of other American books in my possession.

But my big Oxford dictionary in volume four says dingbats, so far as the US is concerned, means money, thingummy and a tramp. I like the word thingummy. It covers everything.

The big dictionary goes on to mean a foolish or stupid person and a general term of disparagement, “chiefly US”.

Then Australia and New Zealand get a mention.

The big dictionary says that in Australia and New Zealanddingbats means mad, stupid or eccentric.

To give a person the dingbats is to give that person a feeling of nervous discomfort.

Under delirium tremens is the example “the dingbats, I believe, are really the snakes, weasels, etc, which the sufferer sees”.

Some people still see them after a big night out. The ding refers to a thing and bat refers to a strange connection, so I suppose there is a relationship there somewhere.

The word does not seem to have a connection with anything. It just appeared. Dingbats also referred to an army batman, such as in 1919 when WH

Downing said in Digger Dialect there was a vast difference between a dingbat in the British army and one in the AIF.

I think he was saying the batman in the AIF was insane and the Briton dingbats but slightly less so, but I could be wrong.

Ding goes way back, meaning to bluster or the pealing of bells. Dingaling also means one who is crazy or insane.

Philip Hale, of the Boston Journal, in attempting to define the word dingbats, came up with his definitions:

  • “Balls of dung on buttocks of sheep or cattle
  • Blow or slap on the buttocks;
  • Flying missile
  • Squabble of words or pushing
  • Money; various kinds of muffins or biscuits 
  • Affectionate embrace of mothers hugging and kissing their children;
  • Terms of admiration”.
  • The biscuit was described as “about as digestible as a brickbat”.

But Hale missed the Australian definitions, a printers mark and a person who is eccentric.

But then Mr Hale came from the USA.

A person who is eccentric in Australia or New Zealand might be considered normal in the USA.

My word: Laurie Barber’s weekly column has entered its 22nd year and has not missed a week and is now published in regional newspapers throughout Australia and NZ.;

Dingbats: Not just a person who is a sandwich short of a picnic or somebody who was still in the back paddock.

Dingbats: Not just a person who is a sandwich short of a picnic or somebody who was still in the back paddock.