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The Australian National University

Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms

This section contains a selection of Australian words, their meanings, and their etymologies.



Michael Davie in 'Going from A to Z forever' (an article on the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary), Age, Saturday Extra, 1 April 1989, writes of his visit to the dictionary section of Oxford University Press:

Before I left, Weiner [one of the two editors of the OED] said he remembered how baffled he had been the first time he heard an Australian talk about the 'arvo'. Australians used the -o suffix a lot, he reflected. Arvo, smoko, garbo, journo. But not all -o words were Australian, said Simpson [the other of the two editors]: eg 'aggro' and 'cheapo'. I asked if they were familiar with the Oz usage 'acco', meaning 'academic'. They liked that. I hoped, after I left, they would enter it on one of their little slips and add it to their gigantic compost heap - a candidate for admission to the next edition.

We trust that Edmund Weiner and John Simpson did not take a citation, since the Australian abbreviation of academic is not acco but acca (sometimes spelt acker).

The abbreviation first appears in Meanjin (Melbourne, 1977), where Canberra historian Ken Inglis has an article titled 'Accas and Ockers: Australia's New Dictionaries'.  The editor of Meanjin, Jim Davidson, adds a footnote: 'acca (slightly derogatory) 1, noun  An academic rather than an intellectual, particularly adept at manipulating trendiologies, usually with full scholarly apparatus. Hence 2, noun  A particularly sterile piece of academic writing.' The evidence has become less frequent in recent years.

1993 Age (Melbourne) 24 December: The way such festivals bring together writers, publishers and accas, making them all accountable to the reader - the audience - gives them real value.

acid: to put the acid on

To exert a pressure that is difficult to resist; to exert such pressure on (a person, etc.), to pressure (someone) for a favour etc.; to be successful in the exertion of such pressure. This idiom is derived from acid test which is a test for gold or other precious metal, usually using nitric acid. Acid test is also used figuratively to refer to a severe or conclusive test. The Australian idiom emerged in the early 20th century and is still heard today.

1903 Sydney Stock and Station Journal 9 October: In the class for ponies under 13 hands there was a condition that the riders should be under ten years of age. When the stewards 'put the acid on' the riders it was found that only one exhibit in a very big field carried a boy who was not over ten years old.

2015 Australian (Sydney) 6 February: One option would be to skip the spill motion and go directly to a call for candidates for the leadership. It would put the acid on putative challengers and catch them out if they are not ready.

Aerial ping-pong

A jocular (and frequently derisive) name for Australian Rules Football (or Aussie Rules as it is popularly called). The term derives from the fact that the play in this game is characterised by frequent exchanges of long and high kicks.

The term is used largely by people from States in which Rugby League and not Aussie Rules is the major football code. This interstate and code rivalry is often found in evidence for the term, including the early evidence from the 1940s.

1947 West Australian (Perth) 22 April: In 1941 he enlisted in the A.I.F. and joined a unit which fostered rugby football. Renfrey did not join in the &oq;mud bath&cq; and did not play 'aerial ping-pong', as the rugby exponents in the army termed the Australian game, until 1946.

1973 J. Dunn, How to Play Football:  Sydneysiders like to call Australian Rules 'aerial ping-pong'.

A team from Sydney was admitted to the national competition in 1982, and one from Brisbane was admitted in 1987. These teams are based in traditional Rugby League areas, yet have drawn very large crowds, and have been very successful. While the term is perhaps not as common as it once was there is still evidence from more recent years.

2010 Newcastle Herald 23 September: Without a shadow of a doubt the aerial ping pong boys have league beaten when it comes to WAGs. At the Brownlow Medal night the likes of Chris Judd's fiancee Rebecca Twigley and Gary Ablett's girlfriend Lauren Phillips certainly scrub up well.


A shallow-crowned wide-brimmed hat, especially one made from felted rabbit fur. It is a significant feature of rural Australia, of politicians (especially urban-based politicians) travelling in the outback, and of expatriates who wish to emphasis their Australianness. Now a proprietary name, our earliest evidence comes from an advertisement.

1920 Northern Star (Lismore) 4 November: Made in Australia! Yes, the smartest hat that's made in our own country may be seen in our hat department ... The makes include 'Sovereign', 'Vebistra', 'Akubra', 'Peerless', 'Beaucaire'.


The definition of the limits of an industrial dispute. In later use chiefly as ambit claim. In Australian English an ambit claim is one typically made by employees which sets the boundaries of an industrial dispute. The term is a specific use of ambit meaning 'extent, compass'. First recorded in the 1920s.

1923 Mercury (Hobart) 21 March: In the Commonwealth Arbitration Court .. Mr Justice Powers to-day delivered judgment on the point. He said that the ambit of the dispute before the Court was confined to constructional work, but that the Court could and would deal with claims for maintenance work.

2006 Bulletin (Sydney) 16 May: Telstra's ambit claim was for exclusive access on the ground that it was taking all the commercial risk involving the not-inconsiderable expenditure of $3.5bn.


An ambulance officer. This is an abbreviation that follows a very common Australian pattern of word formation, with –o added to the abbreviated form. Other examples include: arvo (afternoon), Salvo (Salvation army officer), dermo (dermatologist), and gyno (gynaecologist). The -o form is often found at the ending of Australian nicknames, as in Johno, Jacko, and Robbo. Ambo was first recorded in the 1980s.

1986 Sydney Morning Herald 1 February: Even though I was a nurse before I became an ambo, at first I thought, can I handle this?

ant's pants

Something extremely impressive; the best of its kind. Ant's pants is an Australian variant of the originally US forms bee's knees and cat's whiskers with the same meaning. The term is first recorded in the 1930s. 

1933 Brisbane Courier 12 May: These Men's Pull-overs of ours. They're the Ant's Pants for Value.

2015 T. Parsons Return to Moondilla: 'Liz is busting to see you', Pat said. 'She thinks you're the ant's pants.'


An Australian soldier. Anzac denotes the virtues of courage and determination displayed by the First World War Australian soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. Anzac was formed from the initial letters of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Australian soldiers are also called 'diggers' because so much of the original Anzacs’ time was spent digging trenches. First recorded 1915.

1915 Camperdown Chronicle 2 December: Lord Kitchener told the 'Anzacs' at the Dardanelles how much the King appreciated their splendid services, and added that they had done even better than the King expected.

Anzac biscuit

A sweet biscuit typically containing rolled oats and golden syrup. While variations on this classic recipe exist, its simplicity is its hallmark. The association with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps goes back to 1917 when the recipe was first recorded. The biscuits are also known simply as Anzacs. The following quotations show the evolution of the recipe:

1917 War Chest Cookery Book (Australian Comforts Fund): Anzac Biscuits. 4oz. sugar, 4ozs. butter, 2 eggs, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, 1 cup flour, 1 cup rice flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon mixed spice. Beat butter and sugar to cream, add eggs well beaten, lastly flour, rice flour baking powder, cinnamon and spice. Mix to stiff paste, roll and cut into biscuits. Bake a nice light brown in moderate oven. When cold jam together and ice.

1926 Argus (Melbourne) 16 June: 'Often Helped' .. asks for a recipe for Anzac biscuits ... Two breakfast-cupfuls of John Bull oats, half a cupful sugar, one scant cupful plain flour, half a cupful melted butter. Mix one table-spoonful golden syrup, two table-spoonfuls boiling water, and one teaspoon-ful bicarbonate of soda, until they froth, then add the melted butter. Mix in dry ingredients and drop in spoonfuls on greased tray. Bake in a slow oven.

apples: she’s apples

Everything is fine, all is well. Australian English often uses the feminine pronoun she where standard English would use it. For example, instead of 'it’ll be right' Australians say ‘she’ll be right’. She's apples was originally rhyming slang - apple and spice or apple and rice for 'nice'. The phrase has now lost all connection with its rhyming slang origin. First recorded in the 1920s the term can still be heard today.

1929 H. MacQuarrie We and Baby: 'She'll be apples!' (Dick's jargon for 'all right'.)

2008 West Australian (Perth) 26 April: After a successful tour and a newly released DVD, she's apples with the ubiquitous Paul Kelly.


Afternoon, as in see you Saturday arvo. It is often used in the phrase this arvo, which is sometimes shortened to sarvo: meet you after the game, sarvo. Arvo is an example of a special feature of Australian English, the habit of adding -o to an abbreviated word. Other such words are bizzo ‘business’ and journo ‘journalist’. First recorded in the 1920s and still going strong today.

2008 Australian (Sydney) 10 July: Former Baywatch beach decoration and Playboy bunny Pamela Anderson plans to visit a Gold Coast KFC outlet this arvo to protest against the company's treatment of chooks.

Arthur: not know whether you are Arthur or Martha

To be in a state of confusion, as in this comment in an Australian state parliament—‘The Leader of the Opposition does not know whether he is Arthur or Martha, Hekyll or Jekyll, coming or going’. The phrase was first recorded in the 1940s. In recent years it has also been used with reference to questions of gender identity, and in this sense it has been exported to other countries.

1948 Truth (Sydney) 14 March: Players were all over the place like Brown's cows, and most didn't know whether they were Arthur or Martha.

2010 West Australian (Perth) 3 November: Years ago, I teamed my work outfits (Kookai tube skirts, fang-collared blouses) with my dad's ties, only to be informed by my manager I looked as though I wasn't sure if I was Arthur or Martha.


Australia; Australian. The abbreviation Aussie is a typical example of the way Australians abbreviate words and then add the -ie (or -y) suffix. Other common examples includes budgie (a budgerigar), rellie (a relative), and tradie (a tradesperson). The word is used as a noun to refer to the country and to a person born or residing in the country, and as an adjective denoting something relating to Australia. Aussie is also used as an abbreviation for 'Australian English' and the 'Australian dollar'. The earliest evidence for Aussie occurs in the context of the First World War.

1915 G.F. Moberly Experiences 'Dinki Di' R.R.C. Nurse (1933): A farewell dance for the boys going home to 'Aussie' tomorrow.

1916 G.F. Moberly Experiences 'Dinki Di' R.R.C. Nurse (1933): One of our Aussie officers.

1917 Forbes Advocate 25 September: 'Hold on Eliza, where did you get that favor?'  'From an Aussie!' 


Why is Australia called Australia? From the early sixteenth century, European philosophers and mapmakers assumed a great southern continent existed south of Asia. They called this hypothetical place Terra Australis, Latin for 'southern land'.

The first European contact with Australia was in the early seventeenth century, when Dutch explorers touched on parts of the Australian continent. As a result of their explorations, that part of the mainland lying west of the meridian which passes through Torres Strait was named Nova Hollandia (Latin for 'New Holland').

In April 1770 Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour reached the southern land. Cook entered the word Astralia (misspelt thus) in his journal the following August. However he did so only in reference to an earlier seeker of the southern land, the Portuguese-born navigator Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, who in 1606 had named the New Hebrides Austrialis de Spiritu Santo. Cook says: The Islands discover'd by Quiros call'd by him Astralia del Espiritu Santo lays in this parallel but how far to the East is hard to say.

Cook himself called the new continent New Holland, a name that acknowledges the early Dutch exploration; the eastern coast he claimed for Britain and called New South Wales. The first written record of Australia (an anglicised form of Terra Australis) as a name for the known continent did not occur until 1794. George Shaw in his Zoology of New Holland refers to:

the vast Island or rather Continent of Australia, Australasia, or New Holland, which has so lately attracted... particular attention.

It was Matthew Flinders, English navigator (and the first person to circumnavigate and map Australia's coastline), who first expressed a strong preference for the name Australia. He gave his reasons in 1805:

It is necessary, however, to geographical propriety, that the whole body of land should be designated under one general name; on this account, and under the circumstances of the discovery of the different parts, it seems best to refer back to the original Terra Australis, or Australia; which being descriptive of its situation, having antiquity to recommend it, and no reference to either of the two claiming nations, is perhaps the least objectionable that could have been chosen; for it is little to apprehended, that any considerable body of land, in a more southern situation, will be hereafter discovered.

To these geographical, historical and political reasons for preferring the name, he adds in his 1814 account of his voyages that Australia is 'agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth'.

Australia was championed too by Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales from 1810, who was aware of Flinders' preference and popularised the name by using it in official dispatches to London. He writes in 1817 of:

the Continent of Australia, which I hope will be the Name given to this country in future, instead of the very erroneous and misapplied name, hitherto given it, of 'New Holland', which properly speaking only applies to a part of this immense Continent.

With Macquarie's kickstart Australia eventually proved to be the popular choice. Although the name New Holland continued alongside it for some time, by 1861 William Westgarth noted that 'the old term New Holland may now be regarded as supplanted by that happier and fitter one of Australia'.

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