Posts Tagged ‘cobber’

Each country has its own linguistic quirks. They fascinate me, and others. Well, you gotta have a hobby, I guess.

Being interested in linguistics, I have long wondered about the derivation of the ubiquitous term “Pom” that Aussies use to describe Brits, often disparagingly, sometimes affectionately.

Now a new explanation comes from the Oxford English Dictionary via the Beeb.

Historical dictionaries are not just about definitions.

Every word or phrase has a story, and the historical lexicographer has to tease this story out from whatever documentation can be found.

An enduring myth is that the word pom (as in whinging pom and other more colourful expressions) is an acronym from either “Prisoner of His Majesty” or even “Permit of Migration”, for the original convicts or settlers who sailed from Britain to Australia.

The first recorded use of pom comes from 1912, which is quite – but not unnaturally – early for an acronym.

There is no historical documentation to support these myths (rather like the disproved theory that posh (meaning well-bred or wealthy) derives from tickets for the upmarket cabins on the old P&O liners – port out, starboard home – even though that is still commonly used as an explanation). Instead the etymology is apparently more circuitous.

In the case of “Pom” we actually start with the word immigrant, well-established by the mid 19th Century as a settler.

Then, in a joking way people would play with immigrant from around 1850 or so, turning it into a proper name (Jimmy Grant), to give the strange immigrants a pseudo-personality.

Equally playfully, a Jimmy Grant morphed around 1912 into pomegranate and immediately into pom, which it has stuck as till today.

Here are a few more from Australia, courtesy of the Australian National Dictionary Centre.

Cark it

To die, as in don’t tell the kids the budgie carked it. The origin is uncertain. Perhaps it is a play on the standard English word croak ‘to die’, or it may be a shortening of carcass. Cark it also means ‘to fail or break down completely’: my blender’s carked it.

Chardonnay socialist

A derogatory label for a person who pays lip service to left-wing views while enjoying an affluent lifestyle. It is modelled on the British term, champagne socialist, which has a similar meaning. The term chardonnay socialist appeared in 1989, not long after the grape variety Chardonnay became extremely popular with Australian wine drinkers.

A good alternative for the early settlers when no chooks were available ...

A good alternative for the early settlers when no chooks were available …


A domestic fowl. Chook comes from British dialect chuck or chucky ‘chicken’, a word imitating a hen’s cluck. Australians use ‘chicken’ to mean either ‘the meat of the bird’ or ‘a baby fowl’. Chook is the common term for the live bird, although Chook raffles, commonly held in Australian pubs, have ready-to-cook chooks as prizes as well as other items. First recorded as chuckey 1855. Which led us to:

May your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down

A comic curse. This expression recalls an earlier time when many Australians kept chooks in the back yard and the dunny was a separate outhouse – er, toilet.


To vomit. Also used as noun ‘vomit’. Chunder probably comes from a once-popular cartoon character, ‘Chunder Loo of Akim Foo’, drawn by Norman Lindsay for a series of boot-polish advertisements in the early 1900s. It is possible that ‘Chunder Loo’ became rhyming slang for ‘spew’. Chunder, however, is the only form to be recorded. First recorded 1950.


A friend, a companion. Also used as a form of address (g’day cobber!). The word probably comes from British Suffolk dialect cob ‘to take a liking to’, although a Yiddish word khaber ‘comrade’ has also been suggested as a source. Cobber, now somewhat dated, is rarely used by young Australians. First recorded 1893.


A farmer. In Australia there are cow cockies, cane cockies and wheat cockies. Cocky arose in the 1840s and is an abbreviation of cockatoo farmer. This was then a disparaging term for small-scale farmers, probably because of their habit of using a small area of land for a short time and then moving on, in the manner of cockatoos feeding.


Cordie is a term for an army cadet from the Royal Military College Duntroon in Canberra. The term is used by civilians (especially Canberrans), and then the term is regarded by cadets as highly derogatory; but the term is also used by cadets themselves, and then the term is one of camaraderie.

It is most commonly assumed by cadets themselves that the term arose at the time when cadets were not allowed to wear denim jeans outside the college, whereupon, as a ‘fashion’ substitute, they wore corduroy trousers (the minimum dress standard) in order to fit in with the way contemporary and ‘with it’ young males would be expected to costume themselves. Since the cadets soon came to be readily recognisable as such, even when out of uniform, partly because of their corduroy clothing (often abbreviated to cords in Standard Australian), they came to be (mockingly?) referred to as cordies. Although this is the generally accepted explanation, others are offered:

  • the first cadets at the College all wore corduroy trousers, or cords.
  • the term derives from the lanyard or cord worn by cadets on their right arm.
  • R. Rayward in More than a Mere Bravo, English Department, ADFA, 1988, reporting a Canberra resident’s claim that he had heard the term as early as 1939, argues that the term is a corruption of the College barracking cry used at sporting matches, ‘Come on, Cora!’ (where ‘Cora’ is a shortening of ‘Corps of Staff Cadets’).


Not just a criminal, but a word meaning bad, unpleasant or unsatisfactory in general: Things were crook on the land in the seventies. Crook means bad in a general sense, and also in more specific senses too: unwell or injured (a crook knee), abut it can also mean dishonest or illegal (he was accused of crook dealings). It is an abbreviation of crooked ‘dishonestly come by’.

Cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down

Not strictly a word derivation here, but a wonderful Aussie term. It’s a joking description for a cure-all, the remedy for any problem. The phrase (now often with some variations) was originally the title of a 1960s Sydney theatrical revue. The cuppa, the Bex (an analgesic in powder form) and the lie down were supposed to be the suburban housewife’s solution to problems such as depression, anxiety, isolation and boredom. The expression is often used in political contexts as in, ‘He called the ASEAN ambassadors in for a cup of tea, a Bex and a quick lie down’.

Finding how words or phrases developed gives us an insight into our shared history. What’s your favourite word derivation story? If you’ve got the bug like me, checkout Hours of harmless fun for all the family!