Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Australian Definitions

In our previous post, we put out a few words that are Australian slang. I think they were defined well enough by those who commented, but here are the consensus definitions I've found around the internet.

1. Swagman

One is tempted to use the words tramp or hobo or vagabond, but I think Soubriquet was much closer by describing this person as an "itenerant worker." That might be TOO charitable, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between. First and foremost, the swagman is a free spirit, with wanderlust in his heart and a desire to see what's over the next horizon. Work? Well, they do odd jobs to pick up a bit of money along the way, or trade their labor for food, but mostly they aren't looking to stay in one place too long.

The word swagman is used in Australia and New Zealand, though sometimes the word sundowner or tussocker is used interchangeably, some sources say.

My dictionary isn't much help. It defines swagman as someone who carries a swag.

Let's just leave it at "temporary transient worker."

2. Swag

This is the bag or bedroll the swagman carries on his back. In cartoons this is depicted a bandana tied around a few things and carried over the sholder on a stick. This would hardly hold enough to keep a man alive. So a swag is a bedroll, and their few things are rolled up inside it and carried on their back.

3. Billabong

Most just say pond or small lake and let it go. Actually it is what we Americans call an oxbow or "oxbow lake." (These are formed when a river changes it's course and leaves water behind in what was once the old river bed, usually "U" shaped; they are stillwaters which are next to the new riverbed.) Super good fishing there, and pleasant to camp out next to. If you don't mind mosquitoes. Needless to say, livestock who are foraging on their own come to billabongs to drink.

4. Coolabah

A kind of Eucalyptus tree that often grows near billabongs.

5. Billy

Sometimes called billy can. (U.S.) This is just a camping utensil used to cook over an open fire. Often these are handmade, such as out of a large vegetable can with a wire handle fashioned on the top so it looks like a little bucket. You use them to boil water or make soup or stew. Ok, "tin" to you.

These should not be confused with billy club or Billy the Kid. Those things are very different.

6. Jumbuck

I always thought this was a lamb. When I was little, in school, I thought it was a rabbit. I suppose you don't care about my erroneous thoughts as a child, sleeping among my books. I think it is just a generic Australian term for a sheep, especially a loner that would be going to the water on it's own. But the thing I don't see is how the swagman could get a whole sheep, lamb or not, into his tuckerbag (where he kept his food, inside his swag.) Also, I think the stockman and troopers were just being bullies, not really knowing if he had taken a sheep. Well, where the hell would it be? Were they blind that they couldn't see a struggling sheep in a swag? Give me a break. They assumed. If I had been the swagman, I would have gotten a lawyer and sued them for defamation instead of drowning myself. But maybe he was just high or something.

7. Tuckerbag

Aussie slang for green volkswagon.

8. Squatter

Like Soubriquet said.

9. Stockman

I started to say a stockman is what we would call a rancher. But that's not true, since a rancher runs cattle, not sheep. So a man who tends stock. Man.

10. Trooper

Police, more or less.

But how likely is it that a stockman who saw a swagman by a billabong would run and get the cops before drawing down on him? Huh? Huh? Not bloody likely.

11. Matilda

Originally one of those huge greatcoats that soldiers used to wear in winter. But in this context we're just talking about the swagman's swag, the closest thing to him, spoke of in feminine terms. Matilda was just the name the soldiers used to call it though. It kept them warm.

12. To waltz is a carryover from old German, when apprentices used to travel from craftsman to craftsman to learn their trades. Waltz in that context means travel. Waltzing Matilda, then, is to travel with your sweetie swagbag.

13. Cark it

To croak. To kick the bucket. To bite the big one.

I guess that wasn't on the list.


  1. Australians are a combination of English convicts transported for serious crime (stealing a handkerchief, not bowing to the queen or being Irish.
    Or they are Irish who left during the famine, that is why there is a strong anti monarchy attitude there today.
    The more intelligent ones are descended from Scots who went there on assisted passages.

  2. Ah see, I've been brought up on Rolf Harris and his "Greatest Hits" album has him giving a great long introduction to Walzting Matilda where he explains all this. Great stuff!

  3. Psst, RM, one who tends sheep is a shepherd.

    Just thought I'd help.

  4. By chance I was reading about Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson the other day, so I was pretty well prepared for this post.

  5. Is Soubriquet being too charitable in his description?
    To answer that question, you have to have some knowledge of the way in which australia functioned in the late victorian/early edwardian era. Australian sheep and cattle stations were typically huge in area, and far apart.
    (Anna Station, the biggest, for instance, is about nine and a quarter thousand square miles, Bigger than Israel.
    Bigger than Rhode Island, bigger than Delaware, bigger than Connecticut, bigger than New Jersey...
    About the same size as New Hampshire.
    The biggest ranch in the United States would barely cover one eighth of Anna Station's land. The nearest town? well, it's on the station...
    Mount Margaret sheep station had 76,000 sheep and 5000 head of cattle in its heyday )
    Sheep farming has seasonal demands for large numbers of workers, mainly at lambing, dipping, mustering, and shearing times. Yet in between those times, need relatively few workers. So the workers move around a lot between the busy times.
    Likewise tradesmen.
    Many stations are a day or more's travel from the nearest neighbour. And that's in our motorised age. You can't just zip into town and drop off your shoes to have them mended. Nor, if you need a plumber, can you just call the guy and have him there in a matter of hours.
    In the time when Paterson wrote the song, Australia was a place where large numbers of men, stockmen, tradesmen, well-diggers, dam builders, motor mechanics were on the move. A man skilled at making and mending could turn up at a station, and find work, maybe a week, maybe a few months. when his work was done, there might be a sixty or more mile walk to the next station. These men were the swagmen.
    A man who could mend copper pans, another who was good with clocks... a painter, cabinetmaker, all of these were on the move, waltzing their matildas.
    Tramp, hobo, vagabond, all these, to me carry a negative connotation. I prefer to think of that jolly swagman as a valued and vital piece of australia's infrastructure.

  6. @Adullamite - You are so disparaging lately. My god, Man! - who do you like? (I mean besides Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan?)

    I'm not altogether sure Scots were offered assisted passages.

    Kidding! Of COURSE they were! One of my favorite Australian dwellers in all the liberal world is a Scot by birth. Only he is much more recent, and I think he swam.

  7. @Expat Mum - Rolf Harris! But you are too young to know about Rolf Harris. I remember one time (on this blog) my friend Soubriquet was teaching me (sort of) some alternative lyrics to "Tie Me Kangaroo Down." Har!

    Mr. Harris still paints, you know. And the Stylophone is very collectable today. Bet you don't even know what a Stylophone is. :)

    Rolf played the wobble board on TMKD, btw. (I know lots of stuff, just not important stuff like Souby knows.)

    What else? Oh, Rolf did a Christmas song once. Only he used kangaroos instead of reindeer. (Christmas is in the summer in Oz.)

  8. @Stephanie Barr - Once again I must sigh. Shepherd in Boise and Jerusalem, not shepherd in Australia. GOODGODLUVADUCK! This post was about ...

    Never mind.

    But you are right, of course.

  9. @Symdaddy - Hmmmmm. ::narrows eyes suspiciously:: Then why didn't you ....

    you know...

    Talk about the words?

    But I suppose they were already pretty much covered, so no need.

    I'm guessing he played the banjo. Just a shot in the dark.

  10. I once played the wobble board while climbing a ladder. I may yet blog about it. You'll not be prepared for THAT one, I wager.

  11. @Soubriquet - That was very informative. Thank you.

    ::throws away his original 17-page response::

  12. And Texas is larger than France, but...

  13. Australia is LARGE. It is a continent.

    I prefer to think of a swagman as a jumbuck thief who gets caught redhanded and in his flusteration forgets he can't swim.

    Call me a romantic.

  14. Wool will weigh you down.
    —Rolf Harris

  15. "Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan?"

    How dare you!

    The latest one, 'Dave' Cameron is worse!



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