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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.

cark it

To die, as in don’t tell the kids the budgie carked it. The origin is uncertain. Perhaps it is a play on the standard English word croak ‘to die’, or it may be a shortening of carcass. Cark it also means ‘to fail or break down completely’: my blender’s carked it.

chardonnay socialist

A derogatory label for a person who pays lip service to left-wing views while enjoying an affluent lifestyle. It is modelled on the British term, champagne socialist, which has a similar meaning. The term chardonnay socialist appeared in 1989, not long after the grape variety Chardonnay became extremely popular with Australian wine drinkers.

chook

A domestic fowl. Chook comes from British dialect chuck or chucky 'chicken', a word imitating a hen's cluck. Australians use 'chicken' to mean ‘the meat of the bird’ or ‘a baby fowl’. Chook is the common term for the live bird, although chook raffles, held in Australian pubs, have ready-to-cook chooks as prizes. First recorded as chuckey 1855.

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

A comic curse. This expression recalls an earlier time when many Australians kept chooks in the back yard 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.

chunder

To vomit. Also used as noun ‘vomit’. Chunder probably 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 'spew'. Chunder, however, is the only form to be recorded. First recorded 1950.

cobber

A friend, a companion. Also used as a form of address (g’day cobber!). The word probably comes from British dialect cob 'to take a liking to', although a Yiddish word khaber 'comrade' has also been suggested as a source. Cobber, now somewhat dated, is rarely used by young Australians. First recorded 1893.

cocky

A farmer. In Australia there are cow cockies, cane cockies and wheat cockies. Cocky arose in the 1840s 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 manner of cockatoos feeding.

coolibah

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

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

The word is a borrowing from Yuwaaliyaay, 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.

The word is first recorded in 1893 by E. Palmer in Plants of Northern Queensland:

E. microtheca.. The Coolibar or flooded box on all Gulf waters, often in flooded ground, of a crooked growth, about 30 feet high.

cordie

Cordie is a term for an army cadet from the Royal Military College Duntroon in Canberra. The term is used by civilians (especially Canberrans), and then the term is regarded by cadets as highly derogatory; but the term is also used by cadets themselves, and then the term is one of camaraderie.

It is most commonly assumed by cadets themselves that the term arose at the time when cadets were not allowed to wear denim jeans outside the college, whereupon, as a 'fashion' substitute, they wore corduroy trousers (the minimum dress standard) in order to fit in with the way contemporary and 'with it' young males would be expected to costume themselves. Since the cadets soon came to be readily recognisable as such, even when out of uniform, partly because of their corduroy clothing (often abbreviated to cords in Standard Australian), they came to be (mockingly?) referred to as cordies. Although this is the generally accepted explanation, others are offered:

  • the first cadets at the College all wore corduroy trousers, or cords.
  • the term derives from the lanyard or cord worn by cadets on their right arm.
  • R. Rayward in More than a Mere Bravo, English Department, ADFA, 1988, reporting a Canberra resident's claim that he had heard the term as early as 1939, argues that the term is a corruption of the College barracking cry used at sporting matches, 'Come on, Cora!' (where 'Cora' is a shortening of 'Corps of Staff Cadets').

It seems unlikely, however, that the term 'Cora' would be altered to cordie, although as the evidence following indicates, the term 'Cora' was in existence from the mid-1920s. Air Commodore P.G. Heffernan (who graduated from RMC in 1928) in his unpublished manuscript Duntroon Days (copy in RMC Archives), p. 49, gives 'Cora' as a Duntroon slang term for 'The Corps of Staff Cadets', and in his account (p. 32) of the 1926 initiation ceremony provides two usages of the term (the following quotation begins with the initiands' oath of allegiance to the Corps - I have quoted only the opening and closing couplets):

I swear by Humdummick all tattered and torn,
That this evening I wish that I'd never been born....
By the expert on Crossleys and the S.P.A. roarer
That after tonight I am one of the Cora!

Having recited the oath, the victim quaffed a dose of 'Creme de Cora', which was a mixture of rifle oil, Holbrooks sauce and a well known brand of proprietary medicine which produced a lovely blue colour when it reappeared".

The Australian National Dictionary suggests a different derivation: "Probably from cord, in allusion to the epaulettes of a dress uniform: see quotation 1945 where the reference is in a military context and to servants".

We now recognise that there are some problems with this explanation. The first problem is that an epaulette is not really made of "cord", nor does an epaulette resemble cord. The second problem with it, as Rayward points out, is that cadets do not wear epaulettes.

The Australian National Dictionary citation in support of its etymology is from the Weekend Magazine, 25 November 1945. This was a magazine produced by the 15th Australian Infantry Brigade when it was serving in the Solomon Islands. The passage from it, as quoted by the dictionary, reads: "How would you like to be waited on by 1000 people - or should I say Kordies?" The Weekend Magazine article is headed "1000 Servants". It reads in full:

How would you like to be waited on by 1000 people - or should I say kordies? At first thought it sounds OK, but I think I'd find it a trifle distressing, particularly in the execution of the private details of one's daily toilet. Still, not having attained a position of great privilege (not that I have any desire to as I seek a certain amount of privacy from life) I'm perhaps not qualified to comment on the merits or demerits of having servants at every door of the palace. But I'm rambling. What I started out to comment on was the activity of our old mate Hirohito the Humble. Hiro, after asking forgiveness from his ancestors for losing the war, has decided to shed the external emblems of war by having himself bedecked in a resplendent civvy suit. Meanwhile, with his 1000 servants, he gazes mystically at his tanks of seaweed - a most strenuous study, requiring the skilled assistance of butlers and footmen. Personally, I think 999 of those servants would be better employed trying to ease the Japanese food situation. Still, I've been told before that I'm no theoretician, so I'll leave Hirohito have his glory and white house and stick to trying to write.

It is clear that the kordies in the article above are not specifically 'military' servants, nor is the context military: rather these kordies are palace-servants of the Emperor Hirohito, and the context would seem to be (even if extravagantly so) domestic. Ironically, it would seem that the usage of kordies in this article (especially with the k- spelling) points to an origin for the Duntroon cordie quite different from those posited by Rayward and the Australian National Dictionary.

John R. Hall in The Real John Kerr (Sydney, 1978), pp. 70-71, explains how some administrators sent to New Guinea in 1945 by the Australian Minister for Transport and Territories, Eddie Ward, in order to set in train new policy initiatives, were disparagingly referred to by the 'old guard' as "Wardie's Kordies".  Hall explains the term Kordies:

The second word was taken from Korda, a sinister, slimey and manipulative character in the Women's Weekly cartoon 'Mandrake'.

An examination of the actual cartoons is instructive. In the early to mid 1940s in the Mandrake the Magician cartoon series in The Australian Women's Weekly a character called Baron Kord is introduced. He is a "sinister-looking man", and he is attracted to Princess Narda ("Mandrake's one love"), and intends to marry her. Baron Kord has a mysterious "powder" which, when added to drinking water, has the power to turn men into "the living dead", i.e., "Kordies". One (1942) cartoon sequence describes them as follows: "See those people down there? Those are the mindless, lifeless ones. They move only to work and obey. They feel no pain, heat or cold. All they see is a dense haze. We call them Kordies". Baron Kord builds up a vast army of these mindless servants in order to serve his wicked purposes. When Mandrake and Narda are lured by Baron Kord to a "masque ball" at Kord Key ("isle of the walking dead"), Mandrake asks the Baron who all the men are, and the Baron replies, "my servants". Mandrake muses: "Servants? Looks like a regiment [emphasis mine]".

Mandrake substitutes salt for the mysterious powder in the Kordies' drinking water, and initially there appears to be no change in their kordie condition. "Kordies still Kordies" observes Lothar (Mandrake's "giant Nubian servant"). To which Mandrake responds: "Perhaps they will always be, Lothar". Yet they eventually come back to life, and Mandrake asks the first one to revive how much he remembers of his Kordie existence, to which the reply is: "Everything! It was like a nightmare that never ended!" The guards suspect at this point that they hear voices coming from the Kordies' compound, but they dismiss the possibility: "Don't be a dope," says one, "Kordies can't talk". Baron Kord continues on his evil way, oblivious of the discovery of his secret, and his Hitler-like aim is to take over the world: "he dreams of a Kordie world - of millions of silent slaves who will work and obey without protest". He is, of course, mistaken, and he is defeated.

There seems to me little doubt that this cartoon sequence is the origin of the Weekend Magazine citation in The Australian National Dictionary. It also offers a very tempting explanation for the origin of Duntroon cordie. The parallel between the servants of Baron Kord and the uniformed Duntroon cadets who carried out the tasks allotted them by their 'masters', returning each night not to the "Kordie corral" but to the clink (as Duntroon was known), must surely have occurred to some Canberrans (if not to the cadets themselves!). And The Australian Women's Weekly was a very widely read magazine. The term kordie would have been used in speech, and no doubt at some stage it became blurred with the similar sounding Corps, hence the shift in spelling from k- to c-. It seems that this Mandrake the Magician cartoon series is the frontrunner in any explanation of the origin of cordie.

At least, the etymology of the term will need to be revised for the next edition of The Australian National Dictionary.

Some sample citations:

1964 Woroni (Canberra) 9 July: Blues Undo Cordies. After indifferent form in our last two matches Uni. played constructive football to defeat R.M.C. at Duntroon.

1980 Christopher Lee, Bush Week: And also there were sculling races and slopping of grog down your shirt and sometimes out in the Ainslie beer garden Pumpy brought a stopwatch to time blokes for downing ten ounces. And the fastest eight blokes were the official eight when we drank against the Cordies and beat them hollow. Cordies were very regimental, and one day we were told they would make up the cream of Australia's New Army. They would always open doors for women. I suppose they learned to be very polite from snapping quick salutes at each other. Cordies had short hair and manners and muscles, but they sure couldn't drink.

1981 Canberra Times 18 September: Changing the guard at Yarralumla Palace would become the top tourist attraction in Canberra, says the task force, with the red-coated RMC band marching down Lady Denman Drive with a smartly outfitted detachment of 'cordies' from Duntroon behind them.

1982 Sydney Morning Herald 5 June: Canberra life in the 60s was great for a 'Cordie', Canberra slang for a Duntroon cadet: 'Canberra mothers love a Cordie... you know what they say, if you can't get a man, get a Cordie'.

1984 Age (Melbourne) 12 April: Cadets are nicknamed 'cordies' around Canberra because they have to rely on corduroy for casual wear, jeans being outlawed as unbecoming to an officer".

1984 Canberra Times 18 August: Cordies forget the 60s in aid of Bush Week. About 60 Duntroon cadets marched on the Australian National University yesterday in what looked like a return to the student-cadet confrontations of the 1960s".

crook

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’.

cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down

A joking term for a cure-all, the remedy for any problem. The phrase (now often with some variations) was originally the title of a 1960s Sydney theatrical revue. 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. The expression is often used in political contexts—‘He called the ASEAN ambassadors in for a cup of tea, a Bex and a quick lie down’.

currency lad or lass

A native-born Australian. 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 1824.

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