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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.

ocker

An uncouth, uncultivated, or aggressively boorish Australian male, stereotypically Australian in speech and manner; a typical or average Australian male. Ocker is also used as an adjective meaning characteristically Australian; uncouth, uncultured, or aggressively boorish in a stereotypically Australian manner.

In Australia ocker has been used as a nickname and familiar form of address for a man since the early 20th century. Originally the nickname was applied to a person named Oscar, but its application widened through the 20th century as this quotation demonstrates:

Traveller, arriving late at the airport to find the flight fully booked, was told by the cheerful airline worker: 'Sorry, ocker, the Fokker's chocker'. (Northern Territory News, 25 August 1982)

But we need to turn the 1960s for the more derogatory use of ocker. And we need to turn to the world of Australian television. In the Mavis Bramston Show (1963-68) Ron Frazer (1924-83) played the character Ocker. Gerry Wilkes in Exploring Australian English, writes:

The talented comedian Ron Frazer appeared in a series of TV sketches from which I retain a mental picture of him leaning on a bar, speaking with a broad Australian accent, probably wearing shorts and thongs, and periodically sinking a glass of beer. As that character was called 'Ocker', ocker became the name of the type.

Soon after this, the word was used as a derisive nickname for a person who exploits an exaggerated Australian nationalism. Thus in King's Cross Whisper, 1969, we find:

Sir Ocker Fairfax, leader of the famous Foot and Mouth Jumping Brigade, received his gong for devising Operation Skippy.

Ocker is usually applied to men but there is evidence for the feminine forms ockerette and ockerina from the 1970s. Ocker is still commonly heard in Australian English although the word bogan is now more common in some contexts.

oil

Information or news. This is a figurative use of oil as the substance essential to the running of a machine, and it was first recorded during the First World War.

1916 Anzac Records Gazette (Alexandria, Egypt), 4 March: An acquaintance greets you with ... ‘What’s the oil’.

1941 K.S. Prichard Moon of Desire: Like to come down to the saddling paddock… If there’s any oil about for the next race, we may as well have it.

2000 S. Maloney Big Ask: He put his plate down, as if the subject had ruined his appetite, parked his elbows on the table and gave me the oil.

Oil is often found in the terms dinkum oil and good oil, both also occurring in the context of the First World War. In wartime the camps and trenches were rife with rumour, and the soldiers’ thirst for accurate information is reflected in these terms. Dinkum is  an Australianism meaning ‘reliable’ or ‘genuine', and dinkum oil means ‘reliable information’ or ‘an accurate report’. For more information about dinkum oil and other words from the Gallipoli campaign, see our blog Anzac: Words from Gallipoli.

1915 Argus (Melbourne) 9 June: Gallipoli… Our lads commenced to pinch themselves to make sure they were really under fire. They had been disappointed so often that now they could hardly believe they had the real thing. I heard one man say, ‘Saida the dinkum oil at last; no more furpheys;’ and that was the feeling all round.

2014 Sydney Morning Herald 14 July: What you write about your life in your autobiography is a little like what you say when under oath. When you call that autobiography This is My Life it is a further affirmation that what I am telling you is the dinkum oil.

The good oil means ‘reliable, and therefore welcome, information’.

1918 Gippsland Times (Sale) 20 May: I have never left my unit since I joined, only a ten days' Blighty leave. Next leave will consist of 14 days. It will soon be four years for me, and I can give you the good oil—Australia will do me!

2010 J. Elias Sin Bin: It wouldn't have been too hard to get the good oil from his New South Wales colleagues. Bennett, however, didn't say a word to me about anything aside from football.

on the sheep’s back

A phrase used to allude to wool as the source of Australia’s national prosperity. The notion is often expressed as riding on the sheep’s back, and sometimes as living off the sheep’s back. For much of Australia’s recent history wool has been the basis of the national economy and the country’s major export. The first wool exports from Australia to Britain began in the 1820s, and the industry boomed throughout the 19th century and beyond. Despite setbacks such as drought, world war, and depression, wool continued its traditional dominance until the mid-20th century.

1924 Sydney Morning Herald 30 July: Australia, said Mr Dunbabin, might be on the sheep's back to-day, but in its infancy it was for some time on the whale's back. It was whale oil, whale bone, sealskins, and seal oil that provided the first important export staples of Australia.

1965 G. McInnes Road to Gundagai: We were reminded by politicians and editors, and of course at school, ad nauseum, that Australia ‘lives off the sheep’s back’.

2014 Weekly Times (Melbourne) 16 July 84/1 So Australia may still be riding on the sheep's back, but clearly it's what's under the fleece that is gaining more and more attention.

on the wallaby

The word wallaby (used to describe many smaller marsupials of the family Macropididae) is a borrowing into English from the Sydney Aboriginal language. It first appears in written form in 1793.

The term wallaby track is first used to describe the path worn by a wallaby:

1846 J.L. Stokes Discoveries in Australia:  In some parts of the tall scrub were wallaby tracks.

By the late 1840s the term had been transferred to the route followed by a person who journeys through the country, especially in search of seasonal work. It often occurs in the phrase on the wallaby track and in in the abbreviated form on the wallaby:

1849 Stephen's Adelaide Miscellany:  The police themselves are usually well-treated in the bush.. they make a 'round' through the district, and get a meal at every hut, and one man from every said hut (besides those mobs on the 'wallaby track') stops for a night at the police-station in return.

1893 J.A. Barry Steve Brown's Bunyip:  I'm on the wallaby, looking for shearing, and, worse luck, haven't got no gold.

1932 J. Truran Green Mallee:  South Australia was still a long way off; too far for sore feet that were not used to the wallaby-track.

2000 C. Walker Buried Country: Harry, Wilga says 'was more or less a drifter'. He left Sydney, went on the wallaby again.

The phrase on the wallaby is also commonly found in a transferred and figurative sense meaning 'on the move' or 'on the road':

1918 7th Field Artillery Brigade Yandoo: Next morning, the Brigade was on the 'wallaby'.

2005 Cairns Post 18 August: As a local in my 60s, managing on a pension, last year I set off on my life's dream of going 'on the wallaby' around Australia.

Oz

Australia. The word Oz reproduces in writing the pronunciation of an abbreviation of Aussie, Australia, or Australian. The first evidence appears as Oss in 1908, and this form is likely to rhyme with boss. Overwhelmingly the later evidence is for the Oz spelling, with the final sound pronounced as ‘z’. (Occasionally the word is written as Aus, but pronounced the same way as Oz.) It is possible that the form Oz was influenced by The Wizard of Oz, a film that gained worldwide popularity following its release in 1939. The first record of Oz meaning ‘Australia’ appears not long after this in 1944, in the context of a wartime troop newsletter:

1944 Barging About: Organ of the 43rd Australian Landing Craft Co. 1 September: All the tribes of Oz did gather together.

1971 B. Humphries Bazza Pulls It Off: If they guess I’m from Oz the shit will really hit the fan!

2001 Outback August: We both hope to return to Oz shortly.

Oz is also used as an adjective, meaning ‘Australian’, and this is recorded from the early 1970s.

1972 Bulletin (Sydney) 10 June: The Oz habit of shaking hands while looking away at an angle of ninety degrees.

2005 Sydney Morning Herald 22 July (Metro Supplement): The vocals veer from fast-paced raps to more introspective spoken word, the Oz accent adding a distinct flavour.

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