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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.

pavlova

A meringue dessert with a soft centre, topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit. It was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured Australia and New Zealand in 1926 to great acclaim. The pavlova (also formerly called pavlova cake) is claimed as a national dessert by both countries, and there has been much discussion about where it was invented. It is clear that the term pavlova is first recorded in New Zealand in 1927, but in this instance it refers to a moulded, multi-layered jelly dessert. The first New Zealand reference to the more familiar meringue dessert occurs in a 1933 cookery book. The first Australian reference to the classic dish occurs two years later. The shape and appearance of the pavlova may originally have been intended to suggest a ballerina’s tutu.

1935 Advocate (Burnie) 14 September: There are several different varieties of Pavlova cake. The most elaborate consists of alternate layers of meringue, marshmallow, whipped cream and fruit filling, piled high to make the most luxurious party dish.

2004 Northern Territory News (Darwin) 11 November: His signature dish is an emu egg pavlova.

If the Kiwis can claim the first evidence for pavlova, Australia can claim the first evidence of the common abbreviation pav, first recorded in 1966.

2013 Sydney Morning Herald 21 December: Swap the Christmas pud for a great big festive trifle stuffed with fresh fruit and jelly or a pav oozing with cream and raspberries.

pineapple: to get the rough end of the pineapple

To get a raw deal, or to receive unfair or inequitable treatment. The force of the phrase derives partly from the fact that either end of a pineapple is ‘rough’, although the end with the prickly leaves is very rough indeed. This expression is recorded first in 1959, and the early evidence is for the form to get the wrong end of the pineapple. From the 1970s onwards the ‘rough end’ takes over from the ‘wrong end’ as the more common form of the expression. The equivalent American saying is ‘to get the fuzzy end of the lollypop’.

1961 R. Lawler Piccadilly Bushman: He’ll know what I mean when I talk of getting the wrong end of the pineapple.

2013 Sydney Morning Herald 23 October: We welcomed the byelection so we could send you the message: we don't support a government that is giving us the rough end of the pineapple.

plonk

Wine, or fortified wine, of poor quality; more generally, wine or alcohol of any kind.  It is possible that this word has its origin with Australian soldiers serving in France in the First World War.  Plonk is likely to be an altered form of the French word ‘blanc’ in vin blanc, ‘white wine’. Soldiers may have pronounced this as van blonk, further transforming it into plonk. Evidence of the period records other similar names used by soldiers for wine based on the French vin blanc: point blank, von blink, plink, plink-plonk, and plinkety-plonk. The Australian word plonk has now spread to other Englishes. It is first recorded in 1919, and is now often used of cheap or poor quality wine.

1927 News (Adelaide) 8 December: ‘Give us a definition of “plonk”?’ asked Mr McMillan. ‘Yes, I can do that’, replied the obliging Mr Collins. ‘It is a cheap wine produced in Mr Crosby's district.’

1992 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 5 July 30/1 My local plonk shop where I am caught browsing through the Australian white wine section by one of the counter-jumpers.

2007 A. Agar Queensland Ringer: It is not plonk. It is good red South Australian wine.

For more on words related to wine drinking, see our blog ‘Wine in Australian English’.

pokies

Poker machines. Pokies are coin or card-operated. The punter presses a button or pulls a lever to spin the wheel, and the machine pays out, if you’re lucky, according to the combination of symbols that appear on the wheel. Known elsewhere as slot machines, fruit machines, or one-armed bandits, pokies are commonplace in Australian pubs and clubs, and a substantial revenue raiser. The first State in Australia to legalise this form of gambling was New South Wales in 1956. The term pokies is first recorded in 1964.

1965 I. Hamilton Persecutor: I always know how much I lose on the pokies.

2007 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 27 March: The Prince Alfred Hotel in Church St, Richmond, is on the market, and some fear it may be turned into a pokies venue. But if the new owners try to get pokies in they will have a huge fight on their hands.

pom

A British person, especially one from England. (Originally applied to an immigrant from the British Isles.) The word pom has its origin in wordplay. An early, derisory term for an immigrant in Australia was the rhyming slang jimmygrant (sometimes written as Jimmy Grant), recorded in 1844. Jimmygrant was further abbreviated in the 1870s to jimmy:

1878 Australian Town & Country Journal (Sydney) 6 July: The country was worth living in, not like it is now, overstocked with ‘jimmies’—a lot of useless trash.

By 1912 another rhyming slang term for ‘immigrant’ had appeared: pomegranate (also written as pommygranate and Pommy Grant). In the same year the first evidence for two abbreviations of pomegranatepom and pommy—can also be found. Pomegranate (along with its variants) and jimmygrant coexisted for some time:

1912 Truth (Sydney) 22 December: Now they call ’em ‘Pomegranates’ and the Jimmygrants don’t like it.

1916 W.C. Watson The Memoirs of a Ship’s Fireman: As I hailed from the Old Dart, I of course, in their estimation, was an immigrant, hence the curl up of the lip. But ‘pommygrant’ or ‘jimmygrant’, they always had a helping hand for me.

Eventually the term pomegranate replaced jimmygrant, and later was itself replaced by the abbreviations pom and pommy:

1920 H.J. Rumsey Pommies (Introduction): The title that I have selected for the book: ‘The Pommies’ is now a common name for recent arrivals from Britain. During the last few weeks, I have scores of times heard the Prince of Wales affectionately described as a ‘dear little pommy’.

1923 Bulletin (Sydney) 12 July: It was a Pommy bloke wot put me wise. I was in Snotty Padger’s bar one day ’Avin’ a quiet couple wiv the flies When Pom. lobs in.

1984 B. Dixon Searching for Aboriginal Languages: The weatherbeaten, red faces of the cattlemen sitting on stools around the bar all slowly swivelled and surveyed me. ‘Pommy!’ ejaculated one of them. I was made to feel that no one had ever asked for a gin and tonic in that pub before.

2013 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 29 July: The birth of a future King of England is nice for the Poms and Anglophiles but it has no relevance on who will be a future president of the republic of Australia.

There are a number of incorrect theories about the origin of pom. The most common suggests it is an acronym for Prisoner of Mother England, variously described as being stamped on convict clothing or scratched on the walls of prison cells by convicts. There is no evidence whatever to support this notion.

Today the use of pom and pommy to refer to an English person is common and widespread. These words can be used with good humour or in a derogatory way, but at the core they still imply a degree of ‘us and them’ mentality. The term whingeing pom, first recorded in 1962, embodies this. It refers to an English person, especially a migrant, who is regarded as a habitual complainer.

1967 Canberra Times 31 March: Many English people are castigated as ‘whinging Poms’, and it behoves Mr Crawford to pack his bags and go if life in Australia is so distasteful.

2014 Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 20 September (Home Supplement): He became an Australian citizen in his second year. ‘I decided early on I would never be a whingeing Pom and we were convinced that living here was brilliant’, he says.

pork chop: to carry on like a pork chop

To behave foolishly, to make a fuss, to complain, or to rant. This expression is often thought to allude to the spluttering noise of a pork chop that is being fried. However it is probably a variant of the older expression like a pork chop in a synagogue, meaning something that is unpopular, unlikely, or rare (with reference to the Jewish prohibition of the eating of pork). To carry on like a pork chop is first recorded in 1975.

2002 Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) 10 November: The Australian sports public are a forgiving lot. Ask Lleyton Hewitt. Or Shane Warne. Here are a couple of champions who, on several occasions, have carried on like pork chops.

2003 E. Vercoe Keep Your Hair On: She's a beautiful woman, your mother, but by God can she carry on like a pork chop about nothing.

possum: stir the possum

To excite interest or controversy; to liven things up. This phrase is first recorded in 1888, and probably developed as the obverse of the phrase to play possum meaning ‘to pretend to be asleep or unconscious when threatened’ (in imitation of an opossum’s supposed behaviour).

1949 R. Park Poor Man’s Orange: A mission was like a tonic. It stirred the ’possum in the people, and for months afterwards they could still feel the enthusiasm.

2006 Advertiser (Adelaide) 11 November: Professor Seddon said his talk was deliberately designed to ‘stir the possum’ and generate discussion.

prawn

A fool; also used as a general term of abuse. It is a figurative use of the word prawn, an edible crustacean (high on Australia’s list of favourite foods). The Australian sense of ‘fool’  is first recorded in 1893.

1944 L. Glassop We were the Rats: What an odious prawn this Anderson is, I thought.

2013 S. Thorne Bonzer: I would have loved her to put in a day now and then at the new tuckshop… But she wouldn't, because she thought the woman who ran it was a ‘prawn’.

The term raw prawn, recorded from 1940, is based on this. It means 'an act of deception; a "swiftie"; an unfair action or circumstance, a rough deal’. It derives from the notion of something that is difficult to swallow.

1954 Queensland Guardian (Brisbane) 20 January: Snow says he thinks that this is the raw prawn. We do all the work, the mob behind Menzies gets all the dough.

2012 Sydney Morning Herald 10 March (News Review Section): I can't find one person who expects to get a parental leave scheme that provides full pay. If there's something we hate more than blatant, vote-grabbing profligacy, it's when someone tries to sell us a raw prawn.

Today raw prawn is most often heard in the idiom to come the raw prawn, meaning 'to attempt to deceive, or treat like a fool; to misrepresent a situation’. It is typically used in negative constructions, especially as don't come the raw prawn with me (‘don’t try to treat me like a fool’). It is first recorded in 1942.

1973 Woman's Day (Sydney) 26 March: `Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate,' he said. `I can get it back home at Woollies for that price.'

2000 B. Lunney Gone Bush: ‘Don't come the raw prawn with me. Look at those mudflats out there’, I said to him. I was only fourteen years old at the time and remembered thinking, he's having a go at me and must think I'm a dope.

public servant

A person employed by a government authority; a member of a State or Territory public service, or the Australian Public Service. It is the Australian term for the standard English civil servant. Public servant has its origin in Australia’s history as a penal colony. Unease about the word convict led to the creation of euphemistic terms, including government man and public servant (both recorded from 1797). The convict public servant was assigned to public labour.

1799 D. Collins An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (1802) vol. II: Such of the .. public servants as might have taken to concealments on shore for the purpose of avoiding their work, or making their escape from the colony.

By 1812 public servant was used to refer to any government worker, whether free or convict, and two centuries later it is still the standard Australian term for a public service employee.

1832 Colonial Times (Hobart) 25 April: Mr Henry Melville certainly cannot boast of being in receipt of a handsome salary, as a public servant.

2013 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 28 October: Cairns could become the Canberra of the north under a plan to force public servants to move from the national capital to the tropics.

See our blog ‘The convict origins of “public servant”’ for a discussion of the term.

Updated: 26 July 2016/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher