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The Australian National University

Changes in language: Mate

How is the word mate used in Australian English?

Write down a definition of the word mate as you feel it is used in Australian English.

Then consider the following.

The Australian National Dictionary explains that the Australian usages of mate derive from the British word 'mate' meaning 'a habitual companion, an associate, fellow, comrade; a fellow-worker or partner', and that in British English it is now only in working-class use.

The Australian National Dictionary gives four meanings (although they are all closely related) for Australian English. Note that these meanings are specifically Australian. There are other meanings available in International English.

An equal partner in an enterprise.

Our earliest citation for this meaning occurs in a deposition before the New South Wales Magistrates' Court in 1834: `Just before I got to my own hut I heard the dogs making a great noise and I asked my mate John Rolfe whose dogs they were'.

The term was especially common during the goldrush period. In 1847 we find: `I had gained nothing but a partner, or, as the vernacular of the diggings has it, a mate'.

This sense is also present in the phrase `to go mates' meaning `to work as an equal partner with someone'. In 1878 we find (again in a goldfields context): `The Chinese appear to have no quarrels among themselves when working in partnerships, or as the digging phrase is, going mates '.

Our evidence for this meaning starts to dwindle in the 1940s. Ask your parents or grandparents if they would still use the word in this sense.

An acquaintance; a person engaged in the same activity.

Our earliest evidence for this meaning comes from Victoria in 1841: `We told him our mates were gone, and that we had heard two shots fired'. There is no evidence here that the `mates;' referred to were especially close friends. They are merely acquaintances.

During the First World War we find: `The boy had joined his mates in one of the little cemeteries on the Western front'. In this use of `mates' it is not necessary that the `boy' had personally known any of the others who had died; the important point is that they were all engaged in the same activity.

Is this sense still present in Australian English? If you referred to `my mates at the football club' would you mean `everyone at the football club' or `my very close friends at the football club'?

One with whom the bonds of close friendship are acknowledged, a `sworn friend'.

Our first evidence for this sense comes from an 1891 text: `Where his mate was his sworn friend through good and evil report, in sickness and health, in poverty and plenty, where his horse was his comrade, and his dog his companion, the bushman lived the life he loved'.

Henry Lawson (1913) writes: `The man who hasn't a mate is a lonely man indeed, or a strange man, though he have a wife and family'.

Most of our evidence indicates that in this sense mate is a very male term. Do you think that this is true of present-day Australian English? How would you use it in this sense?

Males: Which of the following would you say?

`I'm going to the football with a few of my mates (Bill, Jim, and Bruce)'. `I'm going to the football with a few of my mates (Bill, Kylie, Jim, and Sally)'. `I'm going to the football with a few of my mates (Kylie, Sally, and Julia)'.

Females: Which of the following would you say?

`I'm going to the football with a few of my mates (Kylie, Sally, and Julia)'. `I'm going to the football with a few of my mates (Bill, Kylie, Jim, and Sally)'. `I'm going to the football with a few of my mates (Bill, Jim, and Bruce)'.

Put the results up on the board. Are there any significant differences between male and female uses of the term?

A mode of address implying equality and goodwill; frequently used to a casual acquaintance and, especially in recent use ironic.

This is the sense found in the very Australian expression `G'day mate'. What is meant by the statement that in recent times the term mate is frequently ironic? Consider the following quotation from 1983: `When they call you `mate' in the N.S.W. Labor party it is like getting a kiss from the Mafia'.

Now reconsider your definition of the term mate. Rewrite it, taking all of the term's possible meanings into account. Then compare your dictionary entry with the entry in the Dictionary you use. Is it satisfactory?

For more information about the word mate consult the Australian National Dictionary.

Updated: 19 October 2010/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher