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This bloody washing machine is cactus!

Glossaries / dictionaries of Australian slang (like this one, and this one) list cactus as meaning "dead, useless, or broken."

How did this usage come about?

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  • prickly pear cactus. Cactused = RAAF as pear shaped = RAF?
    – Phil Sweet
    Nov 23, 2016 at 3:58
  • Well, I note with great interest and concern that Citroen have a car called a "Cactus"......... Maybe for the Australian automotive market it's a play on some sort of marketing reverse psychology ? Hmmmmmm,,,, Dec 21, 2016 at 0:58
  • @Mr.prickles Your name fits perfectly with this question! Also, the irony is that "Citroën" sounds like the French word "citron", which means "lemon".
    – Dog Lover
    Jul 21, 2017 at 10:39
  • From a deleted answer, which was supposed to be a comment: nah cactus to us means its busted, broken or not working. " is your car running mate?" "nah mate she's fuckin cactus" its up there with kicked the bucket and keeled over @gage May 8, '19 EDIT Ops, it's been posted underneath a user's answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 4, 2019 at 22:52

5 Answers 5

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Cactused: (from Your.dictionary)

  • (Australia, slang) Broken; ruined; no longer working, more recently especially related to a technical system. My computer is cactused!

Cactus: (from Wikipedia)

  • a malfunctioning piece of equipment was "cactus" (originally 1940s RAAF slang, and briefly revived in the 1980s).

The story appears to come from the:

  • Prickly Pear Cactus (native South American), was brought to Australia in 1788 on the First Fleet. It became a pest, quickly overrunning many thousand acres of farmland.

  • To combat it, the caterpillar/moth Cactoblastis (also South American native), was introduced in the 1920s.

  • Wildly successful, it practically eliminated the spiny exotic in a few years. defeated. Hence, CACTUS, in Australian slang, means: beaten, finished, ruined, kaput etc.e.g. Jim threw just two punches, and Jack was cactus.

(From www.answers.com)

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  • But could be rhyming slang for 'useless'. The Aussies not only imported Cockney rhyming slang but added a lot of their own to it.
    – WS2
    Jan 3, 2015 at 15:55
  • 3
    There's other Australian slang kark it meaning to die or stop working, and cactus could also come from that. I'd be more inclined to believe that one if no definitive or reasonably reliable source could be found for the prickly pear explanation, but it could well be the prickly pear thing too, or even a conflation of both.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 3, 2015 at 16:10
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    Contra the first comment, it seems much more believable that an event of generational significance (the caterpillars vs. the cactus) would work its way into popular slang a decade or so later than that it was some bizarre resurrection of 19th century street cryptography. @JonHanna An online reference to "Cassell's Dictionary of Slang" claims kark was not used until the 1970's and that it is derived from the sound of a crow (but also, of course, close to "cack").
    – goldilocks
    Jan 3, 2015 at 22:51
  • @goldilocks - Rhyming slang is very common here in Australia, so it isn't at all bizarre when new rhyming slang terms are created, but having said that I'm sure in this case it is not rhyming slang. "Cactus" and "useless" don't rhyme, and although rhyming slang often involves a longer phrase that has been shortened such that the rhyming word isn't said, "cactus" isn't really part of any obvious longer phrases.
    – nnnnnn
    Aug 5, 2019 at 1:19
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I would like to suggest a different origin for 'cactus' - for several reasons. First, the slang term apparently originated in RAAF in the 1940s (according to the Wikipedia quote above), well after the introduction of Cactoblastis, and with no obvious connection to it. Second, in my experience the weed is always called 'prickly pear' in Australia, never 'cactus'. Thus I believe that 'cactus' is simply a euphemism for 'f*cked', chosen because of it sounds similar, but is innocuous (like 'darned' instead of 'damned'). During my apprenticeship in Sydney in the 1970's this was often spelled out, e.g. "It's cactus fuctus".

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  • It's possible that "cactus" is a euphemism for "cock", as in "cock fucked" or some such.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 21, 2016 at 1:29
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    nah cactus to us means its busted, broken or not working. " is your car running mate?" "nah mate she's fuckin cactus" its up there with kicked the bucket and keeled over
    – gage
    May 8, 2019 at 11:30
  • @gage I love it when an actual Aussie shows up around here. :) What I would give....:)
    – Lambie
    Aug 4, 2019 at 22:30
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It could also be related to cack (and cack-handed). Cack is slang for poo and probably comes from kaka in other languages. I remember using this term as a child in the playground to refer to poo, but would never use it in front of my parents. I always assumed cactus was a reference to something "going to shit".

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The obvious reason that the usage of the term arose is that despite the hopes for an industry, the plant itself proved useless for any purpose - just occupying space, kind-of like politicians, but easier on the eye.

Hence, anything in general that was useless became "cactus".

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CACTUS
In my snippet about the Australian expression last time, I noted that there were no native cacti in that country. John Weiss pointed out that the prickly pear had been imported from the US in the early 1800s as stock fodder but had become a serious invasive pest in New South Wales and Queensland by the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was so well known he feels the expression was most certainly native. Many Australians wrote to make the same point Rob Coates did:

  • "Sometimes the single word 'cactus' is used but it's generally recognised to be a shortening of 'cactus fuctus'.

  • This is said as a pseudo-Latin phrase to bring a touch of wry humour to an otherwise unfortunate situation. For example, a mechanic, after inspecting the starter motor in your car might announce 'No wonder it won't start, mate - this is cactus fuctus!'" (An alternative spelling with the "k" in place is also common, I gather.)

Source: World Wide Words Michael Quinion, 2 Aug 09

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