I’ve closed comments on this post due to massive amounts of spam. If you have any more etymological information to add, please email me and I’ll be grateful.

I was just reading an article on the Herald website about the government’s spending some $23 million on an advertising campaign about climate change and it included a saying that I’ve never heard in my life.

Labor treasury spokesman Wayne Swan said Mr Howard didn’t know whether he was Arthur or Martha on climate change.

Arthur or Martha? I mean, its meaning is clear given the context; Swan is pointing out that the government has always lacked a policy concerning climate change and therefore doesn’t know where he stands. Yet still, the phrase struck me as odd.

A quick search told me I was on the right track as to its interpretation, but I am still no closer to its source. One commenter on an ABC forum four years ago attributes it to Tony Abbott in passing, but I suspect it was simply a misuse of the word ‘coin’:

I wonder what Mr Abbot was referring to when he coined the term Arthur or Martha or was it Mr Costello or doesn’t it matter?

Another forum claims that the phrase refers to sexual ambiguity/ambivalence. The quote below is second-hand, the commenter later claims that another site (apart from the one where they saw this) says the term is Australian, which he rejects.

We don’t know who first used it but we can only assume it was someone about three hundred years ago. It’s sometimes used to describe bisexuals – they don’t care if it’s arthur or martha who they date – but frankly, unless you are dating someone in their seventies its not a very useful term. Its [sic] not like there aren’t other rhyming names that sound less drab – Steve or Eve, Jerry or Kerry, Helen or a hole cut into a melon. We think its got more to do with the implication that bisexuals aren’t that fussy.

Probably a closer interpretation would be that it describes (in jest) someone who themselves is sexually ambiguous, and does not know whether they are Arthur or Martha, but I’m sceptical about a sexual interpretation altogether.

It certainly wouldn’t be from any R-ful dialect, since the names wouldn’t rhyme. So that rules out most of the US, and probably the rest too, due to the cultural influence of R-ful dialects, and cuts out some parts of the UK.

I think it is Australian, based on the names (they sound reminiscent of late 19th century or early 20th century Australian names), in which case the ‘about three hundred years’ would be stretching it a bit. For the same reason I don’t think this is about sexual ambiguity as the person above claims. He’s on the right track though, the names Arthur and Martha are too… incongruous with a culture that talks about sexual ambiguity enough to have idiomatic phrases about it. I also severely doubt that Abbott would be using it if it had anything remotely to do with transsexuality.

So, does anyone have a better idea of where this phrase has its basis? I’d be very somewhat interested.

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