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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.

factory

A prison for the confinement of female convicts. Also known as a female factory. The first such factory was established in 1804 at Parramatta in New South Wales. It was a place of punishment, a labour and marriage agency for the colony, and a profit-making textiles factory where women made convict clothing and blankets. There were eight other factories in the Australian convict settlements.

1806 Sydney Gazette 13 July: Catharine Eyres .. ordered to the Factory at Parramatta for the term of six months.

1832 Colonial Times (Hobart) 21 August: The lass I adore, the lass for me, Is a lass in the Female Factory.

fair go

A reasonable chance, a fair deal: small business didn’t get a fair go in the last budget. Australia often sees itself as an egalitarian society, the land of the fair go, where all citizens have a right to fair treatment. It is often used as an exclamation: fair go Kev, give the kids a turn! Sometimes it expresses disbelief: fair go—the tooth fairy? For further discussion of this term see the article 'Australia - the land of the fair go' on our blog.

1891 Brisbane Courier 25 March: The reason the shearers disappeared is that a large number of warrants have been issued for their arrest ... Both men turned pale, but struggled, calling out, 'Read the warrants to us first'. Inspector Ahern said, 'You can hear them later', and the police seized the prisoners. Both appealed to Mr. Ranking, crying out, 'Do you call this a fair go, Mr. Ranking?'

2011 Townsville Bulletin 27 August: Voting for same-sex marriage is a vote for equality, and a vote for a fair go for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians.

fairy bread

Slices of bread cut into triangles, buttered and sprinkled with tiny, coloured sugar balls called ‘hundreds and thousands’. Fairy bread is frequently served at children’s parties in Australia. The name possibly comes from the poem ‘Fairy Bread’ in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse, published in 1885. First recorded from the 1920s.

1929 Mercury (Hobart) 25 April: The children will start their party with fairy bread and butter and 100's and 1,000's, and cakes, tarts, and home-made cakes.

2001 U. Dubosarsky Fairy Bread: The morning of the party, Becky and her mother were in the kitchen making fairy bread. Her baby brother sat on the floor eating the bits that fell off the table.

fair suck of the sauce bottle

Steady on, be reasonable. This is one of several variations on the Australian exclamation ‘fair go’. It expresses a keen sense of injustice - 'fair suck of the sauce bottle, mate, I’m only asking for a loan till payday!' The phrase was probably originally used with reference to sauce bottle meaning 'a bottle of alcoholic liquor'. In 2006 Australian opposition leader Kevin Rudd famously used a variant of the phrase: 'fair shake of the sauce bottle'. Sometimes ‘saveloy’ or ‘sav’ is substituted for ‘sauce bottle’. The phrase ‘fair crack of the whip’ has the same meaning. Fair suck of the sauce bottle is first recorded in the 1970s. For a further discussion of the origin of the phrase see the article 'Folk Etymology in Australian English' in our Ozwords newsletter.

1986 Canberra Times 4 July: Come on NRMA, fair suck of the sauce bottle.

2006 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 13 May: In the never-ending search for justice and a fair suck of the sauce bottle, the Payneful Truth asks this week why Peter Costello's Federal Budget again ignored footy fans and let the price of a beer at the MCG stay at a ridiculous $5.20 for 425ml.

feral

As elsewhere, in Australia feral describes a domesticated animal that has gone wild. But in Australia the adjective has another meaning '(especially of a person) wild, uncontrolled; unconventional; outside the conventional bounds of society; dirty, scruffy. Feral is also used as a noun to mean 'a person living outside the conventional bounds of society; a wild or uncontrolled person. The Australian senses of the adjective and noun are first recorded in the 1980s.

(adj.) 1986 Sun (Melbourne) 27 October: The last of the so-called 'feral' women who kept vigil outside Parliament House for two weeks packed up and went home yesterday ... The women clashed with media crews and politicians in a series of well-documented incidents ... They were quite happy with the 'feral' tag. 'I really like it, in fact', one woman said. 'Untamed, not domesticated - that's what it means to us.'

(n.) 1995 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 7 January: A haven for alternative lifestylers, Sydney yuppies and scruffy 'ferals', Byron Bay's main beach is one of the major reasons people are drawn to this town every summer.

(adj.) 2012 Northern Daily Leader (Tamworth) 4 June: They are feral lowdown scum and should be portrayed as such. They have invaded people's homes and maliciously destroyed victims' property.

firie

A firefighter. Firie follows a common pattern in Australian informal English whereby a word is abbreviated (in this case firefighter or fireman) and the -ie (or -y) suffix is added. Other examples include barbie (a barbecue), Chrissy (Christmas), and rellie (a relative). Firie is recorded from the 1980s.

1998 Manly Daily 16 October: It turned out someone, who also lives around the Warringah Mall area, had called the firies after thinking a shop was alight.

2014 Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 5 November: The firies came close to saving the home but it does have some extensive damage.

flash as a rat with a gold tooth

Ostentatious, showy and a bit too flashily dressed. This phrase is usually used of a man, and implies that although he may be well-dressed and well-groomed, there is also something a bit dodgy about him. In spite of a superficial smartness, he is not to be trusted. In spite of the gold tooth, he is still a rat. First recorded in the 1970s.

1978 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 27 August: Eddie is the ultimate lurk-man ... Eddie is as flash as a rat with a gold tooth.

2006 D. McNab Dodger: What brought him unstuck were his brazen schemes and lavish lifestyle. He was as flash as a rat with a gold tooth.

flat out like a lizard drinking

Extremely busy, at top speed. This is word play on two different meanings of the standard English ‘flat out’. The literal sense is to lie fully stretched out (like a lizard), and the figurative sense means as fast as possible. The phrase also alludes to the rapid tongue-movement of a drinking lizard. It is sometimes shortened, as in ‘we’re flat out like a lizard trying to meet the deadline’. First recorded in the 1930s.

1952 Meanjin: I've been flat out like a lizard since eight o'clock this morning.

2006 Townsville Bulletin 3 January: Dr Low was the only orthopaedic surgeon working in Townsville over the break and according to hospital sources was flat out like a lizard drinking.

fossick

To search or rummage for something. In the Cornish dialect, fossick means ‘to obtain by asking, to ferret out’. Cornish miners probably brought the term to Australia in the 1850s and used it to describe their search for gold. Australia inherited a number of mining terms from the Cornish, but they remain very specialised, and fossick is the only one to move out into the wider speech community.

1871 Emigrant's Wife II: I goes over to where he had thrown it, and takes out my knife and stoops down to fossick among it.

2011 L. Heidke Claudia's Big Break: 'Okay, we get the picture', said Sophie as she fossicked around in her enormous bag in search of boarding passes.

Fremantle doctor

A cool sea breeze which brings relief on a hot summer’s day. A wind blowing inland late in the day is a welcome feature of the climate in Western Australia’s south-west. Like Fremantle, many towns have given it a local name. Albany, Geraldton, Esperance, Eucla and Perth all have their doctor. The term derives from the figurative application of doctor in the West Indies to 'a cool sea breeze which usually prevails during part of the day in summer', and in South Africa to 'a strong, blustery south-east wind prevailing at the Cape', from doctor 'any agent that gives or preserves health'. Fremantle doctor is recorded from the 1870s.

1873 Herald (Fremantle) 4 January: Three or four days of a fierce westerly wind, succeeded by a strong, cool sea breeze - known up the country as the Fremantle doctor.

2002 Canberra Times 26 December: The only thing that has really taken me aback .. has been Brett Lee. At Perth, with the Fremantle Doctor up his arse, he was seriously quick.

furphy

A rumour or false report; an absurd story. Furphy comes from the name of a firm, J. Furphy & Sons Pty. Ltd., who operated a foundry at Shepparton, Victoria, and manufactured water carts - the name Furphy appeared on these carts. The term probably originated at the Broadmeadows army camp in Melbourne as a transfer from the name of the carts to the typical gossip of soldiers at sites serviced by these carts during the period of the First World War. Furphy is first recorded in 1915.

1915 J. Treloar Anzac Diary 3 February: Today’s 'furphy', for never a day goes by without at least one being created, was about lights being prohibited in camp on account of the possibility of German airship raid. Some of the troops do not suffer from lack of imagination.

2014 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 22 September: In the age of instant gratification, rampant consumerism and materialism, men and women are being sold a series of furphies about love.

Updated: 30 July 2016/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher