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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.

dag

An unfashionable person; a person lacking style or character; a socially awkward adolescent, a 'nerd'. These senses of dag derive from an earlier Australian sense of dag meaning 'a "character", someone eccentric but entertainingly so'. Ultimately all these senses of dag are probably derived from the British dialect (especially in children's speech) sense of dag meaning a 'feat of skill', 'a daring feat among boys', and the phrase to have a dag at meaning 'to have a shot at'. The Australian senses of dag may have also been influenecd by the word wag (a habitual joker), and other Australian senses of dag referring to sheep (see rattle your dags below). Dag referring to an unfashionable person etc. is recorded from the 1960s.

1983 Sydney Morning Herald 24 September: Has it helped them feel more relaxed with the boys in their PD group. 'Well, most of them are dags', Julie laughs, 'but at least they're easier to talk to'.

2011 Australian Financial Review (Sydney) 11 July: Christian, while your budget may appear to be reasonable .. your dress sense is nothing less than appalling. Never ever wear a striped suit, a striped shirt and a striped tie together - just dreadful ... You look like a real dag.

dag: rattle your dags

Hurry up, get a move on. Dags are clumps of matted wool and dung which hang around a sheep’s rear end. When a daggy sheep runs, the dried dags knock together to make a rattling sound. The word dag (originally daglock) was a British dialect word that was borrowed into mainstream Australian English in the 1870s. The phrase is first recorded in the 1980s.

1984 S. Thorne Battler: C'mon Mum, rattle yer dags - the old girls are hungry!

2010 Countryman (Perth) 11 February: Rattle yer dags, woolclassers, time's running out to re-register yourselves with the Australian Wool Exchange.

dak

To pull down or remove the trousers from (a person) as a joke or punishment. Dak derives from another Australian term daks meaning 'a pair of trousers'. The term is first recorded from the early 1990s but is probably much older than that. For a more detailed discussion of dak see our Word of the Month article from July 2009.

1994 Age (Melbourne) 24 July: We played footy together, but his recognition was going on to play for Footscray; I was the little fella so mine was getting dakked every pie night.

2007 Herald Sun (Melbourne) 4 October: The former Fitzroy and Brisbane footballer has 'Fitzroy RIP 1996' tattooed on his right buttock. His family didn't know about it until he was dacked during a game this year.

damper

A simple kind of bread, traditionally unleavened and baked in the ashes of an outdoor fire. This word is specific use of British damper meaning ‘something that takes the edge off the appetite’, and probably with some influence from damp down '(of a fire or furnace) to cover or fill it with small coal, ashes, or coke, so as to check combustion and prevent its going out, when not required for some time'. Because it was the most common form of bread for bush workers in the nineteenth century, to earn your damper means to be worth your pay. First recorded in the 1820s.

1825 Howe's Weekly Commercial Express (Sydney) 23 May: There is at this moment many a poor settler up the country, buried in the bush .. eating salt pork and dampers with an occasional feast of kangaroo.

2013 S. Bisley Stillways: We made damper out of flour and water, squeezed it around green sticks to cook over the coals.

dawn service

A commemorative ceremony held at dawn on Anzac Day. Anzac Day, April 25, is a national public holiday in Australia commemorating all those who have served and died in war. It is the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops in 1915. While commemorative services have been held on April 25 since 1916, the term dawn service is not recorded until the 1920s.

1971 Bulletin (Sydney) 8 May: Ahead of us, already drunk in preparation for an Anzac Sunday, three old mates, Les, Norm and Billy, a rolled flag between them, zigzag toward the Dawn Service.

2015 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 11 January: Cruise Express's Legends of the Mediterranean package will cruise the waters off the Turkish coast at dawn on April 25 and the official dawn service ashore will be broadcast on the ship.

didgeridoo

The didgeridoo is a wind instrument that was originally found only in Arnhem Land in northern Australia. It is a long, wooden, tubular instrument that produces a low-pitched, resonant sound with complex, rhythmic patterns but little tonal variation. In popular understanding many Australians probably believe that this is an Aboriginal word. Indeed, the 1988 edition of the Australian National Dictionary attributed it to the Yolngu language of northern Queensland. Subsequent research has cast doubt on this etymology, and in 1990 the following statement was made in Australian Aboriginal Words in English: 'Although it has been suggested that this must be a borrowing from an Australian language it is not one. The name probably evolved from white people's ad hoc imitation of the sound of the instrument'. This argument is supported by two of the earliest pieces of evidence for the term:

1918 Richmond Guardian (Melbourne): 'At Darwin the nigger crew is making merry with the Diridgery doo and the eternal ya-ya-ya ye-ye-ye cry'.

1919 Smith's Weekly (Sydney): 'The Northern Territory aborigines have an infernal - allegedly musical - instrument composed of two feet of hollow bamboo. It produces but one sound - 'didjerry, didjerry, didjerry -' and so on ad infinitum.

digger

An Australian soldier. The term was applied during the First World War to Australian and  New Zealand soldiers because so much of their time was spent digging trenches. An earlier Australian sense of digger was ‘a miner digging for gold ’. Billy Hughes, prime minister during the First World War, was known as the Little Digger. First recorded in this sense 1916.

1918 Aussie: Australian Soldiers' Magazine February: About the origin of this word 'Digger' ... It came to France when the sandgropers gave up digging on the goldfields of W.A. and carried on with it on the battlefields.

2015 Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 26 January: Australia's special-forces troops .. dominate the military division of the 2015 Australia Day Honours. They include a major who planned an 'unprecedented operation' to capture a rogue Afghan sergeant who murdered three Australian diggers.

dinkum

Reliable; genuine; honest; true. This word is a shortening of fair dinkum which comes from British dialect. The compound fair dinkum 'fair dealing which is just and equitable' is recorded from Lincolnshire in 1881, and is the equivalent of West Yorkshire fair doos fair dealing. The adjective is first recorded in Australia from the 1890s. For a more detailed discussion of dinkum see the article 'The Story of Dinkum' on our blog.

1910 Sunday Times (Perth) 6 March: I'll tell you, sir, what happened, and I tell the dinkum truth.

2014 Sydney Morning Herald 29 July: The electorate is better educated than ever before, people are more financially successful and they see through the paradox that governments promise more and more but can achieve less. The starting point is to make the debate more dinkum.

dinner: done like a dinner

Comprehensively outwitted or defeated - ‘Collingwood was done like a dinner in the grand final’. The phrase was first recorded in 1847. The origin is uncertain, but a common variation is ‘done like a dog’s dinner’, which implies a meal devoured with enthusiasm, and the bowl licked clean. This may give a clue to the source of the phrase. If you are done like a dinner, you are completely and efficiently demolished.

1853 T.F. Bride Letters from Victorian Pioneers: The horse swam for a quarter of a mile down the river with the cart after him .. the driver, who remained till then on his seat on the hurdle up to his neck in water, calling out to me 'he was done like a dinner'.

2013 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 14 November: Keep going the way they are and they will be done like a dinner for many elections to come.

dob

To inform upon (someone); to incriminate (someone). The ethic of standing by one’s mates means that many Australians take a dim view of dobbing. The word is probably related to British dialect dob meaning 'to put down an article heavily or clumsily; to throw down', and 'to throw stones etc. at a mark' (often used to describe throwing and hitting in games of marbles). Dob is first recorded in the 1950s. For a more detailed discussion of this term see the article 'The Story of Dob' on our blog.

1955 Overland v.: He came to me and dobbed in one of the carpenters for talking.

2013 S. Bisley Stillways: He used to sell single cigarettes to kids, and although it was common knowledge, he had never been busted and no one ever dobbed on him.

dolly’s wax: full up to dolly’s wax

‘Would you like more dessert?’ ‘No, I’m full up to dolly’s wax.’ This rather old-fashioned phrase means that you have eaten enough. It refers to the time before plastics were widely used, when children’s dolls had wax heads attached to cloth bodies. This example illustrates the way the origins of words and phrases can be lost with changes in technology. The expression has several variants including fed up to dolly's wax, and its meaning does not always denote being 'full' with food. First recorded in the early 20th century.

1943 Australasian (Melbourne) 10 July: There are books on this and books on that about past, present, and future international relations all deadly dull ... And I am fed up to dolly's wax with them.

2012 C. Tiffany Mateship with Birds: Every night after tea ⅆ Edna asked Harry if he'd had enough to eat. 'I'm full up to Dolly's wax', Harry would say, patting his neck.

donkey vote

(In a preferential system of voting) a vote recorded by allocating preferences according to the order in which candidates' names appear on the ballot paper; such votes viewed collectively. Voters who merely number the candidates in the order they are listed on the ballot paper (without regard for the merits of the candidates) are casting a donkey vote - that is, a stupid vote. First recorded in the early mid-20th century.

1955 Sydney Morning Herald 9 December: In previous Senate elections about 2 per cent. of voters have voted straight across the ballot paper without knowing which parties they were voting for. In South Australia this vote - the 'donkey vote' - will go to the Anti-Communists.

2001 Manly Daily 20 October: Although happy to top the ballot in Warringah, Greens candidate Keelah Lam said the only donkey votes in Warringah would come from people with no interest in politics.

Dorothy Dixer (Dorothy Dix)

A parliamentary question asked of a Minister by a member of the party in government to give the Minister the opportunity to deliver a prepared reply. It comes from Dorothy Dix, the pen-name of Elizabeth Gilmer (1870-1951), an American journalist who wrote a famous personal advice column which was syndicated in Australia. Her column came to seem a little too contrived, as if she was writing the questions as well as the answers. First recorded in the 1930s. For a discussion about the use of Dorothy Dixer in rhyming slang see the article 'Dorothies and Michelles' in our Ozwords newsletter. 

1934 Canberra Times 27 July: There were many questions on trade and finance matters. One of those came from Mr Hutchin, and there were cries of 'Dorothy Dix' when he asked it ... When a Minister is anxious to make some information available, or to answer some outside criticism, he will often get a private member to ask a question on the subject.

2003 Australian (Sydney) 28 May: Like everyone else, Kevin Rudd was spellbound when diminutive Liberal MP Sophie Panopolous rose to ask a dorothy dixer. And it was not her husky voice or hair or makeup that stopped traffic, but the rows and rows of pearls .. dangling beneath her neck. 'Condolence motion to the oysters', barked Rudd.

dreamtime

(In traditional Aboriginal belief) a collection of events beyond living memory that shaped the physical, spiritual, and moral world; the era in which these occurred; an Aboriginal person's consciousness of the enduring nature of the era. The term also takes the form dreaming. Dreamtime is a translation of alcheringa - a word from the Arrernte Aboriginal language of the Alice Springs region in central Australia. The term is first recorded in the 1890s.

1963 D. Attenborough Quest Under Capricorn: Although the Dreamtime was in the past, it is also co-existent with the present, and a man, by performing the rituals, can become one with his 'dreaming' and experience eternity. It is to seek this mystical union that the men enact the ceremonies.

2015 Advertiser (Adelaide) 26 January: Australia, old as the dreamtime, From your sun-warmed dust I grew, The molecules that make me, All have been part of you.

drongo

A fool, a simpleton, an idiot. There is also a bird called a drongo. The spangled drongo is found in northern and eastern Australia, as well as in the islands to the north of Australia, and further north to India and China. It is called a drongo because that is the name of a bird from the same family in northern Madagascar. The spangled drongo is not a stupid bird. It is not a galah. One book describes it thus: 'The spangled drongo catches insects in the air, chasing them in aerobatic flight'. There is one odd story about the drongo, however: unlike most migratory birds, it appears to migrate to colder regions in winter. Some have suggested that this is the origin of the association of 'stupidity' with the term drongo. But this seems most unlikely.

So what is the true story? There was an Australian racehorse called Drongo during the early 1920s. It seems likely that he was named after the bird called the 'drongo'. He wasn't a an absolute no-hoper of a racehorse: he ran second in a VRC Derby and St Leger, third in the AJC St Leger, and fifth in the 1924 Sydney Cup. He often came very close to winning major races, but in 37 starts he never won a race. In 1924 a writer in the Melbourne Argus comments: 'Drongo is sure to be a very hard horse to beat. He is improving with every run'. But he never did win.

Soon after the horse's retirement it seems that racegoers started to apply the term to horses that were having similarly unlucky careers. Soon after the term became more negative, and was applied also to people who were not so much 'unlucky' as 'hopeless cases', 'no-hopers', and thereafter 'fools'. In the 1940s it was applied to recruits in the Royal Australian Air Force. It has become part of general Australian slang.

Buzz Kennedy, writing in The Australian newspaper in 1977, defines a drongo thus:

A drongo is a simpleton but a complicated one: he is a simpleton [of the] sort who not only falls over his feet but does so at Government House; who asks his future mother-in-law to pass-the-magic-word salt the first time the girl asks him home.... In an emergency he runs heroically in the wrong direction. If he were Superman he would get locked in the telephone box. He never wins. So he is a drongo.

The origin of the term was revived at Flemington in 1977 when a Drongo Handicap was held. Only apprentice jockeys were allowed to ride. The horses entered were not allowed to have won a race in the previous twelve months.

1941 Somers Sun 2 July: When you are called Drongo, ignore it.

2013 A. Goode Through the Farm Gate: I can't believe my drongo of a father is asking such ridiculous questions.

drop bear

A jocular name for an imaginary animal similar in appearance to a koala, with very sharp jaws and teeth, that is said to devour tourists etc. after dropping down on them from trees. The term is often associated with the fooling of gullible international tourists, and has accordingly been used this way in television advertisements. There are suggestions that the term drop bear emerged in the Second World War period (see 1982 quotation below) but the first record is from the 1980s.

1982 N. Keesing Lily on a Dustbin: The 'drop bears' are creatures of a tall story - they were invented during World War II for the benefit of gullible American servicemen. It is alleged that 'drop bears' are a dangerous kind of koala and that they drop out of trees on the heads and shoulders of bush walkers and hug them to death.

2014 Townsville Bulletin 7 November: Participants are advised to choose their start time carefully to ensure they are finished before it gets dark and the drop bears come out at 6.30pm.

drover’s dog: like a drover’s dog

Drover’s dog has been used since the 1850s in various similes, usually uncomplimentary - a head like a drover’s dog (big and ugly), all prick and ribs like a drover’s dog (lean and hungry), and leaking like a drover’s dog (as in ‘the NSW Cabinet is leaking like a drover’s dog!’). It can also mean a nonentity, as when a politician commented in 1983 that ‘a drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory’.

1978 J. Colbert The Ranch: The other Harry has got a head like a drover's dog and always wears a hat.

2001 B. Courtenay: We'd heard Nancy say he'd come back like a drover's dog all prick and ribs.

ducks on the pond

Look out - female approaching! A warning cry from a male as a signal to other men that a woman is approaching a traditionally all-male environment. It is a reminder that the men should modify their language and behaviour to avoid giving offence. It was first used in shearing sheds, but is now heard in other places, especially in a pub. While the first written evidence comes from the early 1980s the phrase probably goes back several decades earlier.

1982 P. Adam-Smith When We Rode the Rails: I remember well enough years ago hearing them yell 'Ducks on the Pond!' when a sheila hove in sight but that was more to warn a man to watch his tongue.

2005 Sun-Herald (Sydney) 22 May: The pathetic and increasingly unwatched Footy Show on Channel Nine whipped up another 'ducks on the pond' furore over the proposal to include the outspoken Rebecca Wilson on their panel. Fatty Vautin and Peter Sterling reportedly held angry meetings with their producer declaring they would not speak to Wilson if she was hired.

dunny

A toilet. The dunny was originally any outside toilet. In cities and towns the pan-type dunny was emptied by the dunny man, who came round regularly with his dunny cart. Dunny can now be used for any toilet. The word comes from British dialect dunnekin meaning an 'earth closet, (outside) privy' from dung + ken 'house'. First recorded in the 1930s but dunnekin is attested in Australian sources from the 1840s.

1957 Overland x: We used ter have a snake in the dunny - lav., sir.

2000 Tracks January: The scourge of the summer festival-goer has to be the crusty dunnies.

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