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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.


Lairy is widely used in Australia to mean either `flashily dressed, showy' or `socially unacceptable'. Lairy is thought to have come into Australian English around the end of the nineteenth century from the British slang term leery, meaning `wide awake, knowing, sharp, streetwise'.

The Australian National Dictionary records the first written use of the term as September 1898 when the Melbourne journal, Tocsin, described someone thus: Height, about 5' 6 1/2in.; style `lairy'. Shop made suit, tight fit and cheap. Flower in slouched hat, well over eyes...

The precise spelling of lairy was not immediately apparent, and for many years the variants leary and leery were common. These appear now to have faded away. Despite the uncertainty of its spelling, lairy nonetheless quickly became a standard term in Australian English, and, from the early twentieth century, writers felt able to use it without the need for quotation marks. In 1907 for example C.W. Chandler wrote in Darkest Adelaide: Sitting on the seat with him was a nice specimen of the Australian larrikin. Not so leery, perhaps, as his prototypes of Melbourne and Sydney, but a choice specimen of his class nevertheless.

The popularity of the adjective lairy quickly spawned a noun and a verb to match. The noun lair, meaning `one who displays vulgarity, esp. in dress or behaviour; a show-off; a larrikin' was in use by the 1920s as in C.E. Sayers, Jumping Double: A hit behind the ear from one of those back street lairs. And it remains in use today, often in the collocation mug lair, applied to someone supposed to be both stupid and vulgar, as in the description published in The Australian in August 1982 of a particular Carlton half-forward flanker as `a mug lair and a show pony.'

The verb lair is most frequently used as a verb phrase in combination with up to mean `behave in the manner of a lair,' and has produced another adjectival use as in G. Savage, The House Tibet (1989): At Legal Aid I got landed with this callous bitch all laired up with these big shoulder pads and earrings like baby crocodiles.

By the 1950s the verb had produced a new extended form, lairise, with an identical meaning. In 1960 for example the Northern Territory News commented: All they seem to think of these days is lairizing around in ten-gallon hats, flash, colored shirts, gabardine riding breeches and polished riding boots chasing a bit of fluff. And in 1987 The Australian, in its description of a football match, said: Certain players... instead of doing the percentage things... turned it into a bit of show-off time and started lairising.


A way of purchasing something by making a deposit and paying instalments, without interest, until the full amount is paid. The retailer lays the article by until payment is complete. The lay-by system first appeared in 1926. By the 1960s, shops extolled customers to ‘Lay-by now!’ but the introduction of credit cards in the 1970s changed buying patterns.

life wasn’t meant to be easy

A catchphrase popularised by Malcolm Fraser (Prime Minister 1975–83) and later attributed by him to the British playwright George Bernard Shaw. The phrase is now used as a stock response to complaints or whinges of any kind—‘I have to take the kids to soccer training every night this week’. ‘Well, life wasn’t meant to be easy!’ Shaw’s full quotation is 'life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful’.

light on the hill

A symbol of the political objectives of the Australian Labor party. In 1949 Prime Minister Ben Chifley spoke of the Labor goal of social justice as ‘the light on the hill, which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind’. Since then the light on the hill has become a catchphrase in Australian politics, used to evoke traditional Labor values.

little Aussie battler

In Australia a battler is a person who struggles for a livelihood, and who displays great determination in so doing. This sense is first recorded in 1896 in a Henry Lawson story. Such a person is now often described as a little Aussie battler, a phrase first recorded in 1979.

long paddock

A public road with grass edge that is used by graziers to feed stock. The long paddock is used extensively in times of drought to keep animals alive. ‘On William Hovell Drive, to enable the cattle to find some feed in these difficult times using the ''long paddock principle'', a farmer has electrified an area on the side of the road for the protection of their stock to allow them to graze.’ (Canberra Times 19 February 2007). The term was first recorded in 1929.

Updated: 1 September 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher