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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 recently released 2nd edn of the Oxford English Dictionary), The 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.'

Other evidence:

1982 Sydney Morning Herald 3 September: N.S.W. University market day... Intended for the whole community, not just for accas (academic persons).

1984 Age Weekender (Melbourne) 2 March: Ackers from the university".

aerial ping-pong

Aerial ping-pong is a jocular (and frequently derisive) name for Australian National 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.

It is used largely by people from States in which Rugby and not Australian Rules is the major football code. This interstate rivalry is evident in the citations in the Australian National Dictionary:

1964 Footy Fan (Melbourne):  Sydney folk are generally curious about this religion or mania which they term 'aerial ping pong' or 'Aussie Rules'.

1965 F. Hardy,  Yarns of Billy Borker: That's not football, mate, it's aerial ping-pong.

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

1980 H. Lunn, Behind the Banana Curtain:  I won't comment much on their football - called aerial pingpong in Queensland - because I don't understand it.

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 areas, yet have drawn very large crowds, and have been very successful. It will be interesting to see if the term aerial ping-pong survives.


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, Akubra was first recorded in 1930. Its origin is unknown, but it is possibly from an Aboriginal language.


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.


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.

View Australian National Dictionary entry for ANZAC.

Anzac biscuit

A traditional Australian biscuit made from 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. Here is a recipe from 1923: '2 breakfast cups John Bull oats, 1/2 breakfast cup sugar, 1 scant cup plain flour, 1/2 cup melted butter, 1 tablespoon golden syrup, 2 ditto. boiling water, 1 teaspoon carb. soda. Mix butter, golden syrup and soda together, pour boiling water on, then add dry ingredients. Put on oven sheet or scone tray with teaspoon. Slow oven till browned.'

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.


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’.

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 1957. In recent years it has also been used with reference to gender confusion, and in this sense it has been exported to other countries.


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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