Q&A: Australianisms and their origins

Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, it’s Australia Day, so we put on our cork hat and decipher some local language…

Q: Hi AWC, have you finished your last minute Australia Day gift shopping? I’m hoping the shops will be open till midnight tonight to sort mine
A: Um, you may have your holidays mixed up.

Q: Okay, well what are you dressing up as when you walk around the streets and beg for candy?
A: Again, wrong holiday.

Q: Planning on eating too many chocolate bunnies?
A: Seriously?

Q: Nah, just kidding. Everyone knows the story of Australia Day. When that first fleet rounded the Sydney heads all those years ago, closely followed by the Channel Seven news crew and hundreds of pleasure craft.
A: You’re describing the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

Q: Ah, yes. So I am. Anyway, it’s a great day to celebrate being Australian
A: And what’s more Australian than the Australian Writers’ Centre, right?

Q: Kangaroos, koalas, chunder, snakes that can’t kill you, snakes that can kill you, Schoolies in Bali, sledging, inflatable thongs, pavlova, replacing your reindeer antlers on your car with aussie flags, TV shows with Asher Keddie or Deborah Mailman in them, Richie Benaud saying “choo for twenty choo” at the MCG, boomerangs, Dreamtime, Gold Coast theme parks, The Wiggles, two-up, lamb on the barbie, swimming at the river or beach, SBS Italian News, some unknown Aussie tennis player making it past the second round and becoming a sensation, skinny flat whites, Rove McManus laughing at his own jokes, Bob Hawke downing a beer, Vegemite, AC/DC, the Birdsville races, outdoor music festivals, blocked dunnies at outdoor music festivals, the Melbourne Cup, Eddie Mabo, Bradman, apologetic rugby league players in press conferences, stubbie holders, Ned Kelly, The Man from Snowy River, silhouetted windmills in the outback, Bunnings sausage sandwiches, Princess Mary of Denmark, footy, blowflies, children dressed in white standing on a beach singing “I still call Australia home” in unison…
A: Okay, fine, we get your point. There are a few.

Q: Actually, there are some very Australian terms I’d like your help with today. I would love to know where they came from.
A: Sure, what’s your first one?

Q: Fair dinkum.
A: Ah okay, well as you’ll know, it means “true” or “genuine” and its usage is indeed pretty exclusive to Australia. However, rather oddly, it didn’t originate here at all. It has a mining connection, to UK’s East Midlands coal miners of the late 19th century. The meaning of “dinkum” to them meant an honest day’s work or toil and it first appeared in print in Australia in 1879. You see, as these miners sailed to a new life down under (perhaps for committing “miner offences”…boom boom), they brought the phrase with them and it remained here, while quietly dying out in the UK.

Q: My friend told me it was from Chinese gold miners.<
A: Yes, that theory does the rounds. Some people say it is linked to “din gum” which sounds like what Chinese gold miners speaking Mandarin would have said (as “zhen jin”) to mean “real gold”, but this appears to be more coincidence than anything.

Q: Next one, bonza.
A: Bonza word that. To mean great, ripper, bottler, pearler etc. Bonza is likely to have come from “bonanza”.

Q: That old western TV show< where the map went up in flames on the opening theme?
A: No not that. From Spanish “bonanza” via American English (originally spelt “bonzer”). It seems to have popped up at the very beginning of the 20th century, and was first seen in print in a 1915 poem by Australian poet C.J. Dennis.

Q: An important one this year, “digger”?
A: It’s an Australian (or New Zealand) soldier, and yes it did first appear during World War I, first recorded in 1916. It was quite literally the job description – as the ANZAC soldiers spent so much of their time digging trenches. They even named Australia’s wartime prime minister, Billy Hughes, the “Little Digger”. But that may have been a marketing ploy by Tonka toys, not too sure.

Q: Okay, what about “g’day” or “gidday”?
A: Too easy. It’s simply a shortened version of England’s “good day”, except without the bowler hat and less rain.

Q: So like Robbo is short for Rob and Kazzaaaah short for Karen?
A: Precisely.

Q: Cobber?
A: It’s getting a bit out-dated this one, but it means your friend; your mate. And it probably originated from the meaning for the word “cob” in the late 19th century – which meant to take a liking to. So, a “cobber” was someone you took a liking to and became your friend presumably.

Q: Okay, what about “strewth”…
A: It certainly is a classic. And it’s actually very easy to work out. Much like “blog” comes from web log, “strewth” is the shortened version of “God’s truth” – again from the late 1800s.

Q: It seems that lots of these words kicked off at the end of the 1800s.
A: Yes, it was clearly a time of mass change and mass migration – language was on the move, it really is quite fascinating. And Australians do love shortening words. In the 1960s, the term “Strine” was coined, based on that being the way that many Aussies pronounced the word “Australian”. There are many other examples of similar word pronunciations too.

Q: Huh? I missed all that.
A: Never mind.

Q: Yeah, sorry someone just turned up at the door to deliver my esky that doubles as a set of cricket stumps. Now that’s Australian. So on that ‘ocker' note, I better dash. Gotta put the tree up and decorate it yet.
A: Um, right. Well, Happy Australia Day!

Want to be first to read our Q&A spots? Then sign up to our Thursday weekly newsletter!

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon

Do you have a passion for writing? Save up to 40% off 50 courses SEE COURSES


Nice one! You've added this to your cart