The evolution of a word–the case of ‘Kylie’

Kylie Minogue

by Mark Gwynn

The word kylie in Australian English has a long history. It comes from ‘garli’, a word meaning ‘boomerang’ in Nyungar, the language of south-western Western Australia, and also in a number of other western and central Australian languages. Kylie, used chiefly in Western Australia, was first recorded in an English context in the 1830s:

I am sorry that nasty word ‘boomerang’ has been suffered to supercede [sic] the proper name. Boomerang is a corruption used at Sydney by the white people, but not the native word, which is tur-ra-ma; but ‘kiley’ is the name here. (G.F. Moore, Diary of Ten Years in W.A., 1835)

During the last century Kylie became popular in Australia as a girl’s name. Two of the most famous Aussie Kylies are Kylie Tennant (1912–1988), the author of novels such as The Battlers (1941) and Ride on Stranger (1943), and Kylie Minogue (b. 1968), the actress and singer.

Recently I heard another use of Kylie, in the context of a debate in the Australian Senate. A senator referred to a question as a Kylie and then added the line ‘I should be so lucky’. For me the context was quite clear – Kylie alludes to Kylie Minogue whose song ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ became a world-wide hit in 1987-88. As an avid word watcher and political junkie I remember when I had first heard this usage: in 2002, from former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello in parliamentary question time:

Faced with a question from opposition treasury spokesman Bob McMullan on foreign debt, Mr Costello wasted no time in raising the opposition’s past difficulties with the issue. ‘We love questions from the Labor Party on debt’, he smirked. ‘They are called a ‘Kylie’ in the parlance – I should be so lucky as to get a question on debt from the Labor Party’. (as reported in the Melbourne Age, 29 Aug.)

When I first heard this I immediately searched online sources and the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s databases to see if the word was being used more widely. To my disappointment the only evidence was from this one speech by Peter Costello. So the treasurer’s reference to Kylie as ‘in the parlance’ was perhaps a cute way of disowning his coinage of the term.

Former Australian treasurer Peter Costello

On hearing it again some ten years later I went back to the online databases to see if it had taken hold in Australian English. Again it was being used by Peter Costello: ‘Then he thanked the Opposition for asking a “Kylie” – an “I should be so lucky” question giving the Government a parliamentary free kick’ (Adelaide Advertiser, 2 Dec, 2004).  Other evidence was slim and used self-consciously, as in this example referring to Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens and inflation rates: ‘As I wrote yesterday, 0.8 per cent would have been “interesting”. And would have left Stevens “wishing for a Kylie” (I should be so lucky)’ (Melbourne Herald-Sun, 29 July, 2010).

The evidence for the new usage of Kylie appears to be largely confined to Peter Costello or media reports of his use of it in Parliament, and it is always accompanied by the line ‘I should be so lucky’.  It is not used widely, and it has not become an established Australianism.  It is unlikely to do so while the word remains tied to the song title.

2 thoughts on “The evolution of a word–the case of ‘Kylie’

  1. I am of course operating from a position of complete ignorance, but it occurs to me that the senator called the question a “kylie” because, like a sport boomerang, it bounced off his oblivious surface, making no reply necessary?

  2. It would have been an interesting transfer of meaning but alas nearly all evidence for this term (including the earliest records) refers to Kylie Minogue’s song ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ and to Kylie herself. In fact my colleague has just unearthed a precursor to this term (once again with Treasurer Peter Costello as the protagonist) from the Australian Financial Review 1998, 10 March:

    QUOTE OF THE DAY Why do we call him Kylie Minogue? I should be so lucky’
    Treasurer Peter Costello in Parliament yesterday responds to a question from Deputy Opposition Leader Gareth Evans.

    Unfortunately I had already posted this blog before this quote came to light. The word ‘kylie’ meaning boomerang is not very common in Australian English these days – databases covering the last 20 years show that it is rarely used and usually has to be explained.

    Thanks for your comment and the opportunity to provide this earlier evidence.

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