For many years, Australians have been known for their unique slang and iconic, often humorous, collection of sayings.
But where did they originate and what do they actually mean?
Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Susan Butler, offered a fascinating insight on Today Extra on Tuesday morning when she delved into the origins of four iconic Aussie phrases.
For many years, Australians have been known for their unique slang and iconic, often humorous, collection of sayings – but where did they come from?
Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Susan Butler (pictured), offered fascinating insight on Today Extra on Tuesday morning when she delved into the origins of four iconic Aussie phrases
What does ‘dinkum’ mean?
Reliable; genuine; honest; true. This word is a shortening of fair dinkum which comes from British dialect.
The adjective is first recorded in Australia from the 1890s
This is perhaps one of the most commonly used phrases in modern Australia, with many of the nation’s politicians regularly dropping it into speeches and informal media appearances.
But what many don’t know, is that ‘fair dinkum’ actually originates from Britain.
‘”Dinkum” comes from a Midlands dialect in Britain so it’s a sort of a Lincolnshire term for the amount of work you’re expected to do,’ Ms Butler explained.
‘So if you got sent down to the coal mines and were told to bring out 20 cart loads of coal or something then that was a “fair dinkum”.
”Dinkum’ comes from a Midlands dialect in Britain so it’s a sort of Lincolnshire term for the amount of work you’re expected to do,’ Ms Butler explained
‘If you were told to bring up 30 or 40 cart loads then that wasn’t a “fair dinkum” and you got very upset. They even had the phrase “fair dinkum” meaning “let’s be reasonable about this” and that’s kind of where they stopped it.’
Once the phrase was transported to colonial Australia, it then evolved to being used more so as an adjective to describe an Australian encompassing Australian values.
‘We have done more with it and therefore claim it as our own,’ Ms Butler said.
What does this mean?
Very strong and healthy.
A Mallee bull is one that lives in Mallee country – poor, dry country where small scrubby eucalypt trees called mallee grow. Any creature that survives in such difficult conditions would have to be tough and fit
‘THEY’RE FIT AS A MALLEE BULL’
This lesser known phrase is more commonly used in the Australian outback.
And while the meaning of the phrase is quite clear, few are aware of why a ‘Mallee’ bull was chosen in particular.
‘The Mallee region we know best as one in Victoria, there’s a couple of them in Australia. The word Mallee comes from the Wemba-Wemba Aboriginal language of Victoria and it describes the way Eucalypts grow there. They have a thick root under the ground that collects water,’ Ms Butler explained.
‘The Mallee is very dry and if cattle escape into the Mallee there is not much for them to eat out there so they either die or they survive if they’re particularly fit and hardy and strong.
‘So [the phrase] means you are very strong and a survivor.’
‘The Mallee is very dry and if cattle escape into the Mallee there is not much for them to eat out there so they either die or they survive if they’re particularly fit and hardy and strong,’ she said
‘So [the phrase] means you are very strong and a survivor,’ she said
What does ‘cobber’ mean?
A friend, a companion. Also used as a form of address (g’day cobber!)
The word ‘cobber’ is used to describe a mate or pal in Australian slang, but it, too, likely originated from Britain.
‘Cobber is one we share with British English and nobody is quite sure, there are two theories,’ Ms Butler said.
‘One is that it comes from the Suffolk dialect where there’s a phrase “to cob on to someone” – to make an association with them – so if people “cob” then they become “cobbers” and that means friends.
‘Equally there’s the suggestion that the word comes from Yiddish chaber which means “comrade or friends”.’
The word ‘cobber’ is used to describe a mate or pal in Australian slang, but it, too, likely originated from Britain
‘Cobber is one we share with British English and nobody is quite sure, there are two theories,’ Ms Butler said
What does this mean?
More than you can handle or many more than you expected
MORE THAN YOU CAN SHAKE A STICK AT
This saying is used to describe a situation that is ‘more than you can handle’.
‘This phrase has moved a long way from its beginning which was in British English where you could “shake a stick” at someone which means to behave in a threatening way. You could shake various things,’ Ms Butler said.
‘From there it went to America and they were the ones who came up with the phrase “more than you can shake a stick at” with the sense that if there’s one cow in the paddock you may well feel inclined to shake a stick at it to make it run away.
‘But if there’s a whole herd of them out there you might feel slightly more doubtful because it’s more than you can handle.
‘Then we changed it and we seem to be more fond of “more than you can poke a stick at” but both of them are around and both have the sense of “more than you can handle”.’
Other unusual Australian phrases and their meanings
‘Verandah over the toy shop’
A man’s large protruding belly; a ‘beer gut’. This phrase is a jocular allusion to toy shop in the sense ‘sexual wares’ (with reference to the male genitals). Although Australian shops now rarely have such verandahs, the phrase verandah over the toy shop is still current. It is first recorded in 1987. Variants include verandah over the tool shed.
‘Beyond the black stump’
The black stump of Australian legend first appears in the late 19th century, and is an imaginary marker at the limits of settlement. Anywhere beyond the black stump is beyond civilisation, deep in the outback, whereas something this side of the black stump belongs to the known world. Although the towns of Blackall, Coolah and Merriwagga each claim to possess the original black stump, a single stump is unlikely to be the origin of this term.
No bother, no trouble; an assurance that all is fine. This colloquial version of the phrase ‘not to worry’ is very common in Australia, and also occurs in other forms such as ‘no worries, mate’, ‘no wuckers’, and ‘nurries’. It implies that everything will come right, or be taken care of, and that we should all be relaxed. First recorded in the 1960s.
‘To carry on like a pork chop’
To behave foolishly, to make a fuss, to complain, or to rant. This expression is often thought to allude to the spluttering noise of a pork chop that is being fried. However it is probably a variant of the older expression like a pork chop in a synagogue, meaning something that is unpopular, unlikely, or rare (with reference to the Jewish prohibition of the eating of pork). To carry on like a pork chop is first recorded in 1975.
‘Mad as a cut snake’
Very angry; crazy; eccentric. The phrase also takes the form mad as a snake. The different senses of the phrase derive from the fact that ‘mad’ has two main senses – ‘crazy’ and ‘angry’. The ‘crazy’ sense is illustrated by ‘that bloke wearing a teapot on his head is as mad as a cut snake’, and the angry sense is illustrated by ‘be careful of the boss this afternoon, he’s as mad as a cut snake’. There are similar phrases in Australian English including mad as a meat axe and mad as a gumtree full of galahs. Mad as a (cut) snake is first recorded in 1900.