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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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tall poppy

A person who is conspicuously successful, especially one who attracts envious notice or hostility. It is often said that Australians have a tendency to cut tall poppies down to size by denigrating them. It may have its origin in an obsolete 17th-century sense of the word poppy, meaning ‘a conspicuous or prominent person or thing, frequently with implication of likely humiliation’. This meaning of poppy is likely to refer to the Roman historian Livy’s account of Tarquinius Superbus, who silently showed how to deal with potential enemies by striking off the heads of the tallest poppies in his garden with a stick.

The Australian tall poppy is first recorded in 1871, and tall poppy syndrome, the practice of denigrating prominent or successful people, is recorded from 1983.

1894 Oakleigh Leader (Melbourne) 29 December: He would avert direct taxation on wealth by retrenching all the low paid civil servants, while carefully protecting the tall poppies who have very little to do.

2005 Sydney Morning Herald 12 March: How do colleagues know when I am having a go at Shane Warne?… They can see my fingers moving on the keyboard. Look, I try not to do it all the time, honest! But sometimes the compulsion just overwhelms me, as a hideous case of Tall Poppy Syndrome grabs me by the throat and, fair dinkum, makes me do it.

tart

A girlfriend or sweetheart; also applied generally to a girl or woman, implying admiration. This Australian sense of tart is recorded from 1892 through to the 1970s, but has now fallen out of use. It is likely to be an abbreviation of jam tart, itself probably rhyming slang for sweetheart.

1937 A.W. Upfield Mr Jelly’s Business: I’m in love with a tart. Her name’s Lucy Jelly. She is the loveliest girl within a thousand miles of Burracoppin.

1972 D. Sheahan Songs From The Canefields: If you fell in love and got on with a tart—’Twas happy she’d be to go out in a cart—And after the wedding she’d chatter for hours Of sight and scenes that she saw at the Towers.

Today a woman is likely to take offence if you call her a tart, since the two current meanings for a female tart are both derogatory: 1. a promiscuous woman or prostitute, and 2. an offensive slang term for a girl or woman. It wasn't always the case. For the best part of the last hundred years, calling a woman a tart in Standard English was not necessarily an insult, and both the positive and negative meanings of tart overlap for much of this time. However the use of tart to mean a girlfriend or sweetheart is unique to Australian English.

things are crook in Tallarook

A rhyming catchphrase used to indicate that things are bad or unpleasant. Its use often prompts a similar response from a listener, such as ‘but things are dead at Birkenhead’.Tallarook is the name of a small town in northern Victoria, and crook is used in the Australian sense ‘bad; inferior; unpleasant; unsatisfactory’. Things are crook in Tallarook is one of several similar phrases based on rhyming reduplication, including ‘there’s no work at Bourke’, ‘got the arse at Bulli Pass’, ‘no lucre at Echuca’, and ‘everything’s wrong at Wollongong’. They are sometimes thought to be associated with the Great Depression of the 1930s, when massive unemployment meant that many people travelled long distances looking for work. However, things are crook in Tallarook is not recorded until the early 1940s.

1988 H. Reade You’ll Die Laughing: How stiff can you get? No tube, no jack, no spare, no car, no bike, no ’phone, no hearse and no bloody undertaker! Things are crook in Tallarook.

2005 Newcastle Herald 26 February (Weekender Section): ‘Things are crook in Tallarook’ was a well-worn exclamation from World War II diggers when they found themselves in a sticky situation.

tickets: to have tickets on yourself

To have an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or value; to be conceited. The evidence for this phrase dates from 1904. It became popular around the time of the First World War, and increasingly so into the 1920s and 30s. The original meaning of the word ticket is uncertain, but it probably refers to betting tickets (a person is so confident in their ability that they would bet on himself or herself). Other suggestions have included raffle tickets, price tags (especially the kind that used to be displayed on the outfit of mannequins in shop windows), or prize ribbons awarded at agricultural shows.

1945 Townsville Daily Bulletin 28 November: Entered a haughty lady with enough rings on her fingers to open a jeweller's shop. One glance convinced me she had ‘tickets on herself’, and in her own mind believed she was superior to the others in the compartment.

2001 Australian (Sydney) 26 September: Freeman is often portrayed as a shy, humble athlete, but she professed the opposite to be true. ‘I think I have always had the overwhelming audacity to believe I could win. I always had tickets on myself, I just didn't speak about it publicly’, she said.

trackie daks

Tracksuit trousers. Trackie is a colloquial term for tracksuit, chiefly used in Australia and Britain and recorded from the 1980s. The word daks began as a proprietary name (trademarked in the 1930s) for a brand of trousers. In Australia daks became used as a generic term for trousers from the 1960s. The two words appear in the compound trackie daks in 1993 and, whether you love them or deride them as daggy, they are Australia’s favourite leisure wear.

1997 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 7 August: Scott Blackwell pops on his trackie daks to write a dag's guide to the Ekka.

2001 Australian (Sydney) 12 May: I like to think she eases herself into some comfy old trackie daks.

troppo: go troppo

To become mentally disturbed; to go crazy or wild. Troppo is formed by the abbreviation of tropic and the addition of –o, and it demonstrates a common Australian way of altering words. The phrase to go troppo was first used by Australian troops in the Pacific during the Second World War, and arose from the idea that long exposure to tropical conditions affected your sanity. It is now used in various contexts.

1945 G. Powell Two Steps To Tokyo: I might have wondered at what stage I had reached in the process of going ‘troppo’. It was a common saying with us that a man was beginning to go ‘troppo’ when he started talking to the lizards.

1994 M. Colman In A League Of Their Own: This was in the middle of the Whitlam government's darkest days and the crowd has gone absolutely troppo when Gough's walked out.

true blue

Very genuine, very loyal; expressing Australian values; Australian. This derives from a  British English sense of true blue, recorded from the 17th century with the meaning ‘faithful, staunch, unwavering in one's commitments or principles; extremely loyal’. Later it also came to mean ‘staunchly conservative’ in a political sense. In Australia true blue expressed a completely different political ideal; the earliest records of the Australian sense date from the 1890s and mean ‘loyal to workers and union values’.

1897 Worker (Sydney) 18 September: Reports from the sheds are cheering, both reps. and men being of the sort called ‘true blue’.

This sense is overtaken in the last decades of the 20th century by a more general use of true blue to refer to something or someone that expresses Australian values, or is very genuine or loyal.

2006 Townsville Bulletin 6 January: The two married after dating for two years. Both were barely 20, she Canadian, he true blue Aussie.

Although true blue is not exclusively Australian, it is of special interest in Australia, and used here without the connotations of conservatism that are usually present elsewhere. For an earlier, detailed discussion of the history of the term from medieval times, see the article ‘How True Blue is True Blue?’ (page 5) in our Ozwords newsletter from October 1996.

turps: on the turps

Drinking heavily. Turps is an abbreviation of turpentine, and is recorded in Australian English from the 1860s with the meaning ‘alcoholic liquor’. It alludes to the use of spirits such as turps and methylated spirits by down-and-out alcoholics. In the earliest uses of the phrase on the turps the alcohol referred to is a spirit such as gin or rum, but more recently it has referred to any kind of alcoholic drink, especially beer.

1968 D. O’Grady A Bottle of Sandwiches: He’s a bastard when he gets on the turps.

2006 Australian (Sydney) 14 June: Drinking coffee after a night on the turps might do more than help you sober up—it could also slash your risk of developing cirrhosis of the liver.

two-up

A gambling game in which two coins are tossed in the air and bets laid as to whether both will fall heads or tails uppermost. It is first recorded in 1855. The two coins, traditionally pre-decimal currency pennies, are placed tails up on a flat board called the kip. The ring-keeper (the person in charge of the two-up ring) calls come in spinner, and the spinner tosses the coins. Two-up was popular with Australian soldiers during the First World War, and has become associated with the Anzacs. The game is traditionally played on Anzac Day, 25 April, in hotels and RSL clubs. For further discussion of two-up, see the article ‘The Language of Two Up’ in our Ozwords newletter from October 2010.

1893 Western Champion (Barcaldine) 27 June: The men were amusing themselves on the ‘off-day’ by playing cards, &c., one group playing ‘two-up’.

2007 Canberra Times 26 April: Ms Brill joined about 100 people yesterday at the club's outdoor two-up ring to watch punters empty their wallets and pint glasses during the traditional Anzac game.

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