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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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happy as Larry

Extremely happy. The origin of this phrase is unknown, but is perhaps an arbitrary partial rhyming reduplication with 'happy'. The phrase is used elsewhere but recorded earliest in New Zealand and Australia. The earliest non-Australasian evidence is Irish. Irish English has larry 'fool' from Irish learaire 'lounger, loafer', but there is no clear link to the phrase. The Dictionary of New Zealand English suggests a Scottish origin (from the Clydesdale area) larrie meaning 'joking, jesting, gibing'. The phrase is first recorded in Australian evidence from the 1880s.

1896 Alexandra & Yea Standard 10 January: The guests one and all appeared as happy as Larry, and they sang and danced - and danced and sang - with a vim that did our heart good to look upon.

2013 S. Thorne Bonzer: I put my disappointment away in a drawer, and pulling on my happy-as-Larry face, toddled down towards them.

happy little Vegemite

A cheerful person; a satisfied person. The phrase comes from a 1950s advertising jingle for the yeast-based spread Vegemite. The jingle began: ‘We're happy little vegemites, as bright as bright can be we, We all enjoy our vegemite for breakfast, lunch, and tea'. For a further discussion of Vegemite and to view the advertisement see the article 'A History of Vegemite' on our blog.

1981 Bulletin (Sydney) 14 April: Expatriate Australians living in Italy have to pay dearly to be 'happy little Vegemites'.

2012 D. Fordham Dream Keeper: We have to remember what Mummy told us, happy thoughts make for happy little Vegemites.

hard word

An importunate request (especially of a monetary or sexual nature). This term is often found in the phrase to put the hard word on: to make demands (especially monetary or sexual) on (someone). The term is from British dialect where it had various meanings including 'abuse, scandal, marriage proposal, refusal'. The Australian usage is recorded from the early 20th century.

1915 Cairns Post 29 July: Constable Geary appears to be a fine big affable member of the force, and as next Saturday is pay day, it is to be hoped he will not put the 'hard word' on too many of us.

2014 Australian Financial Review (Sydney) 1 March: It was at the Australian Open tennis in January when I first put the hard word on Seven Network commercial director Bruce McWilliam to have lunch with me on the record.

Harold Holt: to do a Harold Holt

To escape; to make a rapid departure. To do a Harold Holt is rhyming slang for bolt. The phrase is from the name of former Australian prime minister Harold Holt who disappeared, presumed drowned, while swiming at Portsea, Victoria, in 1967. As with other rhyming slang terms the rhyming element is often omitted, hence we sometimes see the forms to do a Harold and to do a Harry. The phrase is recorded from the 1980s. For a further discussion of this term see the article 'Harold Holt does a Harry' on our blog.

1990 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 25 February: Instead she does a Harold Holt early next morning, booking herself on a flight to Paris with Ivan's American Express card.

2013 Canberra Times 7 February: When I was younger and single I would never partake in goodbyes, I would always do a Harold Holt in the middle of night and by-pass the whole awkwardness in the morning.

hills hoist

The hills hoist is a rotary clothes line fitted with a hoist that is operated by a crown and pinion winding mechanism. In Australia Lance Hill is commonly thought to have invented the rotary clothes hoist, but he adapted the existing design in 1946 by including his own winding mechanism. The name hills hoist is used generically in Australia for any rotary clothes line.

As a symbol, the hills hoist has both positive and negative connotations in Australian culture. As a positive symbol it featured in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics: ‘The cultural symbols of our backyard suburbia—the Hills Hoist and the lawn mower—are so respectably well entrenched that they featured at the Olympics.’ (Australian 7 October 2000). As a negative symbol it stands for the dreary sameness and ordinariness of Australian suburbia. In an interview in the Sun-Herald in 2007 Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage explains what would have been the Dame’s fate if she had not met Barry: ‘I would still be in a suburban house, I might even be dead ... I would have been up to my wrists in grey water with peas and mutton fat floating in it. I would have been staring through chipped venetian blinds at rusted Hills hoists and broken plastic toys. I would be locked into the rather sad Valium-infested life of so many women’.

hip-pocket nerve

An imaginary nerve that reacts whenever demands are made on one's money (especially in contexts such as government proposals to increase taxes). The term is from hip-pocket 'a trouser pocket that traditionally contains a wallet'. Hip-pocket nerve is recorded from the 1940s.

1959 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 5 July: The hip-pocket nerve is the most sensitive nerve in the body; and, maybe, when industry feels financial loss over an ailment, there'll be some high-powered research into its causation.

2014 Australian Financial Review (Sydney) 8 September: Australia's modern prosperity is now being hit by a national income squeeze as our terms of trade slide from their highest level for more than a century. This is showing up, for example, in falling real wages that inevitably will grate the hip-pocket nerve of voters.

hoon

A lout or an exhibitionist, especially a young male who drives dangerously or at reckless speed. The origin of the word is unknown. Suggestions for its origin include: an alteration of Australian English hooer 'a prostitute, a general term of abuse'; an alteration of Australian English poon 'a simpleton or fool'; a contraction of hooligan; and the Scottish word hune 'a loiterer, a drone, a lazy, silly person'.

From the 1930s hoon referred to a lout or exhibitionist, and from the 1950s it also referred to a pimp. The current sense referring to a reckless driver only emerged in the 1980s. For further discussion of this term see the article 'A Hoon by any other Name' in our Ozwords newsletter, and for a discussion of the term hoon operation see our Word of the Month article from July 2015.

1988 Age (Melbourne) 14 March: You get all sorts of abuse on late-night studies around in the inner suburbs ... Particularly when you're standing out on the road, hoons drive past with bare bums hanging out of the window fairly frequently.

2005 S. Dooley Big Twitch: It was into this habitat, at about 11.30pm, that I drove, having passed more than forty kilometres of .. hoons in souped-up cars cruising the highway in packs.

Hughie

Hughie is the rain god, and the appeal send it down Hughie is a request for a heavy fall of rain - the phrase is first recorded in 1912. Since the 1950s surfers have also implored the god's name in a request for good waves. Theories about the origin of the word Hughie range from alterations of the names Jupiter, Zeus, or Yahweh, to the classical Greek huei ‘it is raining’. For a further discussion about this term and its possible origins see the article 'Send Her Down Who-ie?' in our Ozwords newsletter.

1922 Bulletin (Sydney) 6 April: At the end of the dry, when the first few showers fall, 'Send it down, Hughie!' is the heartfelt exclamation of every eager bush-watcher.

1979 Tracks November: I’m just writing to have a bitch to Huey about one of the worst winter flat spells in memory since I’ve been surfing.

2014 Outback June: And so, on behalf of south-west Queensland, Hughie, please send her down.

Updated: 22 September 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher