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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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mad as a cut snake

Very angry; crazy; eccentric. The phrase also takes the form mad as a snake. The different senses of the phrase derive from the fact that ‘mad’ has two main senses - ‘crazy’ and ‘angry’. The ‘crazy’ sense is illustrated by ‘that bloke wearing a teapot on his head is as mad as a cut snake’, and the angry sense is illustrated by ‘be careful of the boss this afternoon, he’s as mad as a cut snake’. There are similar phrases in Australian English including mad as a meat axe and mad as a gumtree full of galahs. Mad as a (cut) snake is first recorded in 1900.

1900 Queensland Times (Ipswich) 12 June: A man named John Molloy was brought up at the Police Court ⅆ on suspicion of being of unsound mind ... Molloy was taken to Ipswich, examined (I am informed) by a medical man, and discharged. Some surprise has been expressed at this course, for, according to all accounts, the man was, to use a colloquial expression, 'as mad as a snake'.

2013 Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) 10 March: At the time his colleagues accused him of being as mad as a cut snake.

magic pudding

An endlessly renewable resource. The term comes from a famous Australian children's book, Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding (1918), in which the pudding renews itself as soon as slices are cut out of it. Magic pudding is often found in political contexts, the first recording of it is when it was used by the then Australian treasurer Paul Keating (see quotation below).

1985 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 5 July: Mr Keating had warned throughout the tax debate that there was no 'magic pudding' to provide tax cuts for all.

2013 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 8 March: The key here is what the money is spent on, with infrastructure projects holding out the prospect of being a magic pudding that can create jobs, increase productivity and improve state government revenue.

mallee bull: fit as a mallee bull

Very strong and healthy. A mallee bull is one that lives in mallee country - poor, dry country where small scrubby eucalypt trees called mallee grow. Any creature that survives in such difficult conditions would have to be tough and fit. The word mallee come from the Victorian Aboriginal language Woiwurrung, but is also found in other indigenous languages of Victoria, South Australia, and southern New South Wales. The first evidence for the phrase is from 1879 where it appears in the form strong as a mallee bull.

1966 R.A.N. News (Sydney) 27 May: The patient is now fit as a malee bull.

2011 M. Groves Outback Life: He was as fit as a Mallee bull and drop-dead gorgeous!

manchester

Household linen, and the department of a shop where such goods are sold. The term is an elliptical and transferred use of Manchester wares or Manchester goods 'cotton goods of the kind manufactured in Manchester' in Lancashire in England. The city of Manchester in northern England was the centre of the English cotton industry in the 1700s and 1800s. London sales assistants are reputed to be quite baffled by Australian customers enquiring where in the store to find manchester. The word is recorded from the 1840s.

1935 Australian Woman's Mirror (Sydney) 2 July: Thrifty Housewives should not delay to choose from these Manchester Values.

2005 Age (Melbourne) 19 February: My partner and I can't agree on the bath mat ... Please help, as I don't want bathroom manchester to tear us apart.

mate

This word is used in various ways in Australian English as it is in other Englishes. It can refer to a close friend or acquaintance, but can also be used ironically. It is most most frequently used as a mode of address implying equality and goodwill. For a very detailed discussion about the word mate in Australian English see 'The Story of Mate' on our blog.

matilda

The collection of possessions and daily necessaries carried by a person travelling, usually on foot, in the bush; especially the blanket-wrapped roll carried, usually on the back or across the shoulders, by an itinerant worker; a swag. This iconic name for a swag is best know from the title of the song 'Waltzing Matilda'. The term is a transferred but unexplained use of the female name. Matilda is recorded from the 1880s. For a further discussion of the term and its possible German origins see the article 'Chasing our Unofficial National Anthem: Who Was Matilda? Why did she Waltz?' in our newsletter Ozwords.

1905 Sydney Morning Herald 27 May: Many a swagman adds a dog to his outfit, and the animal ranks much higher in his affections than 'Matilda', which, it might be explained, is swagmanese for swag.

1996 W. Anderson Warrigal's Way: Lugging my matilda, I walked down Normanby Road towards the Port, Port Melbourne.

Melba: do a Melba

Used allusively of a person who retires but returns to their profession, especially one who makes repeated 'farewell' performances or comebacks. The phrase refers to Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba (Helen Porter Mitchell) 1861–1931, whose stage name derived from her birthplace, Melbourne. She announced her retirement in 1924, but gave ‘farewell’ performances at Covent Garden in 1926, in Sydney, Melbourne, and Geelong in 1928, and then sang in England over the next two years. The phrase is recorded from the 1940s.

1959 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 11 January: Gladys Moncrieff .. has no intention of doing a Melba on us.

2012 Australian (Sydney) 17 November: Unless he does a Melba, this means the 2010 novel Nemesis will stand as his 31st and last work of fiction.

motza

A large sum of money, especially as won in gambling; a fortune; a great amount. There is also a transferred sense meaning 'a certainty'. Motza can be spelt in various forms including motsa, motser, and motzer. The word is probably derived from the Yiddish word matse meaning '(unleavened) bread'. Motza is recorded from the early 20th century.

1911 Sunday Times (Perth) 1 January: He just managed to squeeze home on the post, much to the delight of the bookmakers, who were 'up against' Darjeeling for what the sporting fraternity would term a 'motzer'.

2012 Australian (Sydney) 17 November: Unless he does a Melba, this means the 2010 novel Nemesis will stand as his 31st and last work of fiction.

moz: put the moz on

To exert a malign influence upon (a person), to jinx. Moz is an abbreviated form of mozzle, which is derived from the Hebrew word mazzal meaning 'luck'. It probably came into Australian English via German Yiddish speakers. Put the moz on is recorded from the 1920s.

1963 H. Porter The Watcher on a Cast-Iron Balcony: Mother is wishing Miss Brewer some female ill, is putting the mozz on her.

2001 H. Menzies Ducks Crossing: As the tide goes up and down the oysters grow and three years later Bob's your uncle, you've got yourself a motza selling to the fish market in Sydney.

mozzie

A mosquito. Mozzie (also spelt mossie) follows a very common pattern in Australian English whereby a word is abbreviated and the -ie (or -y) suffix is added. This suffix works as an informal marker in the language. Mozzie is now used elsewhere but is originally and chiefly Australian. The word is recorded from the early 20th century.

1916 Punch (Melbourne) 6 April: Here in Victoria we go right along, cursing, the 'mossies', fighting them every night, losing good sleep through them, and yet never attempting to use the nets.

2006 A. Hyland Diamond Dove: Jack reckoned Bickie could smell water the way a mozzie can smell blood.

mullet: like a stunned mullet

Dazed, stupefied; uncomprehending; unconscious. The phrase alludes to the goggle-eyed stare (and sometimes gaping mouth) of a fish that has been recently caught and made unconscious. A person typically looks like a stunned mullet as the result of a sudden shock or surprise. The phrase is recorded from 1918.

1918 Examiner (Launceston) 11 January: We finally dug into shell holes in the dark opposite the Boche trenches, and waited there like 'stunned mullets' for three hours with the Huns shelling us.

2001 W. Dodson The Sharp End: I eventually managed to get him handcuffed and searched while my team-mates sat on their haunches and watched like a pair of stunned mullets.

muster

The gathering together of (frequently widely dispersed) livestock in one place for the purpose of branding, counting, etc.; a round-up of stock. This sense of muster is transferred from a chiefly miliatry use of the word where it meant 'an act of calling together soldiers, sailors, prisoners, etc.; an assembling of people for inspection, exercises, etc. ... a roll-call'. In Australia this military sense was applied specifically to a routine assembly of convicts in order to ascertain that they were all present. Also in the colonial period muster referred to a census of the whole population (of the colony, of a district, etc.). The transferred sense to lifestock is recorded from the 1830s.

1852 G.C. Mundy Our Antipodes: The riding after cattle in the bush, for the purpose of driving them in or collecting them for muster, is very hard and sometimes dangerous work.

2013 Gympie Times 16 March: This week he took Craig Warhurst on a muster to show how much help a good dog can be to a property owner.

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