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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.

banana bender

A Queenslander. The term derives from the joking notion (as perceived from the southern states of Australia) that Queenslanders spend their time putting bends into bananas. The association of bananas with Queensland (bananaland) is based on the extensive banana-growing industry in tropical Queensland. The Queensland border has been called the Banana curtain and Brisbane has been called Banana city. The term was first recorded in 1964.

bandicoot

Soon after white settlement in 1788 the word bandicoot (the name for the Indian mammal Bandicota indica) was applied to several Australian mammals having long pointed heads and bearing some resemblance to their Indian namesake. In 1799 David Collins writes of the 'bones of small animals, such as opossums... and bandicoots'.

From 1830s the word bandicoot has been used in various distinctively Australian phrases as an emblem of deprivation or desolation.  In 1837 H. Watson in Lecture on South Australia writes: 'The land here is generally good; there is a small proportion that is actually good for nothing; to use a colonial phrase, "a bandicoot (an animal between a rat and a rabbit) would starve upon it".' Typical examples include:

  • as miserable as a bandicoot
  • as poor as a bandicoot
  • as bald as a bandicoot
  • as blind as a bandicoot
  • as hungry as a bandicoot

Probably from the perception of the bandicoot's burrowing habits, a new Australian verb to bandicoot arose towards the end of the nineteenth century. It means 'to remove potatoes from the ground, leaving the tops undisturbed'. Usually this activity is surreptitious. Citations from the Australian National Dictionary include:

1896 Bulletin 12 December: I must 'bandicoot' spuds from the cockies - Or go on the track!

1899 Bulletin 2 December: 'Bandicooting'.. is a well-known term all over Western Vic. potato-land. The bandicooter goes at night to a field of ripe potatoes and carefully extracts the tubers from the roots without disturbing the tops.

1942 E. Langley, Pea Pickers: All the pumpkins and maize we can pinch, every potato we can bandicoot.

1980 P. Pepper,  You are what you make Yourself:  Men at the station had threatened to shoot them because they had bandicooted the potatoes.

bandicoot: miserable as a bandicoot

Extremely unhappy. Bandicoots are small marsupials with long faces, and have been given a role in Australian English in similes that suggest unhappiness or some kind of deprivation. The expression ‘miserable as a bandicoot’ was first recorded in 1845. A person can also be as ‘bald as a bandicoot’, as ‘blind as a bandicoot’, or be isolated ‘like a bandicoot on a burnt ridge’.

banksia man

The large woody cone of several Banksia species, originally as a character in children's stories. Banksia is the name of an Australian genus of shrubs and trees with about 60 species. It was named after the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who was on the Endeavour with James Cook on his voyage of discovery in 1770. After flowering, many banksias form thick woody cones, often in strange shapes. It was on such grotesque shapes that May Gibbs modelled her banksia men in Snugglepot and Cuddlepie of 1918: 'She could see the glistening, wicked eyes of Mrs. Snake and the bushy heads of the bad Banksia men'.

barbecue stopper

A topic of conversation that is interesting or controversial enough to halt proceedings at a barbecue—and anything that could interrupt an Aussie barbecue would have to be very significant indeed! The term was coined by Australian prime minister John Howard in July 2002 in the context of balancing work pressures with family responsibilities. The word is now used in a wide range of contexts: 'It might not be a barbecue stopper, but certainly is a front-bar head nodder: Tell fellow drinkers that Hicks is a mongrel but deserves better treatment and you will get agreement.' (2007).

Barcoo

The name of the Barcoo River in western Queensland has been used since the 1880s as a shorthand reference for the hardships, privations, and living conditions of the outback. Poor diets were common in remote areas, with little access to fresh vegetables or fruit, and as a result diseases caused by dietary deficiencies, such Barcoo rot—a form of scurvy characterised by chronic sores—were common. Katharine Susannah Prichard writes in 1946: ‘They were nothing to the torture he endured when barcoo rot attacked him. The great sores festered on his back, hands and legs: his lips split and were raw and bleeding’. Rachel Henning, in a letter to her sister in 1864, makes fun of her Irish servants’ fear of scurvy, for which they eat pigweed, ‘rather a nasty wild plant, but supposed to be exceedingly wholesome, either chopped up with vinegar or boiled’. Another illness probably caused by poor diet was Barcoo sickness (also called Barcoo vomit, Barcoo spew, or just Barcoo), a condition characterised by vomiting. ‘Barcoo was rife among the kiddies and station-hands; vomiting attacks lasting for days laid each low in turn’.

Happily, Barcoo can also denote more positive aspects of outback life: a makeshift resourcefulness - a Barcoo dog is a rattle for herding sheep, which can be as simple as a tin can and a stick – or rough and ready behaviour: ‘The parrot’s language would have shamed a Barcoo bullocky’. Barcoo can also typify the laconic bush wit. Patsy Adam Smith relates the following story: ‘I see you’ve learnt the Barcoo Salute’, said a Buln Buln Shire Councillor to the Duke of Edinburgh. ‘What’s that?’ said His Royal Highness, waving his hand again to brush the flies off his face. ‘That’s it’, said the man from the bush.

barrack for

To support or encourage, especially by shouting and cheering. Some claim barrack comes from Australian pidgin to poke borak at 'to deride', but its origin is Northern Irish barrack 'to brag'. By itself barrack meant 'to jeer' (and still does in British English), but the form barrack for transformed the jeering into cheering in Australian English. First recorded 1890.

battler

The word battler has been in the English language for a long time. The word is a borrowing from French in the Middle English period, and meant, literally, `a person who battles or fights', and figuratively `a person who fights against the odds or does not give up easily'. The corresponding English word was feohtan which gives us modern English 'to fight'. English also borrowed the word war from the French in the twelfth century; it's the same word as modern French guerre.

But the word battler, at the end of the nineteenth century, starts to acquire some distinctively Australian connotations. For this reason, it gets a guernsey in the Australian National Dictionary.

1. It describes the person with few natural advantages, who works doggedly and with little reward, who struggles for a livelihood (and who displays courage in so doing).

Our first citation for this, not surprisingly, comes from Henry Lawson in While the Billy Boils (1896):  `I sat on him pretty hard for his pretensions, and paid him out for all the patronage he'd worked off on me.. and told him never to pretend to me again he was a battler'.

In 1941 Kylie Tennant writes:  `She was a battler, Snow admitted; impudent, hardy, cool, and she could take a "knock-back" as though it didn't matter, and come up to meet the next blow'.

In this tradition, K. Smith writes in 1965:  `Everybody in Australia has his position. Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this country: the rich, the middle class and the battlers'.

2. It has also been used of an unemployed or irregularly employed person.

a: (in the country): a swagman or itinerant worker.

This sense is first recorded in the Bulletin in 1898:  `I found patch after patch destroyed. Almost everyone I met blamed the unfortunate "battler", and I put it down to some of the Sydney "talent" until... I caught two Chows vigorously destroying melon-vines'.

Again in the Bulletin in 1906 we find:  `They were old, white-bearded, travel-stained battlers of the track'.

The word is not much used in this sense now, but in 1982 Page & Ingpen in Aussie Battlers write: `The average Australian's image of a battler does seem to be that of a Henry Lawson character: a bushie of the colonial era, complete with quart pot and swag, down on his luck but still resourceful and cheerful'.

b: (in an urban context): an unemployed person who lives by opportunism.

Frank Hardy in Tales of Billy Yorker (1965) writes:  `Any Footscray battler could get a few quid off Murphy, just for the asking'.

S. Weller, Bastards I have met (1976) writes: `He was a battler, into all the lurks about the place and just one jump ahead of the coppers all the time'.

3. A person who frequents racecourses in search of a living, esp. from punting.  The word is used in Australia with this sense from the end of the nineteenth century.

Cornelius Crowe in his Australian Slang Dictionary (1895) gives:  ` Battlers broken-down backers of horses still sticking to the game'.

In 1925 A. Wright in The Boy from Bullarah notes:  `He betook himself with his few remaining shillings to the home of the battler - Randwick [a racecourse in Sydney]'.

4. A prostitute.

In 1898 we find in the Bulletin:  `A bludger is about the lowest grade of human thing, and is a brothel bully... A battler is the feminine'.

C.W. Chandler in Darkest Adelaide (c.1907) writes:  `Prostitution though most terrible and degrading in any shape or form reaches its most forbidding form when married women are found out battling for cash'. And further: `I told him I would not mind taking on a tart myself - an extra good battler preferred'.

Meanings 2. 3. and 4 have now disappeared from Australian English, and it is meaning 1 which has become enshrined in the language, especially in the phrase little Aussie battler. This is still the person of the Henry Lawson tradition, who, `with few natural advantages, works doggedly and with little reward, struggles for a livelihood (and displays courage in so doing)'.

berley

Berley is ground-bait scattered by an angler in the water to attract fish to a line or lure. Anglers use a variety of baits for berley, such as bread, or fish heads and guts. Poultry mash and tinned cat food make more unusual berleying material, although this pales beside a Bulletin article in 1936 suggesting ‘a kerosene-tinful of rabbit carcasses boiled to a pulp’ as the best berley for Murray cod. Berley first appears in 1852 as a verb—to berley is to scatter ground-bait. The writer observes that the locals are baiting a fishing spot (‘burley-ing’) with burnt fish. Some twenty years later the report of a New South Wales Royal Commission into Fisheries notes: ‘The bait should be crabs. It is usual to wrench legs and shell off the back, and cast them out for berley.’ This is the earliest occurrence of the word as a noun. The origin of the word is unknown.

big note

To brag about yourself in order to impress. In the 1950s a big note man was a person who handled or bet large sums of money—big notes. In pre-decimal currency days the larger the denomination, the bigger the banknote. Big-noting arose from the connection between flashing large sums of money about and showing off.

bilby

The bilby is either of two Australian bandicoots, especially the rabbit-eared bandicoot Macrotis lagotis, a burrowing marsupial of woodlands and plains of drier parts of mainland Australia,

The word is a borrowing from Yuwaalaraay, an Aboriginal language of northern New South Wales (between Walgett and Lightning Ridge).

The word first appears in English in 1885 in Once a Month (Melbourne):

There are several kinds of burrowing animals.. everywhere... The most remarkable is the Bailby - some call it Billby - about the size of a rabbit.

The bilby is known as dalgite in Western Australia and pinkie in South Australia.

In recent years there have been attempts to replace the Easter bunny with the Australian bilby. At Easter it is now possible to buy chocolate bilbies.

billabong

A pool or lagoon left behind in a river or in a branch of a river when the water flow ceases. Billabongs are often formed when floodwaters recede. The word comes from the south-western New South Wales indigenous language Wiradhuri: bila ‘river’ + bang ‘continuing in time or space’. First recorded 1836.

billy

A tin or enamel cooking pot with a lid and wire handle, used outdoors, especially for making tea. It comes from the Scottish dialect word billy meaning ‘cooking utensil’. It is not, as popularly thought, related to the Aboriginal word billabong, and probably not related to the nineteenth-century bouilli tins which contained beef or beef stew. First recorded 1849.

billycart

A child’s four-wheeled go-cart. Billy comes from billy goat. In the past the term applied to a small cart, often two-wheeled, that was pulled by a goat. These billycarts were used for such purposes as home deliveries, and they were also used in races. The term was then applied to any homemade go-cart. First recorded 1923.

bitser

A mongrel. A dog (or other animal) which is made up of a bit of this and a bit of that. This meaning is common today, but when bitser first appeared in the 1920s it referred to any contraption or vehicle that was made of spare parts, or had odd bits and pieces added. Bitser is an abbreviation of ‘bits and pieces’.

black stump

The black stump of Australian legend first appears in 1954, and is an imaginary marker at the limits of settlement: ‘Head west of the Black Stump, sail right past Woop Woop, keep on going and finally you might hit Urandangi, the town without a postcode.’ Anywhere beyond the black stump is beyond civilisation, deep in the outback, whereas something this side of the black stump belongs to the known world (‘Wolfy.. turned out to be one of the best bastards this side of the black stump’). Although the towns of Blackall, Coolah and Merriwagga each claim to possess the original black stump, a single stump is unlikely to be the origin of this term. It is more probable that burnt and blackened tree stumps, ubiquitous in the outback, were used as markers when giving directions to travellers, as this early extract from the Bulletin in suggests: ‘A rigmarole of details concerning the turns and hollows, the big tree, the dog-leg fence, and the black stump.’ More recently, the Black Stump was coined as a nickname for the State Office Block, a dark grey building, in Sydney.

blood: your blood’s worth bottling

You’re a really valuable person! You’re a loyal friend! This is one of the many Australianisms, along with terms such as ‘digger’, ‘Anzac’ and ‘Aussie’, that arose during the First World War. It applied to a person of great heart, who displayed courage, loyalty, and mateship. It is now used in many contexts— ‘Those firefighters—their blood’s worth bottling!’

bludger

This word is a form of bludgeoner.  A bludgeoner (not surprisingly) was a person who carried a bludgeon `a short stout stick or club'. It appears in a mid-nineteenth century English slang dictionary as a term for `a low thief, who does not hesitate to use violence'.

By the end of the nineteenth century it is in use in Australia, its meaning somewhat more specific. Crowe, in his Australian Slang Dictionary (1882), defines a bludger as `a thief who will use his bludgeon and lives on the gains of immoral women'. Crowe gives: `Bludgers, or Stick Lingers, plunderers in company with prostitutes'.

Thus bludger came to mean `one who lives on the earnings of a prostitute'. It retained this meaning until the 1950s. Thus Dorothy Hewett in her play Bobbin Up (1959) writes: `But what about libel?' `There's a name for a man who lives off women!' `Can't you get pinched for calling a man a bludger?' But this meaning is now obsolete.

From the early twentieth century it moved out to be a more general term of abuse, especially as applied to a person who appears to live off the efforts of others (as a pimp lives on the earnings of a prostitute).

It was then used to refer to a person engaged in non-manual labour - a white-collar worker. This sense appears as early as 1910, but its typical use is represented by this passage from D. Whitington's Treasure Upon Earth (1957): ` "Bludgers" he dubbed them early, because in his language anyone who did not work with his hands at a laboring job was a bludger'.

And so it came to mean `an idler, one who makes little effort'. In the war newspaper Ack Ack News in 1942 we find: `Who said our sappers are bludgers?' By 1950, it could be used of animals which didn't perform up to standard. J. Cleary in Just let me be writes: `Everything I backed ran like a no-hoper. Four certs I had, and the bludgers were so far back the ambulance nearly had to bring `em home'.

And thence to `a person who does not make a fair contribution to a cost, enterprise etc.; a cadger'. D. Niland writes in The Shiralee (1955): `Put the nips into me for tea and sugar and tobacco in his usual style. The biggest bludger in the country'. In 1971 J. O'Grady writes: `When it comes to your turn, return the "shout". Otherwise the word will spread that you are a "bludger", and there is no worse thing to be'.

The term dole bludger (i.e. `one who exploits the system of unemployment benefits by avoiding gainful employment') made its first appearance in 1976, in the Bulletin: `A genuine dole bludger, a particularly literate young man... explained that he wasn't bothering to look for work any more because he was sick and tired of being treated like a chattel'. From the following year we have a citation indicating a reaction to the use of the term: Cattleman (Rockhampton) `Young people are being forced from their country homes because of a lack of work opportunities and the only response from these so-called political protectors is to label them as dole bludgers'.

Throughout the history of the word, most bludgers appear to have been male. The term bludgeress made a brief appearance in the first decade of this century - `Latterly, bludgers, so the police say, are marrying bludgeresses' - but it was shortlived.

For more information on the word bludger consult The Australian National Dictionary.

bluey

The word bluey in Australian English has a variety of meanings. The most common is the swag (i.e. the collection of possessions and daily necessaries carried by a person travelling, usually on foot, in the bush) so called because the outer covering of the swag was traditionally a blue blanket (which is also called a bluey). The earliest citation in The Australian National Dictionary for bluey as a swag is 1878 where the bluey is humped as it was by the itinerant bush worker tramping the wallaby track in the works of writers such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.

This image (an Australian stereotype) is epitomised in The Australian National Dictionary's 1899 citation for bluey:

There's the everlasting swaggie with his bluey on his back who is striking out for sunset on the Never-never track. W.T. Goodge, Hits! Skits! and Jingles

The association of the swaggie and his bluey continues in the dictionary's most recent citation:

A swaggie suddenly appeared out of the bush, unshaven, with wild, haunted eyes, his bluey and billycan on his back. G. Cross, George and Widda-Woman (1981)

That bluey is later transferred to luggage in general, is perhaps not surprising in an urban society which romanticises its `bush' tradition:

Where's yer bluey? No luggage? J. Duffy, Outside Pub (1963)

In Tasmania, a bluey or Tasmanian bluey is:

a rough overcoat of blue-grey woollen, to be worn by those doing outdoor work during inclement weather. Canberra Times (19 Nov. 1982).

The word has been used to denote another item of clothing - denim working trousers or overalls - but the citation evidence indicates (the last citation being 1910) that this usage is no longer current.

More familiar is the use of bluey to describe a summons, especially for a traffic offence (originally printed on blue paper):

Imagine my shock upon returning to a bluey at the end of the day. Choice (2 April 1986)

Perhaps the most Australian use of bluey is the curious use of it to describe a red-headed person:

1936 A.B. Paterson, Shearer's Colt: `Bluey', as the crowd called him, had found another winner. (All red-haired men are called `Bluey' in Australia for some reason or other.)

1978 R.H. Conquest, Dusty Distances: I found out later that he was a native of New South Wales, called ' Bluey because of his red hair - typical Australian logic.

A more literal use of bluey in Australian English is its application to fauna whose names begin with blue and which is predominantly blue in colour:

1961 Bulletin 31 May:  We call them blue martins...Ornithologists refer to them as some species of wood swallow... They're all 'blueys' to us.

bodgie

There are two senses of the word bodgie in Australian English, both probably deriving from an earlier (now obsolete) word bodger.

The obsolete bodger probably derives from British dialect bodge 'to work clumsily'. In Australian English in the 1940s and 1950s it meant: 'Something (or occasionally someone) which is fake, false, or worthless'. The noun was also used adjectivally. Typical uses:

1950 F. Hardy, Power without Glory: This entailed the addition of as many more 'bodger' votes as possible.

1954 Coast to Coast 1953-54: Well, we stuck together all through the war - we was in under bodger names.

1966 S. Baker, The Australian Language: An earlier underworld and Army use of bodger for something faked, worthless or shoddy. For example, a faked receipt or false name.. is a bodger; so is a shoddy piece of material sold by a door-to-door hawker.

The word bodger was altered to bodgie, and this is now the standard form:

1975 Latch & Hitchings, Mr X: To avoid any suspicions in case they were picked up by the Transport Regulation Board, it was decided.. to take a 'bodgy' receipt for the tyres with them.

1978 O. White, Silent Reach: This heap is hot - else why did they give it a one-coat spray job over the original white duco and fix it with bodgie number plates?

1984 Canberra Times 27 August: Allegations.. of branch-stacking and the use of hundreds of 'bodgie' members in the electorate.

In the 1950s another sense of bodgie arose. The word was used to describe a male youth, distinguished by his conformity to certain fashions of dress and larrikin behaviour; analogous to the British 'teddy boy':

1950 Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) 7 May: The bizarre uniform of the 'bodgey' - belted velvet cord jacket, bright blue sports coat without a tie, brown trousers narrowed at the ankle, shaggy Cornel Wilde haircut.

1951 Sydney Morning Herald 1 February: What with 'bodgies' growing their hair long and getting around in satin shirts, and 'weegies' [see widgie] cutting their hair short and wearing jeans, confusion seems to be be arising about the sex of some Australian adolescents.

This sense of bodgie seems to be an abbreviation of the word bodger with the addition of the -Y suffix. One explanation for the development of the teenage larrikin sense was offered in The Age (Melbourne) in 1983:

Mr Hewett says his research indicates that the term 'bodgie' arose around the Darlinghurst area in Sydney. It was just after the end of World War II and rationing had caused a flourishing black market in American-made cloth. 'People used to try and pass off inferior cloth as American-made when in fact it was not: so it was called 'bodgie',' he says. 'When some of the young guys started talking with American accents to big-note themselves they were called 'bodgies'.'

This sense of bodgie belongs to the 1950s, but bodgie in the sense 'fake, false, inferior, worthless' is alive and flourishing in Australian English.

bogan

Bogan is Australian (especially teenage) slang for someone who is not `with it' in terms of behaviour and appearance, someone who is 'not us'; hence, someone horrible, contemptible.

Some lexicographers have suspected that the term may derive from the Bogan River and district in western New South Wales, but this is far from certain, and it seems more likely to be an unrelated coinage.

The term became widespread after it was used in the late 1980s by the fictitious schoolgirl 'Kylie Mole' in the television series The Comedy Company.

In the Daily Telegraph (29 November 1988), in an article headed "Same name a real bogan", a genuine schoolgirl named Kylie Mole "reckons it really sux' " [i.e., finds it horrible] to have the same name as the television character.

In Dolly Magazine, October 1988, "The Dictionary According To Kylie [Mole]" has the following Kyliesque definition: bogan "a person that you just don't bother with. Someone who wears their socks the wrong way or has the same number of holes in both legs of their stockings. A complete loser".

Judith Clarke, The Heroic Life of Al Capsella (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1988) p. 127: "Beyond these the landscape changed suddenly. It was still flat, and the houses all the same as one another, but they were poorer houses, small shabby fibro ones with their paint all washed away, their scraggly yards full of dust and weeds and rusting pieces of iron. I was nervous; it looked the kind of place where you might find Bogans hanging about, the kind of place you could get bashed up.... Sure enough, in the yard of a house across the street, I saw a gang of Bogans in tight jeans and long checked shirts, mucking about with a big fancy car, vintage model, complete with brass lamps and running-board. I felt sure they'd ripped it off: for one thing, they were taking off the number plates".

The earliest evidence we have been able to find for the term is in the surfing magazine Tracks September 1985: "So what if I have a mohawk and wear Dr Martens (boots for all you uninformed bogans)?"

bogey

Bogey (also spelt bogie) is a borrowing into Australian English from Dharuk, the Aboriginal language of the Sydney region, where it meant 'to bathe or swim'.

The earliest records show the term being used in the pidgin English of Aborigines:

1788 Historical Records of New South Wales II: I have bathed, or have been bathing... Bogie d'oway. These were Colby's words on coming out of the water.

1830 R. Dawson, Present State of Australia: 'Top bit, massa, bogy,' (bathe) and he threw himself into the water.

By the 1840s it was naturalised in Australian English:

1841 Historical Records of Australia: I suppose you want your Boat, Sir; Yes, said Mr Dixon; well, said Crabb I suppose we must bogey for it. Yes, said Mr Dixon, any two of ye that can swim.

In Australian English a noun meaning 'a swim or bathe; a bath' was formed from the verb:

1847 A. Harris, Settlers and Convicts: In the cool of the evening had a 'bogie' (bathe) in the river.

1869 W.M. Howell, Diggings and Bush: Florence was much amused the other evening by her enquiring if she (Flory) was going down to the water to have a 'bogey'. Flory was much puzzled till she found out that a 'bogey', in colonial phraseology, meant a bath.

1924 Bulletin: A boar was discovered by two of us having a bogey in a 16,000-yard tank about five miles from the river.

1981 G. Mackenzie, Aurukun Diary: A bogey is the Queensland outback word for a bath or bathe.

A bogey-hole is a 'swimming or bathing hole'.

bombora

A wave that forms over a submerged offshore reef or rock, sometimes (in very calm weather or at high tide) merely swelling but in other conditions breaking heavily and producing a dangerous stretch of broken water. The word is also used for the reef or rock itself. This word probably derives from Dharuk, an Aboriginal language of the Sydney region. The term is mostly used in New South Wales, where there are several bomboras along the coast, usually close to cliffs. The term was first recorded in 1871 and is now used frequently in surfing and fishing contexts with its abbreviation bommie and bommy being common: 'After a day of oily, overhead bommie waves, we decided to head to the pub’ (2001).

Bondi tram: shoot through like a Bondi tram

Make a hasty departure. Bondi is the Sydney suburb renowned worldwide for its surf beach. The phrase (first recorded in 1945) probably derives from the fact that two trams typically left the city for Bondi together, the first an express tram which would ‘shoot through’ from Darlinghurst to Bondi Junction. Trams last ran on the line in 1960, but the phrase has remained a part of Australian English.

bonzer

Outstandingly good. Also used as a noun meaning ‘something outstandingly good of its kind’. Bonzer is possibly an alteration of the American bonanza, or from French bon ‘good’. In the early records the spelling bonzer alternates with bonser, and it is just possible that it is from British dialect bouncer ‘anything very large of its kind’. First recorded 1904.

boofhead

An absolutely stupid person or (less commonly) a person with a big head. It comes from bufflehead ‘buffalo-head’ which also meant ‘a stupid person’. Bufflehead has disappeared from standard English, but survives in its Australian form boofhead. In the 1940s Boofhead was the name of a cartoon character in a Sydney newspaper.

boomerang

Boomerang is an Australian word which has moved into International English.  It was borrowed from Dharuk, the Aboriginal language spoken in the Sydney region.

While the spelling boomerang is now standard, in the early period the word was given a variety of spellings: bomerang, bommerang, bomring, boomereng, boomering, bumerang.

The Australian Aboriginal boomerang is a crescent-shaped wooden implement used as a missile or club, in hunting or warfare, and for recreational purposes. The best-known type of boomerang, used primarily for recreation, can be made to circle in flight and return to the thrower. Although boomerang-like objects were known in other parts of the world, the earliest examples and the greatest diversity of design is found in Australia. A specimen of a preserved boomerang has been found at Wyrie Swamp in South Australia and is dated at 10,000 years old. Boomerangs were not known throughout the entirety of Australia, being absent from the west of South Australia, the north Kimberley region of Western Australia, north-east Arnhem Land, and Tasmania. In some regions boomerangs are decorated with designs that are either painted or cut into the wood.

Very early in Australian English the term boomerang was used in transferred and figurative senses, especially with reference to something which returns to or recoils upon its author. These senses are now part of International English, but it is interesting to look at the earliest Australian evidence for the process of transfer and figurative use:

1846 Boston Daily Advertiser 5 May: Like the strange missile which the Australian throws, Your verbal boomerang slaps you on the nose.

1894 Bulletin (Sydney) 7 July: The argument that there should be profitable industrial prison-labour is a boomerang with a wicked recoil.

1911 Pastoralists' Review 15 March: Labour-Socialist legislation is boomerang legislation, and it generally comes back and hits those it was not intended for.

By the 1890s boomerang had also developed as a verb in Australian English, meaning 'to return in the manner of a boomerang; to recoil (upon the author); to ricochet. The earliest evidence for the verb form occurs in 1891 in The Worker (Brisbane):

Australia's a big country
An' Freedom's humping bluey
And Freedom's on the wallaby
Oh don't you hear her Cooee,
She's just begun to boomerang
She'll knock the tyrants silly.

In 1979 the Canberra Times reported 'Greg Chappell's decision to send England in appeared to have boomeranged'.

This verbal sense of boomerang has also moved into International English.

bottle: the full bottle

Knowledgeable, an expert—‘Does Robbo know anything about paving? Yeah mate, he’s the full bottle.’ The probable source of the phrase is the nineteenth-century British term no bottle ‘no good’ (an abbreviation of rhyming slang no bottle and glass ‘no class’). In Australia the full bottle came to mean ‘very good’, and then ‘very good at, knowledgeable about (something)’. It is often used in the negative—not the full bottle means ‘not good (at something)’ or ‘not fully informed’.

bottom of the harbour

A tax avoidance scheme. In the late 1970s a large number of bottom of the harbour schemes were operating in corporate Australia. The schemes involved buying a company with a large tax liability, converting the assets to cash, and then ‘hiding’ the company by, for example, selling it to a fictitious buyer. Thus the company (and often its records) vanished completely—figuratively sent to the ‘bottom of the harbour’ (originally Sydney Harbour)—with an unpaid tax bill.

bride’s nightie: be off like a bride’s nightie

Depart quickly, move with a sudden burst of speed. It is likely that this expression was first used in horseracing to refer to a horse that moved very quickly out of the starting gates. The phrase plays on two different meanings of the verb ‘be off’: ‘be removed’ and ‘move quickly’—’they took one look at dad’s face and were off like a bride’s nightie’.

bring a plate

An invitation to bring a plate of food to share at a social gathering or fundraiser. There are many stories of new arrivals in Australia being bamboozled by the instruction to bring a plate. As the locals know, a plate alone will not do. In earlier days the request was often ladies a plate, sometimes followed by gentlemen a donation.

brumby

A wild or unbroken horse. The story of wild horses in the Australian landscape was vividly brought to life in Banjo Paterson's 1890 poem 'The Man from Snowy River': 'There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around/ That the colt from old Regret had got away,/ And had joined the wild bush horses.' These 'wild bush horses' have been known as brumbies in Australia since around 1880. The origin for this term is still disputed. Some have suggested that it comes from an Aboriginal language, including E.E. Morris who in his seminal Austral English (1898) refers to the Pitjara language of southern Queensland where booramby means 'wild'. This origin was popularised by Paterson in an introduction to his poem 'Brumby's run' printed in 1894. A common suggestion is that brumby derives from the proper name Brumby . This theory was also noted by E.E. Morris in Austral English in 1898: 'A different origin was, however, given by an old resident of New South Wales, to a lady of the name Brumby, viz. "that in the early days of that colony, a Lieutenant Brumby, who was on the staff of one of the Governors, imported some very good horses, and that some of their descendants being allowed to run wild became the ancestors of the wild horses of New South Wales and Queensland". Over the years, various Messrs Brumby have been postulated as the origin. More recently, Dymphna Lonergan suggested that the word comes from Irish word bromaigh, the plural form of the word for a young horse, or colt. For more detail see Ozwords: Wild Horses Running Wild.

Buckley’s chance

No chance at all. Often abbreviated to Buckley’s: you’ve got Buckley’s, mate! Some claim it comes from the name of the convict William Buckley, who escaped from Port Phillip in 1803 and lived for 32 years with Aborigines in southern Victoria. Others suggest a punning reference to the Melbourne department store Buckley & Nunn—You have two chances, Buckley’s and none. First recorded 1895.

budgie smugglers

A skimpy male swimming costume, synonymous with Speedos. The Australian term is probably a variation of the international English grape smugglers for such a garment. Budgie smugglers is one of the numerous Australian words for this particular garment (others include dick pointers and togs), and it has become extremely popular on the Internet and in newspaper reports: 'Given that Australians don't have a national dress as such, perhaps we need to adopt budgie-smugglers as our official male costume' (2003). Budgie is a shortening of budgerigar—from Kamilaroi (an Aboriginal language of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland), and designates a small green and yellow parrot which has become a popular caged bird.

bulldust

A kind of fine powdery soil found in inland Australia. Roads or tracks covered with bulldust may be a hazard for livestock and vehicles, which can become bogged in it. It is called bulldust because it resembles the soil trampled by cattle in stockyards. The word can also be used as a polite way of saying bullshit.

bull’s roar: not within a bull’s roar

Not anywhere near— ‘The club’s not within a bull’s roar of winning the premiership this season.’ A roaring bull can be heard over a great distance, so that to be not within a bull’s roar is to be a considerable distance away. The phrase is sometimes used without the negative— to be within a bull’s roar means that you are not too far away. A much finer unit of measurement is expressed by the similar Australian phrase within a bee’s dick.

bung

Incapacitated, exhausted, broken (as in the telly’s bung). It comes from bang meaning ‘dead’ (first recorded 1841) in the Yagara indigenous language of the Brisbane region. It found its way into nineteenth-century Australian pidgin, where the phrase to go bung meant ‘to die’. By the end of the nineteenth century the present sense had developed.

bunyip

A man-eating monster of Australian Aboriginal legend. Descriptions of it vary greatly. Some give it a frightful human head and an animal body. Most descriptions emphasise its threat to humans and its loud booming at night. It inhabits inland rivers, swamps, and billabongs. The word comes from the indigenous Wergaia language of western Victoria. First recorded 1845.

burl: give it a burl

Give it a try, make an attempt. Burl is one of almost 200 words that Australian English borrowed from British dialects. It is a Scots word for a ‘spin’ or ‘whirl’, and in Australia we have varied the standard English ‘give it a whirl’ by replacing the last word with the Scots ‘burl’—‘The mower should start now Mum—give it a burl!’

bush week: what do you think this is, bush week?

Do you think I’m stupid? An indignant response to someone who is taking you for a fool —’You’re going to charge me how much? What do you think this is, bush week?’ ‘Bush week’ is a time when country people come to town, and the phrase implies that they are easily fooled by the more sophisticated city slickers. The speaker resents being mistaken for a country bumpkin.

butcher

In some regions of Australia butcher is a name for a measure of beer or the glass holding it.

The first use of butcher recorded in The Australian National Dictionary is in the 1889 W.R. Thomas publication, Early Days: Over a good fat `butcher' of beer he told me how he was getting on.

Almost a century later, in 1984, butcher is still in use, as in B. Driscoll's, Great Aussie Beer Book: The South Australian six ounce... has Australia's oddest glass name, a butcher.

Despite this long currency there has been some disagreement about just how big a butcher is. Some writers suggest it is a large measure, for example M. Vivienne in, Sunny South Australia (1908): He gives away a good few of what they call `butchers of beer', which is a long, wide glass holding more than a pint. Other, more recent, commentators say it is a small one, so J. O'Grady in It's Your Shout Mate! (1972): A... six-ounce glass became the butcher. In fact, since metric standardisation was applied to Australian beer measures, a butcher is the South Australian name for a 170 ml. glass.

There are a few competing theories concerning the origin of butcher. One of the more popular contenders is described by S. Hope in, Digger's Paradise (1956): And what is called a 'lady's waist' in some parts of the country is generally known as a 'butcher'. This originated in bygone days when workers from the abattoirs came unwashed to the pubs after their day's toil. A proportion of drinking mugs was kept separate for them, and a mob of slaughtermen would announce themselves as 'butchers' and be given those mugs.

More plausible, however, is the theory that butcher came into Australian English from the German word Becher, a glass or tumbler.

Added weight is given to this theory when it is realised that butcher is well known in South Australia but is little used outside that State. South Australia of course has a strong German component in its heritage, with many German immigrants - religious dissenters and agricultural workers - settling around Hahndorf and Kapunda from the late 1830s. The editor of The Australian National Dictionary, W.S. Ramson, thought that the German word was the most likely origin for butcher.

Updated: 26 November 2014/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher