The A–Z of Aussie slang
Think you know your Australian slang? You may have been barking up the wrong tree for donkey’s years.
Advance Australia Fair
One of the first official tasks tackled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison was to change one word in our national anthem: “young and free” became “one and free”. Other prime ministers also made updates. Bob Hawke changed “Australia’s sons” to “Australians all” after “Advance Australia Fair” replaced “God Save the Queen” in 1984, following a plebiscite conducted in 1977 by Malcolm Fraser. There was no great public outcry on those occasions, because although Aussies feel very proud of our landscape and nation, we don’t demonstrate it in a noisy, flag-waving way. This relaxed character comes to the fore when a sensible change is suggested to the national anthem. Meanwhile, we should be delighted we have the only national anthem to contain the rare old word “girt”. Look it up!
An Art Union is like a lottery, except that it is run to raise money for a charity, and the prize is usually not money but a house on the Gold Coast or a car or both. But art union? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any union, and art rarely comes into it. Well, the story is this. Art unions were formed in Britain and Europe in the 19th century as associations to promote the purchasing of paintings and other works of art and dispensing these things among their members by lottery. Over time, things changed in Australia and New Zealand – and only here. All kinds of prizes, not just paintings and other works of art, came to be offered. Consequently, the name art union came to be applied to any lottery offering in-kind prizes rather than cash.
As full as a …
When Aussies are full of either food (“I couldn’t eat another bite, love”) or grog (“I think I’ve got me wobbly boots on”), they have a number of ways of saying just how full they are: “as full as a goog” (where “goog” means egg – an item that is always completely full, packed to the shell); “as full as a state school”; “as full as a school hat rack”; “as full as a boot”; “as full as a fat lady’s sock”; “as full as a stripper’s dance card”; “as full as a stuffed pig”; “as full as the family dunny”; “as full as Santa’s sack on Christmas Eve”; “as full as the family album”; “as full as the last bus (or last tram)”; and “as full as a cattle tick” (picture a cattle tick swollen with blood). That’s how Aussie English works: as the most creative, inventive and colourful dialect of English on the planet – or am I biased?
As we get older, our upper arms (triceps) can lose muscle tone. This phenomenon is often called Aunty arms. Other names include nanna’s arms; bingo wings; goodbye muscles, or piano arms, because this is the bit that moves when someone is belting out a tune on the piano. Or – and this is my favourite – they can be called reverse biceps, because instead of standing up, as biceps normally do, they hang down. It’s all, of course, a salute to Aussie verbal inventiveness… and to how much we love our aunties.
This seems to have been coined in January 1941 by a Sydney Morning Herald sub-editor in a headline for an article about Australia’s so-called Jindyworobak Movement poets, which included Ian Mudie and Rex Ingamells. The Australian National Dictionary defines an Australianist as a “person who espouses Australian attitudes or values; an expert in…some aspect of Australia” especially “its history or literature, or its Indigenous languages”. Lexicographer Bill Ramson used the word in his description in The Australian National Dictionary of Sidney J. Baker, who researched and wrote on the Australian language. The related word Australianism, which goes back to 1842, is defined as “pride in, or loyalty to, Australian nationalism; a character distinctively Australian”. Australian Geographic is distinctly Australianist!
When you get to the supermarket checkout and discover you’ve left all your re-usable bags in the boot of your car, that’s when you experience bag rage!
We think of “bangers and mash” as a quintessential English expression. But there’s evidence it was coined by Aussies. When tracking down such things, linguists look for citations – written quotations using the expression. For banger meaning “sausage”, the earliest record is in W.H. Downing’s book Digger Dialects, published in 1919 as a record of slang by Aussie diggers in World War I. There was a shortage of meat, so butchers filled sausages with odds and ends – ground lips and ears from slaughtered animals, fat, cereals and water. When cooked on an open fire they often exploded – hence bangers. The diggers were, of course, surrounded by things going bang. So it’s likely Aussies coined the expression and shared it with the Tommies in nearby trenches, thereby creating the name for a classic of English cuisine.
Bewdy, bottler, ripper
Three words with the same meaning: terrific! They’re sometimes strung together, sometimes used individually. ‘Bewdy’ is the slack Aussie way of saying beauty, as in “You little bewdy!”. ‘Bottler’ is also straightforward. It means “Your blood’s worth bottling” and was coined by Aussie diggers in WW1, after the development of blood transfusions. But ‘ripper’ remains a mystery. So far, every linguist and lexicographer I’ve asked about this has responded with a shrug: why should something terrific be “a little ripper”? You’d think ripping would be bad not good!
Beginning as London criminal slang from ‘bludgeoner’ (recorded from 1856), bludger meant a pimp who bludgeons (beats with a stick) prostitutes’ clients to rob them. Bludger faded from use in London, but made its way to the Australian colony, where it’s recorded from 1882. By 1900 it had become a general term of abuse, especially for a lazy loafer. About the same time, the back formation ‘bludge’ arose, meaning ‘to evade one’s own responsibilities and impose on others’ and which is now also a blue-collar worker’s term for anyone who sits comfortably behind a desk. The Americans and others have since borrowed it— but this is our word.
Most people will have heard of a “brown sandwich” – it’s a bottle of beer.
Bushfire is a distinctively Australian word. What we call a bushfire is called a “wildfire” everywhere else in the world. The name we’ve adopted comes from the Aussie habit of constructing expressions using the word “bush” or tacking on other words to “bush” (as in a “bush so-and-so”). There was a phenomenal explosion of “bush” words that now fills no fewer than 36 pages of the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. As for bushfire itself, this was first recorded in 1832. It turns up in the Sydney Monitor that year, the following year in the Perth Gazette, in 1841 in the Launceston Courier, and so on through the decades and around the country. It seems poet Dorothea Mackellar could have added “land of bushfires” to her “land of droughts and flooding rains”.
Australian National Dictionary Centre’s 2018 Word of the Year, “Canberra bubble” is that strange, isolated dreamland occupied by politicians, their media advisers and the Canberra press gallery.
Cask wine (a plastic bag in a cardboard box) is an Australian invention from the 1960s. This in turn inspired Australians to great verbal invention. Aussie slang very quickly came up with a string of names for cask wine starting with “Chateau Cardboard” and going on to call it a “handbag” or a “briefcase” often tied to a local place name. This gave us the Balga (Perth) or Belambi (Wollongong) or Boradmeadow (Newcastle) or Dubbo (central NSW) handbag. Less inventive were names such as “boxie” or “box monster”. And rather grimmer was the nickname “bag of death”. Then it became a “goon” or “goon bag” or “goon sack” or just a “goonie”. One type of moselle was nicknamed “lady in the boat” because of the picture on the box. And then there’s my favourite: “vino collapso” (Aussie verbal invention at its best!)
One room in the home is almost always referred to with a euphemism – often the loo or WC. To Americans it’s “the bathroom”, “john” or “rest room”. Even “lavatory” is a euphemism, from the Latin for “washing”. “Toilet”, itself, is from a French term for a small washcloth. In fact, the Aussie word “dunny” is perhaps the room’s most honest name! It seems to have descended from the 18th-century English word “dunnekin”. The last syllable, “kin”, is probably from a source meaning “house”; the first may relate to “dung”. In Aussie English a dunny can be any toilet. But the older, free-standing, outdoor version is preserved in expressions such as “I hope your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down” or “as lonely as a country dunny”. And don’t forget those giant blowflies, known as “dunny budgies”.
I was watching an episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow filmed in Australia. An Aussie guest said, “Here’s something I found fossicking in the junk room.” The British antiques expert looked a little bit puzzled. After some explanation they said, “Ah, yes, you mean rummaging.” The verb “to fossick” was first used in the Australian Gold Diggers Monthly Magazine and Colonial Visitor in 1852. Now you can fossick for anything, but originally it was looking for surface gold in dirt around the diggings. “Fossick” was an English dialect word that died in the UK but survived here. A fossicker may have originally been a troublesome person. At the gold diggings, someone who pottered around your dirt heaps to pick up what you missed would certainly be looked upon as troublesome.
Australian author and historian Mary Durack (1913–1994) was a daughter of the legendary Durack family of cattle kingdom fame. She grew up on the remote cattle stations of Argyle Downs and Ivanhoe in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. She and her sister Elizabeth managed Ivanhoe in the 1920s and ’30s. In her 1959 book Kings in Grass Castles, Mary coined the expression ‘grass castles’ to describe the fragility – the dependence on unpredictable weather to grow stock feed – of these “cattle kingdoms”. The book told the story of the many ups and downs of her family’s pioneering work as overlanders and pastoralists. Then from the 1980s journalists gave a clever twist to the expression grass castles. They began calling sprawling western suburbs ‘McMansions’ owned by drug syndicate bosses grass castles, meaning palaces built on an entirely different kind of ‘grass’ – marijuana!
Happy as Larry
This charming term simply means “very happy”. The original source is not certain, but here’s what we do know. In the first place, this is definitely an Australian term. It has spread around much of the world, but it began here. Sidney J. Baker, in his classic book The Australian Language says that, while we can’t know for sure, it’s possible that it was originally associated with an Australian boxer named Larry Foley (1847–1907). The reason why he was regarded as a happy pugilist is lost in the mists of time, but apparently, he was. “Happy as Larry” was first documented in 1905, but was probably part of the spoken language well before that. There was an older expression – a “Larry Dooley” or a “Larry Foley”– meaning a fight. And, I guess, if you liked a fight that would make you as “Happy as Larry”.
The Oxford English Dictionary records “hoon” as Australian (and New Zealand) slang for a show-off with limited intelligence, adding “origin unknown”. Hoon is most often applied to young male drivers who are more interested in attracting attention to themselves than being cautious. Sid Baker, in The Australian Language, suggests hoon might be a contraction from the houyhnhnms (the talking horses in Gulliver’s Travels). The problem is that the horses are civilised – it’s their human slaves, the yahoos, who are the dills. Alternatively, hoon might be a contraction of “hooligan” or, perhaps, a combination of “hooligan” and “goon”. Another proposal is that it’s rhyming slang for “baboon”; while yet another suggestion is that it’s based on “buffoon”. All are possibilities, and none are certainties!
Well, there is quite a story behind this. It seems to have begun as a sailor’s term – huzza. One 1740 mention says it was “derived from the shouts seamen make when friends come aboard or go off ”. Over time this changed to hurrah and hooray. Possibly, the experts say, the change was influenced by a battle-cry of Prussian soldiers in the War of Liberation (1812–13). Then Aussie verbal inventiveness changed it again from hooray to hooroo – first documented in The Bulletin in 1906.
I wouldn’t know him from a bar of soap
The saying “I wouldn’t know him from a bar of soap” seems to have first appeared in print, uncovered by my research, in a 1938 cartoon by the legendary Stan Cross in Smith’s Weekly. It shows two grubby tramps. One says, “I wouldn’t know you from a bar of soap” and the other replies, “You wouldn’t know either of us – me or the soap!” Cross might’ve coined the expression, or be quoting a well-established Aussie phrase (based on the blandness of soap). Until I am shown otherwise, I am claiming this one for us – one of more than 10,000 expressions that Aussies have contributed to the English language!
The Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC) decided their Australian Word of the Year in 2017 was ‘Kwaussie’: a contraction of ‘Kiwi’ and ‘Aussie’ and meaning someone who is part Australian and part New Zealander – such as poor old Barnaby Joyce, who thought he was Aussie through and through, but found he’d acquired New Zealand citizenship without knowing it. While I understand the topicality of the word in 2017, is it really a word? I admire the ANDC and its brilliant head, Dr Amanda Laugesen, but kwaussie? Was it really part of our national conversation? Did it appeared in print all that often that year? Is it a word that rolls off the tongue of talkback callers on radio? Until the ANDC chose it, I hadn’t heard of it. Had you?
During the 2022 federal election, the expression “loose unit” was bandied about by political enemies. To my delight this turns out to be an Australian coinage – first recorded in 2009 (and applied that year to Pauline Hanson). It’s clearly from the earlier “loose cannon”, meaning “an unpredictable or uncontrollable person or thing”. This seems to come from the days of sailing ships, when having a cannon sliding across a deck in a storm would be unpredictably dangerous. Yet it only becomes common long after the era of sail; despite mentions in 1889 and 1946, it only seems to catch on from the 1970s. How was “cannon” replaced by “unit”? I suspect legendary Sydney radio announcer Ward ‘Pally’ Austin sparked the use of “unit” for “human being”: one of his favourite expressions being “It’s too much for the human unit, pally!”
The Lucky Country is the description of Australia coined by Aussie journalist Donald Horne (1921–2005) in his book of that name (published in 1964). The book was a critique of Australian society in the 1960s, but its title, although widely used, was often misunderstood. Horne defined Australia at the time as “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”. His point was that Australia was living on its luck rather than on its creativity or energy. He even said that one of Australia’s great national festivals, the Melbourne Cup, was mainly a celebration of luck. I’ve wondered what Donald would have made of Australia during COVID? I suspect he would have doubled down on his description and described Australia as “lucky” to be surrounded by water and protected by a vast oceanic moat in a way many countries are not.
This is a quaint old Aussie expression that is dying out – but our parents and grandparents knew it well. The Australian National Dictionary says Mrs Kafoops (or Kerfoops) is a ‘jocular name’. So, it was always a bit tongue-in-cheek. When I was a small boy, it applied to two types of people. Mrs Kafoops might be a woman whose name the speaker doesn’t know – “Mrs Kafoops down at the shops said…” – or it might be applied to a known person who was a bit pompous and self-important – “Mrs Kafoops across the road thinks she’s too good to come to afternoon tea…”
It was first recorded in print in 1924 (in Lismore’s now-defunct Northern Star newspaper) and remained common until at least the 1960s. Sadly, Mrs Kafoops now seems to be slowly fading into the sunset.
This year it was feared eastern Australia’s legendary white whale, Migaloo, had died. But it turned out to be another (smaller) white whale that had washed up on a Tassie beach. The name Migaloo comes from the Mayi-Kutuna Aboriginal language of north-western Queensland’s Leichhardt River area. Originally migaloo referred to people – a migaloo was a whitefella. In The Other Side of the Frontier, historian Henry Reynolds wrote, “She looked at me not as an individual, or as a male, or as a well meaning academic, but as a white man, a ‘migaloo’.” The rare albino humpback –first seen in 1991 off Byron Bay, then yearly as it migrated along the Aussie coastline – was given the name Migaloo, a creative use of an Indigenous word.
A “nark” is an annoying person, as in “that bloke’s a real nark”. It can also be used as a verb: for example, that something, or someone, is “narking” you. The word originated in England with a narrower meaning. But here in Australia, and only in Australia, it took wings and spread to describe that irritating workmate or old Uncle Harry who gets drunk every year at Christmas. “Nark” comes from a Gypsy (Romany) word meaning “nose”, and is still used in the UK for an informer being a “copper’s nark” because he sticks his nose into your (slightly illegal) business. But here it became a wider, more general label for someone who’s irritating you. “Nark” is recorded in The Bulletin from 1898 to mean an informer and from 1905 it appeared in Steele Rudd’s Magazine in the general irritation sense it still has today.
A neenish tart is a mock cream-filled pastry iced in white and brown or pink and brown. Is it Australian? If so, where does the name come from? One well-known story from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1988 goes that a Mrs Evans claimed the tarts were first made in her NSW home town of Grong Grong: the originator was her mother’s friend Mrs Ruby Neenish, who in 1913, running out of cocoa, used half-chocolate and half-white icing to create the first neenish tarts. However, a 2016 article in the same newspaper claimed the story began as a joke. The earliest reference to neenish is for ‘neenish cakes’ and appears in a 1929 cookbook published at Glenferrie, Victoria. But the citizens of Orange, in NSW, claim the first true neenish tart recipe was in the Orange Recipe Gift Book – from where it was reproduced in many other cookbooks (especially by the Country Women’s Association). Those who think the alternative spelling of ‘nienish’ or ‘nienich’ was the original spelling claim this sweet treat was originally of Austrian or German origin. But I’ll stick with Mrs Ruby Neenish.
When Lake Superior State University announced its 2022 Banished Words List, number two was “no worries”, which the Americans complained was being misused to mean “you’re welcome”. But “you’re welcome” means exactly that and “no worries” is an Australian coinage! It’s been recorded here from 1965 and the earliest citation dug up by experts at The Australian National Dictionary is from Jack Hibberd’s play White with Wire Wheels, although my guess is “no worries” was part of our spoken language long before it appeared in print. The thing about “no worries” is it captures the relaxed Aussie attitude of helping a mate. Its inclusion in the Banished Words List shows there is a two-way trade in words between us and the Americans – but that they don’t always understand the bits of Aussie English they borrow.
Not all Aussie terms are slang. ‘Above-ground pool’, for instance, is regular non-slang language unique to Australia. So too is the word ‘offsider’ (in the sense of an assistant, friend or mate), another expression coined here. Most overseas dictionaries describe an offsider as a player in the wrong place on a football field. The Australian meaning arose from a bullock-driver’s assistant being called an offsider. He was so called because he walked on the off side of the bullock team, while the bullocky himself walked on the on side beside the team’s leader and cracked the whip. From this, offsider was extended to anyone who was an assistant in any occupation or enterprise. The earliest citation for this distinctively Australian use of offsider is from 1879. It’s nice to know that when you refer to your mate as your offsider you’re recalling the role the bullockies played in building Australia.
What picture does the title “public servant” paint for you? Is it of a pen-pusher inside the ‘Canberra bubble’ living off taxpayer dollars? Well, the next time you’re caught in a web of red tape, and feel like cursing all public servants, it might give you some comfort to know that in Australia the term public servant originally meant a convict! In her book Convict Words, Amanda Laugesen explains that a public servant was “a convict assigned to public labour or work for the government”. When “public servant” was first coined in 1797 it was a euphemism for convict. Even in those early years, everyone hated to be called a convict, so all kinds of other expressions were coined to soften this harsh word, such as “government man”, “prisoner”, or “assigned servant”. And at the top of the list of ways to not call a convict a convict was “public servant”.
Rat coffin / maggot bag
“Rat coffin” and “maggot bag” are two delightful expressions for a meat pie in Aussie English.
Aussies sometimes like to wallow in misery. “This drought’ll never end.” “Record floods coming, I reckon.” “Looks like another bad bushfire season.” The expression ‘said Hanrahan’ is from a bush ballad and identifies a doom-monger. The ballad, called Said Hanrahan, was written by bush priest Patrick Hartigan (1878–1952) under the pen-name of John O’Brien. It tells of cockies who gather on Sunday to squat on their heels, chew bark and talk about farming. Hanrahan is the gloom merchant: “‘We’ll all be rooned,’ said Hanrahan, ‘before the year is out.’” He’s convinced disaster will strike from too little (or too much) rain at just the wrong time, the river being too high or low, or the summer’s heat – or lack of it. Whatever happens, Hanrahan is certain it will bring drought, flood, bushfire, bankruptcy and the collapse of commodity prices, or all of the above. To the Hanrahans of this world, the glass is always half empty…and rapidly draining away.
Aussie English has a nice description of someone who is a little too fond of their tucker: a fatty is called a “salad dodger”.
A “seven-course meal” – that’s a six-pack of beer and a meat pie.
Single-use / Bag rage
“Single-use” was the Collins English Dictionary’s 2018 Word of the Year – and the Macquarie’s People’s Choice Word of the Year, which makes sense because single-use was so prominent in headlines and conversations here in Oz that year. We’ve seen the furore over the decision of the major supermarkets to remove single-use plastic bags, and make customers bring their own re-usable bags instead. The dust has died down now, but I think single-use deserves a gong as one of the top Words of the Year Down Under.
Snot block / phlegm sandwich
With exquisite good taste Aussie English has nicknamed the vanilla slice either a “snot block” or a “phlegm sandwich”.
The way I’ve heard this used, “to stonker” means “to put out of action, to render useless”. As such it derives from an earlier word, “stonk”, which meant “a concentrated artillery bombardment”. It began as military slang coined by our World War I diggers and was probably onomatopoeic in origin, “stonk” echoing the dull thud of artillery. Now, anything pounded by artillery has been “put out of action, or rendered useless”, hence the broader (metaphorical) use of stonkered. An extension of that is the Australian and New Zealand use of stonkered to mean drunk. Anyone who’s pounded their brain with enough booze to put it out of action is as stonkered as if they were a military target pounded by heavy artillery. But my readers also tell me this can mean “to have eaten an elegant sufficiency”.
When a mate goes bananas, an Aussie often says “he’s gone troppo”.That word is short for “tropical” and began as a bit of World War II digger dialect. The earliest citation is from 1941. The Australian National Dictionary defines “troppo” as “mentally disturbed, allegedly as a result of spending too much time (originally on war service) in the tropics”. In WWII, Aussie soldiers were posted to the Northern Territory, then to Papua New Guinea and other tropical places. Those who began acting strangely were said to have been affected by the heat – “gone troppo”. The great John O’Grady even wrote a comic novel called Gone Troppo, in 1968. And you’ve just thought of exactly the right mate to label “slightly troppo”, haven’t you!
Australian sporting journalism appears to have birthed the word “versing”. It turns up on programs where blokes named Jacko and Cruncher preview weekend sport. They seem to have trouble referring to the Sharks versus the Bears because “versus” comes from Latin…and has two syllables. So they say, “the Sharks verse the Bears” – when they’re not saying “the Sharks vee the Bears”. This shortened form of versus – verse – has been adopted like school slang and turned into a verb – “Who are we versing this week?” In other words, versing is not writing poetry, but playing another team. One schoolteacher discovered how far this had gone when she marked an assignment about the battle of Marathon, which, the student said, was a case of “the Persians versing the Greeks”.
Whalers and Walers
Two creatures in Aussie English are pronounced identically but spelt differently. The first is a fish and the second a horse. The fish is the Murray cod, which is known colloquially as a “whale” because of its size. Murray cod have been nicknamed “whales” since the 1870s. A large specimen can weigh as much as a human (and live as long!). There was a certain type of swaggie called a “whaler” because he followed the banks of the Murray, Darling, Lachlan or Murrumbidgee rivers, living on the cod he could catch. The horse was called a “waler” (short for “New South Waler”) and was noted for its strength and toughness. In World War I, Australian Light Horse troops were mounted mainly on walers – often rounded up from brumby herds and broken to harness by a team of rough riders under the command of Major ‘Banjo’ Paterson.
Good solid work – strenuous labour – is called “hard yakka” in Aussie English, and it’s an expression you’ll find nowhere else on earth. It’s hard to know how long it’s been around, because it tends to be part of the spoken, rather than written, language. The earliest citation is from 1888, but people might have been talking about “hard yakka” long before that. Yakka came from the Yagara language (spoken in south-eastern Queensland) and spread rapidly across the country. The word is so well known that it’s been adopted as the brand name for a company making overalls and work clothes. While some of the old Aussie expressions might be fading away, yakka seems to be as strong as ever. These days it might be used in a half‑joking fashion, but at least it’s still in use!
Kel Richards is a veteran Australian author, journalist and broadcaster, who has been reporting on the Australian language for more than 30 years.