- The literal definition of prawn (a word which appears in the Middle English period, but whose origin is unknown) as an edible shellfish is obviously part of standard English. It is, however, the figurative use of the word to describe 'a fool or someone deserving of contempt' that seems to be predominantly Australian. As early as 1893 it is used to described the hapless worker: Well boys, the 'Worker' is a prawn - a fool for all his pains. He has the muscle and the brawn. The 'Fat Man' has the brains. D. Healey Cornstalk (1893). It is used in this sense through the twentieth century: 1944 L. Glassop, We were Rats:What an odious prawn this Anderson is, I thought. 1977 C. McCullough, Thorn Birds: 'Jussy, this is Cardinal de Bricassart!.. Kiss his ring, quickly.' The blind-looking eyes flashed scorn. 'You're a real prawn about religion... Kissing a ring is unhygienic. In 1940 we have our first evidence of the combination raw prawn. This combination means 'an act of deception; a "swiftie"; an unfair action or circumstance, a "raw deal"; something which is "difficult to swallow".' Typical usages include: 1940 Any Complaints (Newcastle) 4 April: Voice.. is invariably heard muttering something about a raw prawn. 1946 R.D. Rivett, Behind Bamboo: Raw prawn, something far-fetched, difficult to swallow, absurd. 1954 Queensland Guardian (Brisbane) 20 January: Snow says he thinks that this is the raw prawn. We do all the work, the mob behind Menzies gets all the dough. 1965 E. Lambert, Long White Night: Looking like a reprimanded schoolboy, he flushed and apologised: 'Sorry, Johnny. That was a bit like the raw prawn. Seriously, what's she like?' In contemporary Australian English, however, the combination raw prawn is more likely to be heard in the idiom to come the raw prawn (on, over, with, etc.) meaning 'to attempt to deceive (a person); to misrepresent a situation'. The idiom is typically used in negative constructions - don't come the raw prawn with me. According to G.A. Wilkes, this expression originated in WW2 Services slang (A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms 1978) and indeed the Australian National Dictionary 's first citation for it is 1942: They argue there for hours - They start at early morn; Till a loud disgusted voice drawls out, `don't come the old raw prawn'. A.J. McIntyre, Putting over Burst The following citations indicate how the idiom is typically used in Australian English: 1963 J. Wynnum, No Boats to Burn: `Don't come the raw prawn stunt with me,' the girl cried. 'That feller wouldn't shout his old woman a glass of water if she was dying of thirst out in the middle of the Nullabor!' 1973 Woman's Day (Sydney): `Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate,' he said. `I can get it back home at Woollies for that price.' 1983 Canberra Times 17 Nov.: Sceptical groans which were, if I translate them correctly, requests for Mr Hawke to stop coming the raw prawn.
Australian idioms. 2014.