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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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sanger

A sandwich. Sanger is an alteration of the word sandwichSango appeared as a term for sandwich in the 1940s, but by the 1960s, sanger took over to describe this staple of Australian cuisine. Sangers come in all shapes and sizes for all occasions—there are gourmet sangers, steak sangers, veggie sangers, cucumber sangers, and even double banger sangers.

1968 D. O’Grady A Bottle of Sandwiches: Meals consisted of piles of sangers, made by the pub cook, and brought out at odd intervals.

2003 J. Birmingham Dopeland: The club sanger is the only reason I stay here.

schmick

Smart, stylish; excellent. Schmick (sometimes shmick) is a relatively recent addition to Australian English. The form smick is found once in the written record in the 1970s, and may be a blend of the words smart and slick. From the late 1990s onwards smick is modified to schmick on the model of various Yiddish words borrowed into English. Schmick is now often heard in Australian English. For a discussion of the origin of schmick, and the term schmick-up that has developed from it, see our Word of the Month article.

1999 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 28 July: The view over the river and Story Bridge will be pretty schmick.

2009 J. Welch Choir Man: I .. was decked out in a lovely new navy-blue suit… When I walked out onstage feeling rather schmick, I got a nod of acknowledgement from the very handsome artistic director, Richard Bonynge.

School of the Air

A government-funded educational program that uses a two-way radio communication system (and, more recently, internet technology) to enable children in remote areas to participate in ‘classroom’ activities for part of each day. Developed to supplement correspondence education, the School of the Air was pioneered in Australia in 1951. It remains the most important means of education for children who have no access to school.

1960 Bulletin (Sydney) 17 February: Queensland’s first School of the Air, operating one hour daily from the Cloncurry flying-doctor base, got away to a bad start.

2009 E. McHugh Birdsville: I'm happy about School of the Air being over… Now they're off to school and in a classroom again they can come home to me and I'm just Mum instead of being their cranky teacher.

screamer

(In Australian Rules football) a spectacular overhead mark. Australian Rules is a team game in which the ball is moved by running, kicking, and handballing. A mark is the act of cleanly catching a ball that has been kicked a distance of more than 15 metres, and the mark allows the catcher to take an unimpeded kick of the ball. A screamer is a mark that results from an especially high and spectacular leap for the ball. It is a specific use of the standard English screamer meaning ‘an outstanding specimen’. The Australian Rules screamer is first recorded in 1953.

1989 Age (Melbourne) 24 July: 'Leaping Al' Lynch played an inspired game... kicking six goals and .. sitting on a pack of four players .. to pull down a screamer.

2014 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 30 March: Six minutes in he threw himself onto a pack in the goalsquare and took a screamer.

A second sense of screamer is recorded in Australian English from 1959. It functions in various compound terms with words for measures of alcoholic drink, indicating a person who has a low tolerance of alcohol, or who becomes drunk easily or quickly. Two-pot screamer is the most common of these, but you can also find two-pint, two-middy, and two-schooner screamers.

1972 Bulletin (Sydney) 3 June: Sefton said she’d become a two middy screamer. He said when she had a few drinks she began to shout and tried to dominate the conversation.

2004 Canberra Times 12 December (Magazine Section): In the days when I was a two-pot screamer (as opposed to now when I'm a two-pot sleeper), I could be guaranteed to reveal bits of me which oughtn't to be revealed to anyone.

seachange

A significant change of lifestyle, especially one achieved by moving from the city to a seaside town. It derives from SeaChange (1998–2000), the name of a popular Australian television series in which the principal character moves from the city to a small coastal town. The name of the series itself alludes to the standard English meaning of sea-change ‘a profound or notable transformation’, which has its origin in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, Into something rich and strange.’ The Australian meaning is first recorded in 1998, and has generated the verb to seachange, and the name seachanger to describe people who choose a seachange. A later term modelled on seachange is tree change,  referring to a significant change in lifestyle with a move from the city to a rural district.

2003 Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 1 December: Sea change investors cause prices to triple. People fleeing Sydney to NSW coastal areas for a ‘sea change’ have forced land prices up by as much as three times in three years.

2006 Australian Gourmet Traveller April: One of Melbourne's best pub restaurants .. has appointed a ‘certified Francophile’ to replace Tim Saffery, who is sea-changing to the New South Wales south coast.

secret business

In traditional Aboriginal culture, ceremony and ritual that is open only to a particular group. The word business in this term is from Aboriginal English, and means ‘traditional Aboriginal lore and ritual’, and is recorded from 1907. Secret business is first recorded much later in 1986, and from it have developed terms with a more specific reference: secret men’s business, for ceremony and ritual that is open only to men, and secret women’s business, for ceremony and ritual that is open only to women.

1997 West Australian (Perth) 9 July: People might refuse to give evidence if it meant revealing secret business.

2001 A. McMillan An Intruder's Guide to East Arnhem Land: In the morning the men went off to a nearby ceremonial site for Ngarra bunggul or, if you like, secret men's business.

2014 Cairns Post 24 February: It's really hard with my daughters, a lot of it is secret women's business. The women had more sacred areas than men and it's up to my partner, my sisters and my mum to teach them.

From the late 1990s the terms are transferred into standard Australian English where they are used, often jokingly, in non-Aboriginal contexts.

1997 New Idea (Melbourne) 29 November: Kingswood driving is secret men's business—just like pushing a shopping trolley straight is secret womens' business.

shag: like a shag on a rock

An emblem of isolation, deprivation, and exposure. It is first recorded in 1845. A shag is a name for any of several species of Australian cormorant, commonly found in coastal and inland waters, where they are often seen perched alone on a rock—the behaviour that gave rise to the expression. In Australian English any isolated person can be described as being like a shag on a rock—for example, a political leader with few supporters, or a person without friends at a party. Sometimes found in the formulation as lonely (or miserable) as a shag on a rock.

1864 Sydney Morning Herald 8 July: He heard Lant say he would be revenged on Mr Orr; he would scab his sheep, and leave him as miserable as a shag on a rock.

2001 B. Courtenay Four Fires 501 Tommy doesn't want the poor bloke to be standing there like a shag on a rock.

sheila

A girl or woman. This word first appeared in Australian English in 1832 with the spelling shelah. It was initially used in Australia to refer to a woman of Irish origin, but from the late 19th century onwards it became a general term for a woman or girl. It probably derives from the generic use of the (originally Irish) proper name Sheila. For a full discussion of its likely origin in the old celebration Shelah’s Day, celebrated the day after St Patrick’s Day, see our blog ‘Shelah’s Day and the origin of sheila’ from March 2016. For a different, but nevertheless Irish, view of the origin of the term, see an earlier discussion in our Ozwords article ‘Who is Sheila?’ from December 2001.

1930 L.W. Lower Here’s Luck: ‘Sheilas!’ gasped Woggo as the girls clambered out of the car.

1992 J. Davis In our Town: That's my sister. What a sheila. Every bloke in Northam wants to date her.

shower: I didn’t come down in the last shower

I’m not stupid, don’t try and put one over me! This is a response to someone who is taking you for a fool, and indicates that you have more experience or shrewdness than you have been given credit for. It is now used elsewhere, but it is recorded earliest in Australia, and its use is chiefly Australian.  First evidence is from 1883.

1904 Northern Miner (Charters Towers) 22 September: At least I thought it would be accepted that I didn't come down in the last shower.

2015 Star Observer (Sydney) September: I didn’t verbalise it with my mother until she was dying… So I told her, just before she died, and she looked at me and said, ‘Michael, I didn’t come down in the last shower. You’ve been bringing Johan to Sunday dinner for the last 30 years, do you think I was blind?'

sickie

A day's sick leave, especially as taken without sufficient medical reason. Sickie is an abbreviation of the term sick leave, and illustrates a distinctive feature of Australian English — the addition of -ie or -y to abbreviated words or phrases. Other examples include: firie ‘firefighter’, surfie ‘surfer’, and Tassie ‘Tasmania’. Sickie is first recorded in 1953, and is often found in the phrase to chuck a sickie, meaning ‘to take a day’s sick leave from work’ (often with the implication that the person is not really ill).

1962 Bulletin (Sydney) 3 March: I don’t feel a bit like work today… I think I’ll take a sickie.

2003 Canberra Times 21 June: The age old practice of ‘chucking a sickie’ in the Australian Public Service is costing the taxpayer at least $295 million a year.

skip

An Australian, especially one of British descent. Also as skippy. The term is the creation of non-British Australian migrants, especially children, who needed a term to counter the insulting terms directed at them by Australians of British descent. First recorded in 1982, it derives from the children’s television series Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo (1966-68).

1988 K. Lette Girls' Night Out: The Skips at school had teased her about being Greek.

2000 Geelong Advertiser 3 December: You listening to me ya skippy dickhead?

Skippy has a later meaning, ‘kangaroo meat’, first recorded in the early 1990s and derived from the same source. For a discussion of this sense see our Word of the Month article from October 2013.

sledge

Of a fielder in a game of cricket, to attempt to break the concentration of a person batting by abuse or needling. Sledge is first recorded in the mid-1970s in a cricketing context. It derives from the word sledgehammer, used figuratively to designate an unsubtle form of verbal abuse. Later it became used more widely in a variety of contexts, sporting and otherwise, in the sense ‘to criticise, ridicule, attack’. For a discussion of the theory that it derives from the name of the singer Percy Sledge, see our blog ‘Percy Sledge and cricket’ from April 2015.

1980 Sydney Morning Herald 16 October: Crude language is forbidden. This edict should put an end to the disgraceful practice of ‘sledging’ opponents, an abomination that has become rampant in the game over the last few years.

2014 Sydney Morning Herald 7 June: And The Australian is certainly selective about which women it worries about: it was hardly outraged over the sustained sledging of Julia Gillard.

sleepout

A verandah, porch, or outbuilding that is used for sleeping accommodation. The word first appears in 1915. Sleepouts are often used when hot weather encouraged people to sleep in a sheltered area that might receive cooling night breezes. Sometimes a sleepout may be a porch or verandah that is enclosed with windows or walls, eventually becoming a permanent extra bedroom.

1959 L. Rose Country of the Dead: He looked up through the gauze wire serving as the outer wall of the sleep-out, across the dry river flat.

2006 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 28 October (Etc Section): It still has an authentic country feel with wide shady verandas, a wood-burning fireplace for frosty nights, two double bedrooms with high wrought-iron beds and, much to the children's delight, a sleepout they were all to share on our visit.

snag

A sausage. Also snagger. In Australia and elsewhere snag has a number of meanings, including ‘a submerged tree stump’, ‘an unexpected drawback’, and more recently as an acronym for sensitive new age guy’. But in Australia a snag is also one of several words for ‘sausage’ (others include snarler and snork). It is first recorded in 1937, and probably comes from British (mainly Scots) dialect snag meaning ‘a morsel, a light meal’. Snag has generated another, rhyming slang, term for the humble sausage: the aptly named mystery bag.

1943 Bulletin (Sydney) 15 December: Waiting only to bolt a couple of cold ‘snags’ Ted got out his bike.

1991 Age (Melbourne) 24 December (Supplement): Bangers, snags, call them what you will, the once-humble sausage has moved up into the gourmet class.

sorry

In traditional Aboriginal culture, of or relating to death and mourning. In Aboriginal English the adjective sorry is recorded in this sense from the 1940s. Later compounds based on sorry include sorry business, ritual and ceremony associated with death, and sorry camp, a mourning camp.

1997 S. Dingo Dingo: the Story of Our Mob: When Polly passed away, none of the children had been permitted to go to the sorry ceremony, the funeral, no children at all.

1999 Canberra Times 11 December (Panorama):  An Aboriginal boy tells us about going with his family by car to Yarrie for sorry business.

In the wider Australian community sorry is found in the annual Sorry Day, first held on 26 May 1998, a public expression of regret for the treatment of the stolen generations, those Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their parents by white authorities. It is also, for the Indigenous community, a day of mourning.

2001 Adelaidean June: For the fourth year in a row, Sorry Day has been marked at Adelaide University with a formal ceremony.

spit the dummy

This has two meanings in Australian English: to give up (contesting or participating), and to lose one’s temper or composure. The phrase is recorded first in the1980s. It is usually used of an adult with the implication is that the behaviour described is childish, like a baby spitting out its dummy in a tantrum and refusing to be pacified.

1992 Sydney Morning Herald 2 November: With most games, of course, I'd simply spit the dummy, hit the switch and give up.

2005 Age (Melbourne) 27 November: There was a lingering doubt: would host Russell Crowe spit the dummy and biff someone with a trophy?

spunk

A sexually attractive person. Australians also use the meanings for this term that exist in standard English: 1 courage and determination. 2 semen. But in Australia spunk is most commonly used to refer to a person of either sex who is regarded as sexually attractive. It is first recorded in the 1970s and is derived from spunky ‘full of spirit; brave, plucky’, although it may be influenced by spunk ‘semen’. A term based on the Australian spunk is spunk rat, which means the same thing, but can also mean ‘a sexually promiscuous person’.

1979 Carey & Lette Puberty Blues: It was Darren Peters—the top surfing spunk of sixth form.

2004 Australian (Sydney) 12 June (Magazine): Physical attractiveness is multi-dimensional: after all, one person's spunkrat is another person's .. er, rat.

squatter

A squatter is a person who unlawfully occupies an uninhabited building. But in early nineteenth-century Australia a squatter (first recorded 1825) was also a person who occupied Crown land without legal title. From the 1840s it began to refer to any person who grazed livestock on a large scale, without reference to the title by which the land was held; and the term squatter also referred to such a person as being of an elevated socio-economic status. Squatters became wealthy and powerful, and the term squattocracy (recorded in 1841) alludes to their aristocratic pretensions.

1867 ‘A Colonist’ Life’s Work As It Is: No men have made wealth faster in this colony than ‘squatters’; that is, in plain English, sheep and cattle owners.

1984 W.W. Ammon et al. Working Lives: He had class that manager, squattocracy class, and only others of squatter ilk were encouraged to fraternise with him.

stolen generation

The Aboriginal people who were removed from their families as children (especially between the 1900s and the 1960s) and placed in institutions or fostered by white families. Also stolen generations. The term was first recorded in 1982.

2002 Koori Mail 20 February: I hope this film will be a turning point in Australians’ awareness of the complex and painful issues surrounding the Stolen generations.

2006 Mercury (Hobart) 22 November: Pioneering laws to offer compensation to Tasmanian Aborigines forcibly removed from their families as part of the Stolen Generation were passed yesterday by the Tasmanian House of Assembly.

stoush

Fighting; violence; a brawl or fight. Probably from British dialect (Scots) stashie, stushie (and variants) ‘an uproar; a commotion, disturbance, quarrel’. Stoush is used as a noun and a verb (‘to strike or thrash; to fight or struggle’) from the late 19th century.

1935 J.P. McKinney Crucible: ‘The jacks were tailing me up.’ ‘What was the matter’, John asked. ‘Just a bit of stoush’, said Roberts. ‘Two of them bailed me up for my pass. I dropped them and beat it for the bush.’

1994 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 19 July: Australia's leading fund managers are lining up for a stoush with one of the industry's leading researchers over its proposal to develop a rating system.

Stoush was also used to refer to military engagement during the First World War, and later the phrase the big stoush was used of the war itself.

1932 Western Mail (Perth) 25 August: I was on board the troopship Nestor when that steamer went over to the big stoush in 1915.

For a discussion of the phrase the big stoush, see our Word of the Month for April 2015.

straight to the poolroom

A catchphrase used to express the great value of a gift, prize, object, etc. The idiom comes from the 1997 film The Castle in which the main character, Darryl Kerrigan (played by Michael Caton), says of gifts such as ‘a samurai-sword letter opener’ that ‘this is going straight to the poolroom’, suggesting it is so wonderful that it should be preserved as a trophy. First recorded in 1998.

2000 Sunday Mail (Adelaide) 21 May: Bravo! The great man signed a football for me and when I get home it's going straight to the pool room.

stubby

A short, squat beer bottle, especially one with a capacity of 375 ml. The bottle is stubby (short and thick) in comparison with the tall and slender 750 ml beer bottle. First recorded in 1965. The term stubby holder appears a few years later, to describe a casing made of an insulating material, in which a stubby is held (and kept cold) while the contents are being drunk. The expression a stubby short of a sixpack, recorded from the late 1990s, means ‘very stupid; insane’. It is an Australian variation of a common international idiom, typically represented by a sandwich short of a picnic. It combines the Australian stubby with the borrowed American sixpack (a pack of six cans of beer), demonstrating how readily Australian English naturalises Americanisms.

1966 J. Iggulden Summer’s Tales: Drinking beer from small, cold stubbies.

2005 Townsville Bulletin 12 November: The fact the affable brindle bitzer is a stubbie short of six pack might explain why one day he took on a stingray. No dog in his right mind would tackle a stingray, especially one at home in its own watery environment.

such is life

An expression of resignation; a philosophical acceptance of the bad things that happen in life. First recorded in 1896. This is a commonplace, but given significance in Australia because these words are popularly understood to be the last uttered by the bushranger Ned Kelly on the gallows in 1880. The expression was further popularised by its use as the title for Joseph Furphy’s famous novel about rural Australia (1903). Some claim that Kelly’s last words were in fact ‘Ah well, I suppose it has come to this’— not quite as memorable. For a discussion of such is life and other terms associated with Ned Kelly, see the article ‘Who’s Robbing this Coach? Ned Kelly and Australian English’ in our Ozwords newsletter from April 2009.

1918 W. Hay The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans: The tragic distresses of portions of our lives ... make at worst a pleasant interest for the young of future ages. Such is life!

2006 Sydney Morning Herald 1 July: It's the first time in my life that I've been sacked but such is life. My pride has been a bit dented.

swag

In early use, the collection of possessions and daily necessaries carried by a person travelling, usually on foot, in the bush; especially the blanket-wrapped roll carried on the back or across the shoulders by an itinerant worker. In later use, such a collection of possessions carried by a worker on a rural station, a camper, or a traveller to the city from a country area; a bed-roll. First recorded in 1836. The Australian sense of swag is a transferred use of swag from British thieves’ slang ‘a thief's plunder or booty’. The transfer of meaning (from the booty itself to the the booty and its container) is recorded by convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812 and published in his Memoirs in 1819. For more on this see the article ‘James Hardy Vaux: Pioneer Australian Lexicographer’ (page 6) in our Ozwords newsletter from April 2008.

1890 Bulletin (Sydney) 30 August:  Did you ever take 'the wallaby' along some dreary track
With that hideous malformation, called a swag, upon your back.

2006 R. Ellis Boats in the Desert: He slid out of it like a banana losing its peel. He began rummaging among his swag looking for something, and as he did so, I saw a brown snake slithering away from Jim's swag as fast as it could go.

The verb to swag meaning 'to carry one's swag' appears in the 1850s, and the compound swagman (a person who carries a swag; an itinerant worker, especially one in search of employment, who carries a swag; a vagrant) appears in the 1860s.

1996 B. Simpson Packhorse Drover: I remember clearly the sad procession of down-at-heel swagmen, many of them returned soldiers, who called at our place in the hope of getting a job or a handout.

For a discussion of other terms associated with swagmen, see the article ‘The Jolly Swagman’ on pages 6-7 of our Ozwords newsletter, October 2007.

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