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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.

yabby

Any of several freshwater crayfish valued as food, especially the common species Cherax destructor that is native to south-eastern Australia. Fishing for yabbies is often a favourite childhood memory for Australians who lived near a dam or creek. A piece of string lowered into the water, with a bit of fresh meat tied to it for the yabby to latch on to, is the traditional fishing method. Yabbies are good to eat (a number of species can now be found on restaurant menus) and are also used as fishing bait. The word yabby is a borrowing from the Wemba Wemba language of Victoria. The earliest evidence of it dates from the 1840s, and it has generated a number of compound terms such as yabby farming, yabby net, and yabby trap.

1889 Bathurst Free Press 14 March: Luscious Murray cod, with succulent ‘yabbies’ and tempting fruit.

1999 Australian Gold, Gem &Treasure Magazine December: About a kilometre from our camp was a dam brimming over with large yabbies so each night Imy would set a couple of yabby nets he happened to have, baited with some Meaty Bites, and the next morning we would feast on toasted yabby sandwiches.

A second sense of yabby occurs chiefly in Queensland, recorded from 1952. It refers to any of several small burrowing shrimp-like marine crustaceans that are commonly used for bait. Anglers often use a mechanical device called a yabby pump to extract these crustaceans from the sand or mud flats.

1994 P. Horrobin Guide to Favourite Australian Fish (ed. 7): Inside temperate estuaries, there are two small shrimps which are first class baits for a variety of fish. These are the ‘yabbies’ or ‘nippers’.

There are many species of freshwater crayfish in Australia and many different names for them, such as lobby, marron, and crawchie. For a discussion of these and other terms for Australian freshwater crayfish, see our blog ‘The problem with yabbies’ from February 2013.

yakka

Work, strenuous labour. The word is used especially in the phrase hard yakka. Yakka first occurs in the 1840s as a verb meaning ‘to work’, and it derives from yaga meaning ‘work’ in the Yagara language of the Brisbane region. Yakka found its way into nineteenth-century Australian pidgin, and then passed into Australian English. Spelling variants such as yakker and yacker are also found.

1892 Bulletin (Sydney) 19 November: The stevedore must yacker for the bit he gets to eat.

2004 Townsville Bulletin 14 July: We marched out through the thigh-deep mud carrying wallaby jacks, jungle matting lent by the army and railway sleepers. It was hard yakka.

yidaki

A didgeridoo. Yidaki is a borrowing from the Yolgnu languages of north-eastern Arnhem Land (Northern Territory). The instrument was originally used only in Arnhem Land, but became commonly known in Australia as the didgeridoo (not an Aboriginal word, but an imitation of the sound by non-Aboriginal people). The Yolgnu word for the instrument has become widely known in recent decades, and was popularised by the music group Yothu Yindi, formed in 1986, whose members were Yolgnu speakers.

1988 Sydney Morning Herald 12 November: The rock and roll starts. It's a thick sound, made more bass-y by the addition of the yidaki but Bakamana Yunupingu has a strong, appealing voice.

2000 Koori Mail (Lismore) 20 September: With the sound of the yidaki (didgeridoo) echoing off nearby high-rise buildings and apartments, a gathering of Sydney's Aboriginal community celebrates the mid-point of the Budyari ‘Proper Way’ Festival.

yowie

An ape-like monster supposed to inhabit parts of eastern Australia. The yowie is Australia’s equivalent of the Himalayan yeti, or the American bigfoot or sasquatch. Yowie may come from the word yuwi ‘dream spirit’ in the Yuwaalaraay language of northern New South Wales. However, another possiblity is that yowie is an alteration of  the word yahoo, a name given by Aboriginal people to an evil spirit. Yowie is first recorded in the 1970s.

1980 M. McAdoo If Only I’d Listened: ’E’d be about six foot easy tall, broad, an’ a sort of brownish fur lookin’ stuff all over ’im, an’ standing up like a man… We didn’t know what the name of it was then, but .. a lot of people’ve been seein’ them around the eastern parts, an’ they’re known as the ‘Yowie’.

Updated: 31 May 2016/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher