Australian Dictionary

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Australia Decoded
Lavishly Illustrated, Fully Searchable Australian English Dictionary

  • 'Strine and rhyming slang;
  • Words borrowed from the Aborigines;
  • And information about government, settlement (colonisation), Aboriginal culture, the geology, flora and fauna; cities, national parks and much, much more.


The Australian Base

Australian English, as a term, is first recorded in 1908. Sidney J. Baker's The Australian Language was published in 1945 and effectively lays out the map of Australian English until the publication of The Australian National Dictionary in the bicentennial year 1988. The Australian National Dictionary was the first real attempt to provide a documented record of Australianisms since Morris's Austral English (1898).

The Australian National Dictionary records some 10 000 Australianisms, 'those words and meanings of words which have originated in Australia, which have a greater currency here than elsewhere, or which have a special significance in Australia because of their connection with an aspect of the history of the country'.

The Australian Idiom

Linguists and other cultural theorists value the study of Australian colloquialisms as a way of observing how the Australian character has developed through language. For example, 'having a bash' at something is similar to 'giving it a burl', and both phrases reflect a history of Australian improvisation and hard work. 'Don't come the raw prawn' began its life as slang used by Australian service personnel in World War II, and is still used to warn off someone when they attempt to impose their will.

Sydney Baker, author of a number of important 20th century works about slang, believed that the Australian's 'greatest talent is for idiomatic invention. It is a manifestation of our vitality and restless imagination'.

The Australian fondness for continually adapting English through shortening, substituting and combining words contributes to a vocabulary that most Australians understand, and what could be called the Australian 'idiom' or 'vernacular'.

Substitutions, Abbreviations and Comparisons

Colloquialisms can be incorporated into language in a number of ways; the most common of which are substitution and comparison. A common form of substitution is when rhyming slang removes one part of a phrase and replaces it with a word that rhymes, for example to 'have a Captain Cook' means to have a look.

Substitution could also include a 'metaphor', where one word or idea stands in for another. There is no town in Australia called 'Woop Woop', however it has been a popular and evocative byword for a backward and remote location, and has been in use throughout the 20th century.

Colloquialisms that take the form of a comparison often raise startling images, for example: 'flat out like a lizard drinking' (working very hard on a task) or 'standing like a bandicoot on a burnt ridge' (feeling lonely and vulnerable). Dazed and confused, someone will wander 'like a stunned mullet'; in a furious rage, they will be 'mad as a cut snake' and in a state of undeniable lifelessness they will be 'dead as a maggot'.

Australians also demonstrate a strong impulse to abbreviate and alter word endings, resulting in 'barbie' for barbecue, 'arvo' for afternoon, 'cossie' for swimming costume and 'blowie' for blowfly.

Convict Sources

Following the settlement of Australia as a British penal colony, the language that emerged reflected the distinct conditions of settlement, authority and punishment.

Author Amanda Laugesen, in her book Convict Words: Language in Early Colonial Australia, explains how a 'pure Merino' was a sly way of describing settlers 'who pride themselves on being of the purest blood in the Colony'.

In another example, Laugesen explains how ex-convicts who took up airs and graces on their release were dismissed as 'felon-swells' or 'legitimate exquisites'.

Many of these historically specific terms have now disappeared from common usage. For example, the word 'pebble' once referred to a convict who was difficult to deal with and had the hard qualities of stone. A 'paper man' was a convict who had been granted their documents proving a conditional pardon. 'Magpies' and 'canaries' were not only birds; they also were words that described the black and yellow, or straight yellow uniforms worn by convicts.

However, there are cases of words emerging from the convict underworld, enduring through history and remaining peppered through the conversation of Australians today. The term 'swag', which once referred to the booty stolen by a thief, has become a way of describing a valued bundle of items carried by a traveller. The well-known Australian song Waltzing Matilda has helped to cement this term in the popular imagination.

Aboriginal Languages

One of the most important influences on Australian English has been Aboriginal languages. There are a number of Aboriginal words that have been adopted colloquially within Australian English, for example 'boomerang', 'humpy' or 'corroboree'.

Other hybrid words have emerged through a 'pidgin' or early adaptation of English words to describe aspects of Aboriginal life. The phrase 'gone walkabout' was originally used in the early 19th century to describe the migratory movement of Aboriginals across Australia. Now it is used in a more general, and sometimes inaccurate, way to describe a journey away from home. Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald even reported in 1981 that 'Lady Diana takes a Royal walkabout in her stride' (25 July 1981, p.10).

Gentle Insults

A significant number of Australian colloquialisms are affectionate insults or backhanded compliments. A clumsy friend or colleague may be called a 'dag', 'galah', 'drongo' or 'boofhead'. There are also many ways of saying that someone is not very useful, for example:

  • 'couldn't find a grand piano in a one-roomed house'
  • 'couldn't blow the froth off a glass of beer'
  • 'a chop short of a barbie'
  • 'useless as an ashtray on a motorbike'.

Perverse Reversals

As writer, poet and member of the modernist literary and artistic movement the Angry Penguins, Max Harris points out in his book The Australian Way with Words, 'one of the Australian ratbag traditions is to take a word and perversely use it as the opposite of its intended meaning.' A well-known illustration of this is the word 'bluey', a nickname for someone with red hair.

Nicknames describing Australian States

In the spirit of friendly rivalry, Australian states and territories are identified through nicknames. For example, Queensland, where the northern climate encourages tropical fruit growing, is the land of 'banana benders', and Western Australia, home to some of Australia's most magnificent beaches, is populated by 'Sandgropers'. Some terms are less established, for example Victorians were once called 'gum-suckers' when the resin from gum trees (type of Australian tree also known as a Eucalypt) was used as an early substitute for chewing gum.

Interestingly, while certain distinct phrases are limited by geography, there is very little regional variation in Australian colloquialisms considering the distance between the main population centres.

Lost phrases

It is important to remember that a key feature of colloquialisms, slang or 'Australianisms' are that they are never static and often shift meaning or spelling over time. Inevitably, Australian English is constantly shedding colloquial phrases.

It is unlikely that someone will ask you to share a 'puftaloon' (a fried scone) at a 'shivoo' (party). Even in the colder, southern regions of Australia, it is rare to hear the phrase 'cold as a polar bear's bum'. However, browsing through current and historical dictionaries can offer a fascinating map reflecting the changing economic, political and cultural influences in Australian society.

The Present State of Australian English

Australian English today differs markedly from that of the 1890s. Then, Australian English, which was not recognised as being anything other than a collection of additions to British English, was genuinely colonial. It was essentially a 'naming' dialect—the detail of the convict system, names of innumerable species of flora and fauna, occupational terms in the shearing, droving, gold-ming, and timber industries, names of Aboriginal implements and weapons—'naming' words existing in their thousands beside some hundreds of colloquialisms which reflected the pastimes and pursuits of a population predominantly masculine in outlook and expression.

Society is changing in ways which the language is registering. There are migrant varieties of English in Australia which may have made little direct impact on Australian English, but which are important conduits in areas of international English, for instance, in their reinforcing of the expanding vocabulary of food terms. And there is significant movement in the use of Aboriginal English, much more of which is becoming accessible to all Australians, as Aborigines publish more themselves and are more written about by others.

If Australian English is, as it was in the nineteenth century, a reflection of an isolated, predominantly Anglo-Celtic society, it is now a reflection of a society which, by virtue of its changing composition, is becoming more cosmopolitan in its orientation and which, by virtue of Australia's increasing engagement in international activities, is becoming more essentially dependent on those parts of English which are growing internationally.


The pronunciation in Australia differs from that which is current in the British Isles, as the pronunciation within the British Isles differs according to whether the speaker is Irish, Scots or Welsh, from Northumbria or from Cornwall.

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