Kelp is an old word for seaweed, especially for the biggest in the family, the so-called giant kelp found on the Pacific coasts of America. Over the centuries, it was used in agriculture as a fertiliser, and as a pre-industrial source of sodium carbonate for making soap and glass (Oxford English Dictionary Online). A kelp-derived carbohydrate is still used in thickening ice-cream and toothpaste, and iodine sourced from brown kelp has been used to treat goitre. Alongside these established uses of the noun kelp, there’s evidence of its use as a verb in colonial Australian slang. As recorded in Vaux’s Flash Language (1819), to “kelp a person, is to move your hat to him”. Fast forward to the early 20th century, and the verb reappears in reference to the swaying gait of a drunken person. A shearing song published in Wagga’s The Worker (May 1900) urges shearers: “don’t be kelping when there’s hard sheep to be shore”, and explains the usage as “the effects of alcohol on work … like kelp fronds waving and wobbling about in the sea”. Another 100 years, and the online Urban Dictionary reports an update in kelp girl, the dance club phenomenon of young women swaying in time with the music without moving their feet, because of the challenges of their high-heeled shoes – but not necessarily inebriated.
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