by Mark Gwynn
Over the coming weeks the Australian tradition of schoolies week will be observed across the country. This is a period of post-examination celebration marking the end of secondary schooling for Year 12 students (schoolies). While these celebrations occur in various locations across Australia they are usually associated with students going to the Gold Coast in Queensland. In Australian English the word schoolie has a longer history than many people may realise.
A schoolie was originally a teacher, not a pupil. It is first recorded in the late 19th century, and is an example of a distinctive feature of Australian English: shorten a word, and add the suffix –y (or –ie) to it. In the case of schoolie the earliest recorded evidence is based on the word ‘schoolmaster’, in a book by Henry Egbert with the intriguing title Pretty Cockey: or, the life and death of a terrible flirt, published in 1889: ‘The rest addressed him sometimes as “Schoolmaster”, but sometimes as “Schooley”. Schoolie meaning ‘schoolteacher’ is common throughout the first half of the 20th century. The evidence for it begins to fade in written records through the second half of the century, and while there is still some contemporary evidence for this usage it is no longer common.
The first recorded evidence for a transferred meaning of schoolie from ‘schoolteacher’ to ‘school student’ occurs in the 1960s: ‘Has the patter of not-so-little feet ceased in your living-room, as the schoolies face up to the final term’ (1966, Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 Sept.). Evidence from the 1960s and 1970s suggests that at this time schoolie was a word applied to a school student of any age. By the 1980s, however, the evidence for schoolie shows that the term was now applied specifically to a student in their final year of school, and was increasingly associated with the phenomenon of schoolies week.
Our first evidence for schoolies week (sometimes shortened to schoolies) is from 1984: ‘an organised yachting and resort holiday in the Whitsundays would be a responsible alternative to the present “schoolies week” where school-leavers descend on the Gold Coast’ (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 3 Apr.). According to a schoolies week website, schoolies.org.com, the first schoolies events were held at Broadbeach, Queensland , in the 1970s. The association of schoolies week with the Gold Coast (and bacchanalian proclivities) has continued till the present day:
Schoolies Week is Muck Up Day without the principal going ballistic. Party’s on. Schoolies Week saturates the media with dire police warnings and pictures of hammered, disarrayed teenagers lying semi-comatose in a Surfers Paradise gutter. (2012, Sydney Sun-Herald, 23 Sept.)
This sums up the public perception of schoolies week – at least as it is reported in the media. Alcohol abuse, casual sex, drug-taking, and risky behaviour are the stock-in-trade of commentary when schoolies week rolls around each November. But these celebrations are now more tightly controlled than in previous years. Schoolies can now register and be issued with ID so they can attend events specifically put on for them – music events, beach parties, and the like. This is not only to promote safe partying and minimise harm, but also to protect them from toolies (older men who seek to take sexual advantage of schoolies) and to exclude foolies (younger school students who join the celebrations prematurely).