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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.

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ice block

A confection of flavoured and frozen water. Almost a necessity on hot summer days in Australia. The ice block is sometimes called an icy pole in Australian English - a popular brand of this confection. The term is recorded from the 1930s.

1933 Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 11 December: While walking across a street a boy had an ice block struck from his hand by a flash of lightning.

2014 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 11 January: 'Not Icy Pole. An iceblock. You call them iceblocks', I reply. 'You call them iceblocks because they are iceblocks.'


A small-time confidence trickster. The word is probably formed from illy (with the same meaning) which is likely an alteration of the Australian word spieler meaning 'a person who engages in sharp practice; a swindler, originally a card sharper'. To whack the illy (to act as a confidence trickster) and illywhacker are first recorded in Kylie Tennant's The Battlers (1941):

An illy-wacker is someone who is putting a confidence trick over, selling imitation diamond pins, new-style patent razors or infallible 'tonics'... 'living on the cockies' by such devices, and following the shows because money always flows freest at show time. A man who 'wacks the illy' can be almost anything, but two of these particular illy-wackers were equipped with a dart game.

Illywhacker was becoming obsolescent in Australian English, but it was given new life when Peter Carey used it as the title of his 1985 novel. In that novel, we find the following passage:

What's an illywhacker?'... 'A spieler.. a trickster. A quandong. A ripperty man. A con-man.

For further discussion of this term see our Word of the Month article from June 2008.

iron lung: wouldn’t work in an iron lung

Extremely lazy. The phrase derives from the artificial respirator that kept polio patients alive by ‘breathing’ for them in the days when up to ten thousand people annually were affected by poliomyelitis ('infantile paralysis’) in Australia. When vaccinations became routine in the mid-1950s, the fear of polio diminished. The phrase is recorded from the 1970s.

1971 F. Hardy Outcasts of Foolgarah: Even the most primitive societies protect, succor and shelter the aged, but not so the affluent society with the principle of he that cannot work neither shall he eat (except Silver Tails who wouldn't work in an iron lung).

2013 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 16 June: Once upon a time, about 50 years ago, we in Australia were literate, well-mannered, well-dressed, hard-working and fairly happy. Now, we are illiterate, ill-mannered, wouldn't work in an iron lung, among the worst-dressed in the world, and overall, not very happy people. What happened, I wonder?

Updated: 21 February 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher