Australian joeys

by Julia Robinson

'Anzac the kangaroo and Peggy the wombat joeys have become mates at the Wild about Wildlife Kilmore Rescue Centre.' Image source: Rob Leeson / Herald Sun

I confess—this blog is just an excuse to post an irresistible photo of a pair of orphaned joeys. For those readers who are not familiar with the term (or who would like to know a little of its history), joey is well-known in Australian English as the word for a young kangaroo, especially one still in its mother’s pouch. Although most commonly applied to kangaroo young, it is also used of the young of other Australian mammals. The history of the word in print shows it has never been used exclusively of kangaroos. The first reference to a kangaroo joey in print is in 1839, but there is even earlier evidence for a possum joey:

 A young opossum (perhaps two or three days old) was put to a cat which had two kittens…. It is really amusing to see the kittens crawling about with Joey clinging to one of their backs. (1828, Hobart Trumpeter, 3 Oct.)

There are many later examples of joey as a word for the young of other Australian animals such as possums, wombats, quolls, and koalas. A writer in 1913 notes the wide use of joey in this sense:

The term ‘joey’ is usually applied by bush-folk to any young creature, whether beast or bird, common to Australia; a young opossum, parrot, ‘native bears’, cockatoo—all may be called ‘joey’. (C.G. Lane, Creature-Life in Australian Wilds)

Today you are unlikely to hear fledgling cockatoos called joeys; it is used most commonly of mammals, although its meaning has been extended to human babies too. One of Katherine Susannah Prichard’s characters in Golden Miles (1948) says: ‘Y’r not walkin’ out with my Ruby. A girl never knows when she’ll be bringin’ home a joey if she goes with you.’ And the idiom to have a joey in the pouch can mean the same as to have a bun in the oven (to be pregnant).

The origin of joey is still a mystery. One interesting suggestion is that it may derive from the Scottish term of endearment joe, but as yet we have no evidence to prove this.

Image source: Rob Leeson / Herald Sun