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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.

Canberra bashing

The act or process of criticising the Australian Government and its bureaucracy. Canberra, the capital of Australia, has been used allusively to refer to the Australian Government and its bureaucracy since the 1920s. The term Canberra bashing emerged in the 1970s, and is also applied in criticisms of the city itself. For a more detailed discussion of the term see our Word of the Month article from February 2013.

1976 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 19 February: Even Federal Liberal MPs from Tasmania feel that their electoral standing is increased by regular outbursts of 'Canberra bashing'.

2014 Canberra Times 28 November: While Canberra bashing has always been a national sport, it is fair to say it has rarely, if ever, been played so artfully and with such dedication as in the past two to three years. Politicians on both sides have shown a willingness to put the boot into a national capital.

captain's pick

(In a political context) a decision made by a party leader etc. without consultation with colleagues. This term also takes the form captain's call. Captain's pick is derived from sporting contexts in which a team captain has the discretion to choose members of the team. The political sense emerged in Australian English in 2013. For a more detailed discussion of this term see our Word of the Month article from January 2014.

2013 Daily Telegraph (Sydney): Ms Peris, who as of yesterday was yet to join the Labor party, is set to become the first indigenous ALP representative in federal parliament with an assured top place on the NT Senate ticket in what Ms Gillard described as a 'captain's pick'.

2015 Australian (Sydney) 5 August: What Abbott's stubbornness missed, however, was that it was the public and his own MPs more than the media or Labor who were disgusted by his intransigence in refusing to remove his captain's pick Speaker.


To die; to break down; to fail. Also spelt kark, and often taking the form cark it. The word is probably a figurative use of an earlier Australian sense of cark meaning 'the caw of a crow', which is imitative. First recorded in the 1970s.

1977 R. Beilby Gunner: 'That wog ya roughed up - well, he karked.' Sa'ad dead!

1996 H.G. Nelson Petrol, Bait, Ammo and Ice: The offside rule has carked it, and good on the refs.

2001 Manly Daily 19 January: The resulting play is five stories from the morgue, monologues by people who have recently carked it and have 'woken up' in the morgue.

chardonnay socialist

A derogatory term for a person who espouses left-wing views but enjoys an affluent lifestyle. It is modelled on the originally British term, champagne socialist, which has a similar meaning. The term chardonnay socialist appeared in the 1980s, not long after the grape variety Chardonnay became very popular with Australian wine drinkers.

1987 D. Williamson Emerald City: I'm going to keep charting their perturbations .. those Chardonnay socialists of Melbourne aren't going to stop me.

2014 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 14 May: Maybe if these rorts are dispensed with, instead of getting failed businessmen, unionists who couldn't get work elsewhere and lawyers who are nothing more than chardonnay socialists and see life as an MP a cosy way to feather their nests, we'll see people in Parliament who have a genuine wish to do something for this country.

checkout chick

A checkout operator at a supermarket. This term usually refers to female checkout operators (hence chick, an informal word for a young woman), but with changes in the gender makeup of the supermarket workforce the term is occasionlly applied to males. Checkout chick is first recorded in the 1970s. For a more detailed discussion of the term see our Word of the Month article from May 2014.

1976 Canberra Times 16 June: The checkout chick is too busy taking money to tell you how to operate your cut-price, multi-purpose, plastic encased kitchen magician.

2014 Geelong Advertiser 19 July: This gormless dude started arguing with the checkout chick and held up a line of about 30 people.


A domestic fowl; a chicken. Chook comes from British dialect chuck(y) 'a chicken; a fowl' which is a variant of chickChook is the common term for the live bird, although chook raffles, held in Australian clubs and pubs, have ready-to-cook chooks as prizes. The term has also been transferred to refer to other birds, and often in the form old chook it can refer to a woman. See our Word of the Month articles 'chook run' and 'chook lit' for further uses of chook. First recorded as chuckey in 1855.

1880 Bulletin (Sydney) 17 July: A man was found in the cow-shed of Government House ... Was he looking after the housemaid or the 100 little chookies?

2014 Sydney Morning Herald 25 November: We have chooks at our farm in Bena, an hour and a half out of town.

chook: may your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down

A jocular curse. This expression recalls an earlier time when many Australians kept chooks (domestic chickens) in the backyard and the dunny was a separate outhouse. A similar comic exaggeration is seen in the phrase he couldn’t train a choko vine over a country dunny - a comment on a person’s incompetence. First recorded in the 1970s.

1993 Advertiser (Adelaide) 9 June: Maybe when Mr Keating has finished educating the judiciary, he might have a go at the politicians and bureaucrats, starting with arithmetic. Although I must say this is a very cunning, contrived piece of legislation, if that is what they set out to do. May their chooks turn into emus and kick their dunnies down.


To vomit. Also used as noun ‘vomit’. Chunder possibly comes from a once-popular cartoon character, 'Chunder Loo of Akim Foo', drawn by Norman Lindsay for a series of boot polish advertisements in the early 1900s. It is possible that 'Chunder Loo' became rhyming slang for spewChunder, however, is the only form to be recorded. The earliest evidence is associated with Australian troops in action to the north of Australia during the Second World War.

1950 N. Shute A Town like Alice: The way these bloody Nips go on. Makes you chunda.

2003 Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 9 April: Back at least 20 years - to a land where women glow and men chunder.


Something that is largely illusory or exists in name only; a poor substitute or imitation. This word derives from the proprietary name of a soft drink, sold in a bottle that looked like a whisky bottle, and marketed from 1980 as 'the drink you have when you're not having a drink'. For a more detailed discussion of the word see our blog 'The evolution of a word - the case of Clayton's'.

1982 Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) 28 March: So who's the press secretary working out of the NSW Parliament whose press-gallery nickname is Clayton .. because he's the press secretary you're having, when you're not having a press secretary?

2008 A. Pung Growing up Asian in Australia: My bikini top is crammed so full of rubbery 'chicken fillets' I'd probably bounce if you threw me. These Clayton's breasts jiggle realistically when I jump up and down on the spot.


An unbranded animal. In the pastoral industry an animal that has not been branded with a mark identifying the owner can easily be stolen or lost. The word is first recorded in the 1860s. There are several transferred and figurative senses of cleanskin that evolved from the orgininal sense. In the first decade of the 20th century cleanskin began to be used to describe 'an Aboriginal person who has not passed through an initiation rite'. Also from this period on cleanskin was used figuratively of 'a person who has no criminal record; a person new to (a situation or activity) and lacking experience'. From the 1980s cleanskin was also used of 'a bottle of wine without a label that identifies the maker, sold at a price cheaper than comparable labelled bottles; the wine in such a bottle'.

1868 Sydney Morning Herald 11 November: These are branded by the owners of such herds, who know all the while that they do not belong to them, on the assumption that they have the best right to these 'clean skins', and that, after all, they are more likely to be their property than that of anyone else.

1998 M. Keenan The Horses too are Gone: In the rangelands an unbranded calf becomes a cleanskin and cleanskins belong to the first person capable of planting a brand on the rump.


A friend, a companion. Also used as a form of address (g’day cobber!). The word probably comes from Yiddish word chaber 'comrade'. The English Dialect Dictionary lists cob 'to take a liking to any one; to "cotton" to', but the evidence is from only one Suffolk source, and the dictionary adds: 'Not known to our other correspondents'. This Suffolk word is sometimes proposed as the origin of cobber, but its dialect evidence is very limited. Cobber, now somewhat dated, is rarely used by young Australians. First recorded in the 1890s.

1929 Bulletin (Sydney) 26 June: 'He was my cobber' - an expressive blend Of 'mate' and 'pal', more definite than 'brother' And somewhat less perfunctory than 'friend'.

2014 Advocate (Burnie) 12 August: Our service was restored at about 11.15pm during July 31, so good onya cobbers for a job well done.


A small-scale farmer; (in later use often applied to) a substantial landowner or to the rural interest generally. In Australia there are a number of cockies including cow cockies, cane cockies and wheat cockies. Cocky arose in the 1870s and is an abbreviation of cockatoo farmer. This was then a disparaging term for small-scale farmers, probably because of their habit of using a small area of land for a short time and then moving on, in the perceived manner of cockatoos feeding.

1899 Australian Magazine (Sydney) March: 'Cockie' was a contemptuous title by which the big farmers distinguished themselves from the little.

2006 Stock and Land (Melbourne) 4 May: Removing the stereotypical image of farmers being whinging cockies is also important.


A person sentenced in the British Isles to a term of penal servitude in an Australian Colony. The foundations of European settlement in Australia are based on the transportation of tens of thousands of prisoners from the British Isles. The word is a specific use of convict 'a condemned criminal serving a sentence of penal servitude' (OED). While in America convict is still used to refer to a prisoner, in Australia it is now largely historical. For a further discussion of this word see our blog 'A long lost convict: Australia's "C-word"?' And for a discussion of words associated with Australia's convicts see the article 'Botany Bay Argot' in our Ozwords newsletter.

1788 Historic Records of Australia (1914): The convicts on both sides are distributed in huts.

1849 G.F. Angas Description of the Barossa Range: No convicts are transported to this place, for South Australia is not a penal colony.


Originally a call used by an Aboriginal person to communicate (with someone) at a distance; later adopted by settlers and now widely used as a signal, especially in the bush; a name given to the call. The iconic call of the Australian bush comes from the Aboriginal Sydney language word gawi or guwi meaning 'come here'. Cooee is recorded from the early years of European settlement in Sydney. It is often found in the phrase within cooee meaning 'within earshot; within reach, near'.

1827 P. Cunningham Two Years in New South Wales: In calling to each other at a distance, the natives make use of the word Coo-ee, as we do the word Hollo, prolonging the sound of the coo, and closing that of the ee with a shrill jerk.

1956 E. Lambert Watermen: If I ever see you within coo-ee of my boat again, I'll drown you.

2006 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 15 March: These Games are no longer some village competition with a hometown audience that you can please with a cooee and a wobbleboard.


The term coolibah is best known from the opening lines of Banjo Paterson's 1895 lyrics for the song Waltzing Matilda:

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong Under the shade of a coolibah tree...

The word is a borrowing from Yuwaaliyaay (and neighbouring languages), an Aboriginal language of northern New South Wales. In the earlier period it was was spelt in various ways, including coolabah, coolobar, and coolybah.

It is term for any of several eucalypts, especially the blue-leaved Eucalyptus microtheca found across central and northern Australia, a fibrous-barked tree yielding a durable timber and occurring in seasonally flooded areas. Coolibah is first recorded in the 1870s.

1876 Sydney Morning Herald 9 August: The country consists of open plains, with myall and coolabah.

1995 Australian (Sydney) 16 September: With its dead coolibah trees, sun-bleached cattle bones and screeching galahs, Howard Blackburn's back paddock could be anywhere in Australia's drought-ravaged grazing lands.


Bad, unpleasant or unsatisfactory: Things were crook on the land in the seventies. Crook means bad in a general sense, and also in more specific senses too: unwell or injured (a crook knee), and dishonest or illegal (he was accused of crook dealings). It is an abbreviation of crooked ‘dishonestly come by; made, obtained, or sold in a way that is not straightforward’. All senses are recorded from the 1890s.

1913 A. Pratt Wolaroi's Cup: Most stables .. are crook some of the time, but none are crook all of the time.

1936 F. Clune Roaming Round the Darling: My cobber, here, used to sing in opera. He's a pretty crook singer, but he'll sing for you.

2014 Advertiser (Adelaide) 31 May: I was feeling crook at the Ipswich races and over the weekend. I went to the GP on Monday and before I knew it I was in emergency and then off to Brisbane.

cup of tea, a Bex, and a good lie down

Used to indicate the need for a rest in order to settle down, solve a problem, etc.; a panacea. The phrase (now often with some variations) was originally the title of a a revue at the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney 1965. The cuppa, the Bex (an analgesic in powder form) and the lie down were supposed to be the suburban housewife’s solution to problems such as depression, anxiety, isolation and boredom.

1971 Sydney Morning Herald 13 May: 'A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a nice lie down' used to be regarded as a bit of a joke. Not anymore. Drug hungry women gulp their share of $200 million headache powders, tranquillisers and sleeping pills every year - to solve every problem from what they'll cook for dinner to that vague headache.

2014 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 23 January: Catholic Church officials once thought child-sex abuse victims just needed a 'cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down' to get over crimes committed against them by paedophile clergy.

currency lad or lass

A native-born Australian. These terms are now obsolete. In the early days of the Australian colony English gold pieces were called sterling, but there were also ‘inferior’ coins from many countries. These were called currency. The ‘sterling’ British-born immigrants used the word currency to belittle the native-born Australians, but the Australians soon used it of themselves with pride. First recorded in the 1820s.

1824 Australian (Sydney) 18 November: Let the currency lads and lasses turn Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses if they choose.

1840 Port Phillip Gazette: The answer of the simple Currency Lass will suit our purpose, who, when asked if she would like to visit England, said, no! there are so many thieves there!!

Updated: 5 October 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher