How does the name of an attractive bird like the Spangled Drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus) become a slang word for a dimwit or general loser? Drongo has been a widely used Australian insult since the 1920s although these days it has drifted out of common parlance into dictionary lists of quaint and outdated expressions. In Victoria in the 1920s a racehorse called Drongo, with impressive bloodlines and enthusiastic backers, started in 37 races and failed to win even one. Drongo did manage a few creditable placings, including a good second in the 1923 Victoria Derby. His problem was that his owners kept entering him in races where he was outclassed. In less prestigious races he could have done well. His owner, Dorothy Wood, daughter of a prominent racehorse owner, wouldn’t give up on him and secured the services of a leading jockey, Bobby Lewis, to ride him on many occasions. However his record of failure led to his name being used to describe losers of the human variety. As one journalist put it “an expression was born that one might be “bit of a drongo” — meaning a try-hard, an also-ran, or a champion that never was.” There is even a book devoted to the unlucky galloper — Drongo, the Story of a Champion Loser, by Bruce Walkley. A Drongo joke from the 1950s goes like this: One mornin’ the boss asks the drongo to hang a new gate off the barn. Off goes the drongo with ‘is tools and the gate. Come lunchtime he hasn’t been sighted, so we went out to look for ‘im. We found ‘im standin’ by the dam. The boss was hoppin mad. “What do you think you’re doin’? I told you to hang that gate!” “Sorry boss,”says the drongo. I couldn’t find no tree ter’ hang it on, so I drowned the bastard.
The Spangled Drongo is no loser. It’s a handsome creature whose “spangled” feathers reflect glossy colour in the right light. The Drongo is found across northern and eastern Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Asia.