Q&A: Where did the “early mark” come from?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re taking an early mark…

Q: Hey AWC – I don’t think we have much to discuss today. So I thought I’d take an early mark…

A: Well that’s interesting.

Q: What is? Are you keeping track of what times I leave? Not cool.

A: No, we mean that the phrase “take (or have) an early mark” is very interesting.

Q: Why? Everyone knows it means to leave early. Don’t they?

A: Actually, this is a very curious one. If you grew up in New South Wales,ACT, Queensland, perhaps WA and maybe South Australia/NT/Tasmania, then you are probably familiar with it. Most definitely in NSW and Canberra.

Q: Wait. What about Victoria?

A: If you stood up and announced to an office filled with born-and-bred Victorians that you were “taking” or “having an early mark”, they would probably all stare blankly at you. Well, except perhaps for Mark, who would be slowly backing his way towards the stairwell.

Q: I never realised it wasn’t a universal thing!

A: No one else in the world uses it. Some claim that New Zealanders use it – but if they do, it’s a recent import. Our resident Kiwi here at AWC had never heard of it at all growing up until he came to Australia.

Q: When did it originate then?

A: Probably during the late 19th century. It is thought that it took hold in NSW schools, with recorded examples from the 1920s. And it was something you were given.

Q: Please explain.

A: If a teacher gave you a good mark on a test, as a reward the teacher might also give you an additional mark – an “early mark” that would allow you to leave class early. So you “got an early mark” at school.

Q: Oh wow, I never thought of it as a school grade kind of mark!

A: By 1940, it had also appeared in print more, and in office settings – with bosses giving everyone “an early mark” on Fridays for example. Today’s autonomous workers don’t have anyone to tell them to leave early, so they will either “have” or “take an early mark” themselves.

Q: Are you sure you don’t have a spreadsheet of what times I leave?

A: Of course not. [Click. Click.]

Q: Hmm okay. So, these days, “taking an early mark” just means leaving anywhere early, right?

A: That’s right. Could be a birthday party. A bar mitzvah. Even a meat tray raffle.

Q: So what do Victorians say instead?

A: Well you may be surprised to discover that saying “I’m going to leave early” has the same effect.

Q: Oh wow. So it does.

A: However, South Australia is a curious case. While “early marks” have made their way across the border, they still favour the term “early minute”.

Q: What, so people from Adelaide would say “I’m taking (or having) an early minute”?

A: Exactly. And Tasmania too. It’s been recorded since at least the 1980s. Probably earlier.

Q: I think I prefer “mark” to “minute” – it’s a little more ambiguous…

A: Fair enough!

Q: Maybe we should ask readers what THEY say, and where they grew up?

A: That’s a very good idea. Perhaps they could hit “reply” and tell us how they announce that they’re leaving early. It will be interesting to hear from those in Victoria!

Q: And people named Mark…

A: Um, sure. We should finish with perhaps the earliest mark of all – given to the Aussie workers in 1983 by Bob Hawke to celebrate winning the America’s Cup. He famously said “Any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum”…

Q: It’s funny what we got so excited about back in 1983…

A: Very true.

Q: Okay, well my early mark isn’t so early anymore, but I’m going anyway!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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