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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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kangaroo

Any of the larger marsupials of the chiefly Australian family Macropodidae, with short forelimbs, a tail developed for support and balance, long feet and powerful hind limbs, enabling a swift, bounding motion. Perhaps the most well-known Australian English word, kangaroo comes from the Guugu Yimithirr Aboriginal language of far north Queensland. For a more detailed discussion of kangaroo, and the many words deriving from it, see our article 'Kangaroo: the international and regional word' on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, and the article 'Kangaroo: A First Australian' in our newsletter Ozwords.

king-hit

A sudden, damaging blow; a knock-out punch; an unfair punch. This term is recorded from the late 19th century. In more recent years the term has been mentioned in relation to 'one-punch' assaults in Australian cities. These assaults are usually carried out by intoxicated young men in the vicinity of nightclub and hotel venues. This type of assault often takes the form of a single unprovoked and unexpected hit to the victim's head, sometimes resulting in serious head injuries or death. In this context there have been calls to replace the term king-hit with 'coward punch'. King-hit is also used as a verb.

1898 Evening News (Sydney) 2 September: He would not hit a man on the cheek. He would give him the 'King hit' - on the point - which would knock him out.

2014 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 26 January: There is no trace of a fair go in a king hit or coward punch, as it should be known.

koori

The word koori is now well established in Australian English, but it continues to cause confusion and misunderstanding.

Many Aborigines dislike the terms 'Aborigine' and 'Aboriginal' since these terms have been foisted on them, and they carry a lot of negative cultural baggage. Not surprisingly, they have looked for alternative words, and instead of 'Aborigine' many prefer to use the word for a 'person' from a local language.

In order to understand the history of the word koori we need to bear in mind the fact that when the Europeans arrived here there were about 250 languages spoken in Australia. Way back in the past, they were no doubt related, but most of them were as different from one another as English is different from Italian or Hindi.

Some languages of south-east Australia (parts of New South Wales and Victoria) had a word - coorie, kory, kuri, kooli, koole - which meant 'person' or 'people'. In the 1960s, in the form koori, it came to be used by Aborigines of these areas to mean 'Aboriginal people' or 'Aboriginal person'.  It was a means of identification.  But because of the wide variety of Aboriginal languages and cultures, koori has not gained Australia-wide acceptance, being confined to most of New South Wales and to Victoria.

Other terms are preferred in other regions: Murri over most of south and central Queensland, Bama in north Queensland, Nunga in southern South Australia, Nyoongah around Perth, Mulba in the Pilbara region, Wongi in the Kalgoorlie region, Yamitji in the Murchison River region, Yolngu in Arnhem Land, Anangu in central Australia, and Yuin on the south coast of New South Wales. For a while Tasmanian Aborigines called themselves koories, and then Tasmanian koories to distinguish themselves from the mainland koories. Recently, we have gathered evidence for the term muttonbird koories, a reference to the importance of muttonbirding to their traditional way of life, especially on the islands off the Tasmanian coast. More recently, the tribal or language term Palawa is increasingly being used.

kylie

Most people associate the term kylie with the female personal name (as in Kylie Minogue). In Western Australia, however, it is a term for what is known elsewhere as a 'boomerang'. The word came into Australian English from Noongar, an Aboriginal language spoken over a large extent of south-western Western Australia, including present-day Perth, Albany, and Esperance. The word also occurs in other western and central Australian languages.

The word first appears in English in G.F. Moore's Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia (published in 1884, but referring to an 1835 diary entry):

I am sorry that nasty word 'boomerang' has been suffered to supercede the proper name. Boomerang is a corruption used at Sydney by the white people, but not the native word, which is tur-ra-ma; but 'kiley' is the name here.

While early writers use various spellings (as with Moore's kiley), in the twentieth century the spelling kylie is standard. The female personal name Kylie may be based on this word.

 

Updated: 23 September 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher