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The Australian National University

English formations

The settlers often used the resources of British English to attempt to describe the new world of Australia. Sometimes they altered existing senses. For example, in Britain a paddock is a small fenced field, often used for keeping or exercising horses. In Australia, its meaning was greatly expanded, so that it has come to mean ‘a piece of land, fenced, defined by natural boundaries, or otherwise considered distinct, usually a section of a rural property’. This extended sense is first recorded in 1808.

Flora and fauna were often named after a fancied resemblance to European fauna and flora. The term ash, for example, was applied to trees which produced timber resembling the European ash, even though the trees are in no way related. The Australian trees so described are mainly eucalypts. The first recorded example of this use of ash in Australia occurs in 1801: ‘Here we found plenty of different sorts of wood, and the ash trees of considerable magnitude’. There are similar transferred uses of apple (1801), cedar (1795), cherry (1799), mahogany (1792), and oak (1789). These are often further described by distinguishing epithets: red mahogany (1817), swamp mahogany (1817), desert oak (1898), forest oak (1819), she-oak (1792), river oak (1817), silky oak (1836). Similarly, the term bream (1789) was applied to various freshwater and marine fish, again often with a distinguishing epithet as black bream (1857), red bream (1857), and silver bream (1870).

In order to distinguish the Australian plant or animal from the European plant or animal with which it was compared, the Australian word was often preceded by a term such as native. Thus: native artichoke (1909), native bee (1845), native bluebell (1900), native bread (1831), native cat (1804), native dog (1788), native cherry (1817), native cucumber (1859), native cumquat (1880), native fuchsia (1860), native grape (1838), native mulberry (1846), native orange (1860).

The word bush was similarly used: bush cucumber (1937), bush fly (1838), bush hay (1827), bush kangaroo (1832), bush mouse (1872), bush rat (1855), bush tomato, bush turkey (1836). The productivity of bush in compounds was and continues to be much greater than native. It has been used to indicate many aspects of Australian life, especially outside the heavily settled areas: bush ballad (1895), bush bash (1967), bush bread (1840), bush capital (1906), bush cattle (1833), bush house (1837), bush medicine, bush mile (1862), bush telegraph (1864), bush tucker (1895), bush week (1919).

Flora and fauna were often given descriptive names of various kinds: beefwood (Grevillea striata and some similar trees) was named from the redness of the tree’s wood; blackwood (applied to several eucalypts) was named because of a characteristic charred fibrous bark on the lower trunk; bottlebrush (any callistemon) was named because its flower spikes are shaped like a bottle brush; muzzlewood (the small tree Eucalyptus stellulata) was named because its wood was used to make muzzles for unweaned calves to prevent them from suckling; chef’s hat correa (Correa baeurlenii) has a calyx that gives each flower the appearance of a chef’s traditional hat; and the possum banksia (Banksia baueri) has large, woolly, brown-grey flowers which remain woolly after they die, resembling possums on the bush.

Among such interesting terms for fauna included in the Australian Oxford Dictionary are:

anvil bird
archerfish
apostle bird
barking spider
bicycle lizard
bird-eating spider
catbird
cranky fan
dollar bird
friar bird
holy cross toad
leafcutter bee
letter-winged kite
magnetic termite
musk duck
organ grinder
pilot bird
pobblebonk
policeman fly
processional caterpillar
semaphore crab
thorny devil
twenty eight
whipbird
whisky drinker

Among such interesting terms for flora included in the Australian Oxford Dictionary are:

anthouse plant
bird orchid
bitter bark
cheese tree
cider gum
coachwood
compass bush
corkscrew grass
curly wigs
digger’s delight
emu bush
kerosene bush
lawyer palm
parson’s bands
poached egg daisy
possum banksia
raspberry jam tree
sandpaper fig
shatterwood
snow-in-summer
soap tree
tallow wood
wait-a-while
wombat berry

Updated: 18 October 2010/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher