Skip navigation
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.


Flashily dressed; showy; socially unacceptable. The term is a transferred use of British slang lairy (or leery) meaning 'knowing, conceited'. Our first evidence for the term comes from 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. 'Silk' rag around neck.

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 square of sponge cake coated in chocolate icing and desiccated coconut. The origin of this term has been hotly debated. The cake is popularly associated with the name of Charles Wallace Baillie, Baron Lamington (1860-1940), Governor of Queensland (1895-1901), and although the dates of the earliest recipes line up with the governership, the attribution does not appear until the 1970s. The early New Zealand evidence has a variety of spellings including leamington and lemmington, which may point to a different origin. For a further discussion about the possible origins of this term see the article 'Lords and Lamingtons' on our blog.

1924 Argus (Melbourne) 3 September: The icing may be poured over the lamingtons, but it is simpler to dip the cake into the icing.

2006 West Australian (Perth) 24 May: They jostle for space with tarts and pies and panini and sour-dough rolls and giant cupcakes and biodynamic everything ... And you look at it and say to yourself, 'God, I could murder a lamington'.


A person who acts with apparently careless disregard for social or political conventions; a person who is unsophisticated but likeable and good-hearted, 'a rough diamond'; a joker. This well-known Australian term is recorded from the 1890s, but originally the term was quite pejorative. From the 1860s into the early 20th century a larrikin was 'a young urban rough, especially a member of a street gang; a hooligan'. The term comes from British dialect larrikin 'a mischievous or frolicsome youth', ultimately a form of larking (about) 'indulging in mischievous fun', also attested in British dialect as larack about. For a more detailed discussion about larrikins in Australian history see the article 'The Leary Larrikin' in our newsletter Ozwords.

1891 Truth (Sydney) 15 March: Jackeroos .. are such fun, and vary, from the sensible one, in a fair way for promotion, to the larrikin, who will either sling station life or hump the swag.

1997 T. Ferguson Left, Right and Centre: They appealed to the irreverence of the Australian spirit, the larrikin in us all.


A system of payment whereby a purchaser puts a deposit on an article which is then reserved by the retailer until the full price is paid. The retailer lays the article by until payment is complete. The lay-by system first appeared in the early 20th century. By the mid-20th century, shops extolled customers to ‘Lay-by now!’ but the introduction of credit cards in the 1970s has slowly changed buying patterns. Lay-by is also used as a verb.

1918 Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) 20 April: In the leading business establishments of Sydney a system of purchase, called the 'lay by' has been introduced ... It is said that the storerooms of most of the drapery establishments in Sydney are filled to their utmost capacity with things being bought on the 'lay by' system.

2013 Australian (Sydney) 1 October: He was hopeful of a rebound in spending on toys in the lead-up to Christmas, after a poor mid-year sales period when parents traditionally begin buying toys on lay-by ahead of the festive season.

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. Fraser first used the phrase in his 1971 Alfred Deakin Lecture. 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 (from his 1921 work Back to Methuselah) is 'life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful’.

1985 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 4 June: Life wasn’t meant to be easy for Labor Governments.

2013 Age (Melbourne) 19 January: Follow your instincts and impulses. Forget that masochistic 'no pain, no gain; life wasn't meant to be easy' rot.

light on the hill

The phrase is used allusively to refer to the ideals 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.

1967 R.G. Menzies Afternoon Light: The Socialist objective, his 'light on the hill', must not be blotted out or obscured in this way.

2013 Australian (Sydney) 18 November: Labor remains .. the party of labour. Trapped in its myths, it invests itself with a historic mission of leading 'working people' to the 'light on the hill': a light whose glare now serves mainly to hide corrupt deals and tarnished ideals.

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 the 1970s.

1974 Australian Women's Weekly (Sydney) 19 June: Known far and wide as 'the little Aussie battler', Ernie Sigley battles on regardless with his undoubted talent and the team of regulars on his entertaining show.

2003 Illawarra Mercury (Wollongong) 19 February: He was the little Aussie battler who pushed his mower from suburb to suburb when his van was repossessed because he had too many freeloaders on the books.

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