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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.

waltzing Matilda: to waltz Matilda

To carry a swag; to travel the road. A matilda is a swag, the roll or bundle of possessions carried by an itinerant worker or swagman. The word waltz in to waltz Matilda is a jocular or ironic way to refer to the hard slog of carrying your possessions as you travel on foot, although waltz may possibly influenced by a German colloquial term, auf die Walze gehen, which means ‘to go a-wandering; to go on one's travels’.

The term to waltz Matilda is first recorded in the late 1880s, and is likely to have had a fairly short life, if it hadn’t been for the poet Banjo Patterson. In 1895 he penned the lyrics to the song about a swagman that became Australia’s famous national song, ‘Waltzing Matilda’. The song became strongly associated with national identity, and has cemented the term waltzing Matilda in the Australian imagination – although it is a fair bet that not all of us know exactly what it means!

1908 Cairns Morning Post 8 April: The population still increases, every coach to Quartz Hill bringing a full complement of passengers who ‘waltz matilda’ the 60 odd miles to the new El Dorado.

1945 J. Devanny Bird of Paradise: Nowadays they waltz Matilda on bikes.

For an earlier discussion of to waltz Matilda see the article ‘Chasing Our Unofficial National Anthem: Who Was Matilda? Why Did She Waltz?' (page 2) in the May 1999 issue of our Ozwords newsletter.

wide brown land

Australia. The phrase originates in the poem ‘My Country’ (originally titled ‘Core of My Heart’) by homesick poet Dorothea Mackellar, a young Australian living in England. It was published in the London Spectator in 1908, and then widely in Australian newspapers. The poem contrasted her experience of the green, orderly English countryside with the extremes of Australian geography and climate. Wide brown land is from the much-quoted second stanza:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

Following the poem’s publication, the phrase wide brown land began to be used from the 1930s to refer to Australia.

1966 J. Smith Ornament of Grace: A nice myth to be dusted off every Anzac Day, about bronzed heroes of the wide brown land.

1999 T. Astley Drylands: Out there all over the wide brown land, was a new generation of kids with telly niblets shoved into their mental gobs from the moment they could sit up in a playpen.

widgie

The female counterpart of a bodgie. Bodgies and widgies had their heyday as a youth subculture in 1950s Australia, and widgies, like bodgies, were readily identified by their style of clothing. In the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February 1955, there occurs an interesting description of the 1950s widgie:

Constable Waldon said: 'A widgie, as she is known to me, is generally dressed in a very tight blouse, mostly without sleeves, and generally with a deep, plunging front. The blouse closely conforms to the lines of the body. In addition, she usually has a form-fitting skirt, which is very tight, especially around the knees. The skirt flares out a little below the knees and generally has a split either at the side or at the rear to enable her to walk. A widgie wears a short-cropped haircut.' Judge Curlewis said the detective's description of a widgie was the best he had heard in a Court.

Widgie (often spelt weegie in early occurrences) is first recorded in 1950. It is of unknown origin, although suggested origins have included a blend of woman (or women) and bodgie, an allusion to their wedge-shaped hairstyles, or an arbitrary rhyming reduplication on bodgie. The phenomenon of bodgies and widgies peaked in the 1950s. In the 1960s they were replaced by new subcultures such as the sharpies, rockers, mods, and surfies.

1996 Condon & Lawson Smashed: Breezy McCarthy, good-time girl, fast girl, slut, was a sort of widgie, if that word from the fifties still has any meaning.

wigwam: a wigwam for a goose’s bridle

Something absurd or preposterous; used as a snubbing or dismissive reply to an unwanted question. It might be used to answer an inquisitive child who asks ‘What’s in the bag?’ The original English idiom was a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle. Whim-wham meaning 'an ornament' or ‘a trinket’ disappeared from the language in the nineteenth century and survived only in this phrase. In Australia the meaningless whim-wham was altered to the more familiar wigwam (and sometimes to wing-wong). The Australian idiom is first recorded in 1917.

1947 Sydney Morning Herald 12 March:  ‘Where you going?’ he called. ‘To get a wigwam for a goose's bridle’, yelled Smiley insolently, recalling one of the sayings of Granny McKinley, the oldest inhabitant.

2004 Mercury (Hobart) 19 June: And when your dad was busy in the shed and you repeatedly asked ‘What's that dad?’ there were all those variants on ‘A wigwam for a goose's bridle’.

wobbly: to chuck a wobbly

To lose one's self-control in a fit of nerves, panic, temper, annoyance, or the like. To chuck a wobbly is a variant of the Standard English idiom to throw a wobbly, where wobbly means ‘a fit of temper or panic’. In Australian English chuck in the sense of ‘throw’ or ‘stage’ is used in other expressions with the same meaning, such as chuck a mental and chuck a mickey. Chuck a wobbly is first recorded in 1986. In 1992 it appears in the record of a parliamentary debate in the Australian Senate, when one senator chastises another: ‘Stop chucking a wobbly, Senator Ray. Behave yourself. You will have a heart attack.’

2006 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 7 January: If one more cot-case trendy brands us as bogan yobbos, we'll chuck a wobbly.

wog

A microbe or germ, a ‘bug’; an illness such as influenza or gastroenteritis. This wog is not the offensive word used in Australia to mean a migrant from southern Europe, and in Britain to mean a non-white migrant. This Australian wog originally meant ‘an insect or grub’, and referred especially to a predatory or disagreeable one. It then came to mean a germ or illness, and is first recorded in this sense in 1931.

1937 Cairns Post 19 July: This is the season, according to the experience of recent years, for the influenza ‘wog’ to become active, and this year is no exception to the rule.

2006 Newcastle Herald 1 June: I have had this wog for a while, and I was pretty crook when I woke up this morning, so I arranged replacement drivers for my team at Newcastle and then came to the hospital.

Woop Woop

A remote and supposedly backward rural town or district. It is one of several imaginary names Australians use to refer to a typical place in the outback, including Oodnagalahbi, Bullamakanka, and Bandywallop. As with Woop Woop, they allude to remoteness, a lack of sophistication, or both. Woop Woop is a jocular formation that is probably influenced by the use of reduplication in Aboriginal languages to indicate plurality or intensity. A number of real Australian placenames, such as Wagga Wagga, are examples of reduplication. The first evidence for Woop Woop occurs in the 1890s.

1940 Rip (Port Phillip) 29 October: If I go to the dance on Thursday, I’ll have to walk from Woop-Woop.

1993 R. Fitzgerald Eleven Deadly Sins: It is preferable to refer to one's opponent as ‘the honourable member for Woopwoop’ rather than as ‘that idiot scumbag’.

wowser

A person who is publicly censorious of others and the pleasures they seek; a person whose own behaviour is puritanical or prudish; a killjoy. Wowser, still current in Australian usage, is recorded from 1900. Its origin is uncertain. It may be from British dialect wow ‘to howl or bark as a dog; to wail’ and ‘to whine; to grumble, make complaint’, but it is possibly a coinage of John Norton, who was the editor of the Sydney newspaper Truth from 1891–1916. He claimed to have invented it, saying ‘I first gave it public utterance in the [Sydney] City Council, when I applied it to Alderman Waterhouse, whom I referred to as ... the white, woolly, weary, watery, word-wasting wowser from Waverley’. Certainly the earliest evidence for wowser is found in TruthWowser is a productive term that has given rise to words such as wowserish, wowserdom, and wowserism – all of which can be found in use today.

1906 Truth (Sydney) 25 March: A wowser cannot walk through the Art Gallery without being shocked by seeing the picture of some well-proportioned goddess.

1989 Sun (Melbourne) 14 March: And there are plenty of wowsers who believe Dr Ruth should be censored and any talk of sex confined strictly to the bedroom.

For an earlier discussion of the history of wowser see the article ‘Wow for Wowser!’  (page 7) in our Ozwords newsletter from May 1997.

Updated: 28 June 2016/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher