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Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms

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

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galah

The word galah comes from Yuwaalaraay and related Aboriginal languages of northern New South Wales. In early records it is variously spelt as galar, gillar, gulah, etc. The word is first recorded in the 1850s. The bird referred to is the grey-backed, pink-breasted cockatoo Eolophus roseicapillus, occurring in all parts of Australia except the extreme north-east and south-west. It is also known as the red-breasted cockatoo and rose-breasted cockatoo.

Some early settlers used the galah as food. In 1902 the Truth newspaper reports: 'The sunburnt residents of at that God-forsaken outpost of civilisation were subsisting on stewed galah and curried crow'. Some writers report that galah pie was a popular outback dish.

The galah, which usually appears in a large flock, has a raucous call, and it was perhaps this trait which produced the term galah session for a period allocated for private conversation, especially between women on isolated stations, over an outback radio network. F. Flynn in Northern Gateway (1963) writes: 'The women's radio hour, held regularly night and morning and referred to everywhere as the 'Galah Session'. It is a special time set aside for lonely station women to chat on whatever subject they like'. More generally, a galah session is 'a long chat' - A. Garve, Boomerang (1969): 'For hours the three men chatted... It was Dawes who said at last, "I reckon this galah session's gone on long enough".'

Very commonly in Australian English galah is used to refer to a fool or idiot. This figurative sense is recorded from the 1930s, and derives from the perceived stupidity of the bird. The following quotations give an indication of how the term is used:

1951 E. Lambert Twenty Thousand Thieves: 'Yair, and I got better ideas than some of the galahs that give us our orders'.

1960 R.S. Porteous Cattleman: 'The bloke on the other end of the line is only some useless galah tryin' to sell a new brand of dip'.

1971 J. O'Grady Aussie Etiket: 'You would be the greatest bloody galah this side of the rabbit-proof fence'.

From this sense arise a number of colloquial idioms. To be mad as a gumtree full of galahs is to be completely crazy. To make a proper galah of oneself is to make a complete fool of oneself. A pack of galahs is a group of contemptibly idiotic people.

g'day

An abberviation of good day, a familiar greeting, used frequently and at any hour. While the word is recorded from the 1880s, it came to international prominence in the 1980s through a series of tourism advertisements where Australian actor and comedian Paul Hogan invited people from around the world to visit Australia and say g'day.

1889 C. Praed Romance of the Station: He pulled up, nodding to Alec’s 'Good-day, Tillidge', and replying in a short, morose manner, running his words one into the other, as a bushman does, 'G’d-day, sir'.

2000 J. Harms Memoirs of a Mug Punter: I made it to the table where the prime minister was wielding his pen. He looked up. 'G'day', he said. He didn't recognise me.

geek

In International English geek means 'a person who is socially inept or boringly conventional or studious'. The sense comes from the United States, where it originally referred to an assistant at a sideshow whose purpose was to appear an object of disgust or derision. The American word appears to be a variant of geck, a Scottish word (from Dutch) meaning 'a gesture of derision; an expression of scorn or contempt'. In more recent times the word has been increasingly applied to a person who is obsessed with computers and computer technology.

In Australia, however, there is another meaning of the word geek. It means 'a look', and usually appears in the phrase to have (or take) a geek at. It is also used as a verb. This Australian sense derives from British dialect (Scottish and Northern England) keek meaning 'to look, to peep'. The Australian form geek appears as a verb in Cornish meaning 'to peep, peer, spy', and this is likely to be the same word as the northern keek. The lateness of the word in Australian English, however, suggests a borrowing from the northern dialects rather than from Cornish. Both Australian senses of the noun and verb are recorded from the early 20th century.

1954 T.A.G. Hungerford Sowers of Wind: There's a circus down by the dance-hall, a Jap show ... What about having a geek at that?

2012 Newcastle Herald 16 January: There’s vintage bikes ... The cafe has gained a steady stream of regulars for coffee, breakfast, lunch or a geek at the bikes.

gilgai

Gilgai is a word which describes a terrain of low relief on a plain of heavy clay soil, characterised by the presence of hollows, rims, and mounds, as formed by alternating periods of expansion during wet weather and contraction (with deep cracking) during hot, dry weather.

This type of terrain is described as gilgaed. A single hole is known as a gilgai, or gilgai hole. Such holes are also known as crabholes, dead-men's graves, or melon holes.

The word comes from Wiradjuri (an Aboriginal language once spoken over a vast area from southern New South Wales to northern Victoria) and Gamilaraay (an Aboriginal language spoken over a vast area of east-central New South Wales and extending into southern Queensland) gilgaay 'waterhole'. Gilgai if recorded from the 1860s.

1881 W.E. Abbott Notes of a Journey on the Darling: At the blackfellows' tanks the clay excavated is still seen beside the waterholes, while in the gilgies there is no appearance of any embankment, the ground all round being perfectly level.

2005 H.S. Kent What do you do with them on Sundays?: With all the rain that had been about, most of the gilgais would be full, which meant that we’d be drinking fresh water.

glory box

A box in which a woman accumulates items in preparation for marriage; the collection itself. In other countries it is called a hope chest or bottom drawer. Glory box is probably related to British dialect glory hole 'a place for storing odds and ends’. The term is first recorded in 1900.

1905 Brisbane Courier 10 October: A grand chance for hotel and boarding-house keepers, private householders, and all young ladies collecting for the glory box.

2000 Canberra Times 24 June: I remember girls I knew growing up in Newcastle who had glory boxes the size of rooms ... They were focused entirely on the fantasy of the day and it almost didn't matter who the groom was.

goog: full as a goog

Extremely drunk; replete with food; extremely full, packed. In Australian English a goog is an egg. It is an abbreviation of the British dialect word goggy 'a child's name for an egg', retained in Scotland as goggie. The phrase is a variation of an earlier British phrase in the same sense: full as a tick, recorded from the late 17th century. Other Australian combinations include full as a boot, full as a Bourke Street tram, and  full as a pommy complaint box. Full as a goog is recorded from the 1930s.

1944 Sydney Morning Herald 17 June: The evidence of Detective Lambert, a security officer with Detective Fraser, is that defendant was 'as full as a goog'.

2011 Hawkesbury Gazette (Windsor) 30 March: I was full as a goog after my main and would have exploded if I'd attempted a dessert.

goon

Cask wine. This word is frequently found in the compound goon bag 'a wine cask, specifically the bag containing the wine’. The word is possibly a transferred use of the Australian English word goom ‘methylated spirits as an alcoholic drink’. Goom itself may derive from a south-east Queensland Aboriginal word (from Gabi-gabi, Waga-waga, and Gureng-gureng) meaning ‘water, alcohol’. The form goon may also have been influenced by an altered pronunciation of flagon. Australia There is evidence for this term from the early 1980s. For more about wine terms in Australian English see the article 'Wine in Australian English' on our blog.

1997 J. Birmingham Tasmanian Babes Fiasco: None of the wine he reviewed ever cost more than ten bucks a bottle. (In fact very few even came within cooee of that, mostly tapering off at five or six bucks per four litre 'goon'.)

2001 Sunday Mail (Brisbane) 28 October: Teenagers call it 'goon'. It is cheap and nasty white wine - for $10 you can get four or five litres of the stuff at any pub or bottle shop.

green ban

A prohibition on demolition or construction projects on sites deemed to be of historical, cultural or environmental significance, especially one imposed by a trade union. The term arose by analogy with black ban (a prohibition, especially as imposed by a trade union, that prevents work from proceeding), with the colour green being associated with the environmental lobby. Although green ban is used elsewhere, the term was recorded first in Australia in 1973.

1973 P. Thomas Taming the Concrete Jungle: A unionist coined a happy phrase for such bans to save natural bush and park. 'They're not black bans', he said; 'they're green bans.'

2014 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 13 October: We should be punching alarm buttons and throwing ballast off our sinking ship - dead weights like the debt, as well as our crippling weekend penalty rates, huge government handouts and green bans on everything from new uranium mines to coal-seam gas exploration.

grey nomad

A retired person who travels extensively within Australia, especially by campervan, caravan or motor home. The grey nomad is a product of the baby boomer generation. The term is recorded from the 1990s. For a further discussion of this term see our Word of the Month article from September 2007.

1995 Australian (Sydney) 2 December: Another rapidly growing population is the 'grey nomads' who travel from resort to resort in caravans or recreational vehicles.

2012 S. Williams Welcome to the Outback: Along with hordes of grey nomads, I spend a day checking out the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame.

guernsey

Guernsey is the second largest of the Channel Islands. The name is used attributively to designate things found in or associated with Guernsey. Thus the term Guernsey cow for an animal of a breed of usually brown and white dairy cattle that originated in Guernsey.

In the early nineteenth century the term Guernsey shirt arose for 'a close-fitting woollen sweater, especially one worn by sailors'. During the gold rushes in Australia in the mid nineteenth century, in a specialisation of this sense, the term guernsey was used to describe a kind of shirt worn by goldminers:

1852 F. Lancelot Australia as it Is: The usual male attire is a pair of common slop trowsers, a blue guernsey ... a broad-brimmed cabbage-tree hat.

In a further specialisation in Australian English, the term guernsey has been used since the 1860s to refer to a football jumper, especially as worn by a player of Australian Rules football:

1868 Geelong Advertiser 21 September: Ample evidence of a desperate struggle was afforded by the style in which they limped off the ground, some covered with nothing in the shape of a guernsey but rags, and some wanting even these.

From the football meaning there arose in the early 20th century the phrase to get a guernsey or be given a guernsey, meaning to win selection for a sporting team. In a widening of this sense, the phrase came to mean 'to win selection, recognition, approbation', and is commonly used in non-sporting contexts:

1957 D. Whitington Treasure upon Earth: The executive won't give me a guernsey for the Senate.

2014 Border Mail (Albury & Wodonga): The diverse range includes some films that ordinarily would be unlikely to get a guernsey outside our capital cities.

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