Sharks and Australian English

Shark warning sign on Western Australian beach after fatal attack in 2012

by Mark Gwynn

Each year the Australian summer brings news stories of shark sightings close to shore, shark attacks, and the inevitable debate about how to protect beachgoers from such attacks. Australia, as an island continent with the bulk of its population inhabiting the coastal areas, has had a long relationship with sharks. This relationship is reflected in our culture and expressed by a number of terms in Australian English.*

Grey nurse sharks

White death (first recorded 1907) and white pointer (first recorded 1881) are names for the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias. This shark has a white underside, grows to more than six metres long, and is responsible for many attacks in Australian waters.  It was famously portrayed in the film Jaws (scenes of which used real great whites filmed off the coast of Australia). Grey nurse (first recorded 1852) is a name for the sand tiger shark, Carcharias taurus, which became the first protected shark in the world when the New South Wales Government declared it a protected species in 1984. The ‘nurse’ element comes from an earlier name for a dogfish or dog shark. Bronze whaler (first recorded 1922) is a name for the copper shark, Carcharhinus brachyurus. A number of other sharks from the Carcharhinidae family are known in Australia as whalers due to their propensity for feeding on whale carcasses.

Wobbegong shark (also known as carpet shark)

Wobbegong (first recorded1852) is a name for a number of species of bottom-dwelling sharks of the Orectolobidae family, largely inhabiting temperate and tropical waters of Australia and Indonesia. The name comes from an Aboriginal language.** Wobbegongs are also known as carpet sharks (first recorded 1896) because of their distinctive skin markings. The Port Jackson sharkHeterodontus portusjacksoni, is named after the port of Sydney; this name was first used by Governor Arthur Phillip in 1789.

Port Jackson shark with its distinctive egg case in mouth (these cases are often found washed up on Australian beaches)

A number of Australian English terms relate to the prevention of attacks on humans. One controversial practice is the use of shark nets (first recorded 1922), also known as shark meshing (first recorded 1935). Nets are placed across a beach or swimming area to prevent the entry of sharks into areas frequented by swimmers. They are usually hundreds of metres offshore, submerged several metres from the surface, and thus do not form a complete barrier. While acting as a deterrent they also pose a risk to other marine life and require regular maintenance. Shark nets have been used since the early 20th century, but the following quotation illustrates a similar practice on a smaller scale in the mid-19th century: ‘A neat little bathing-house, with…a space in front entirely surrounded with a sharkproof netting of wattles’ (J. Askew, A Voyage to Australia & New Zealand, 1857).

A shark spotter (first recorded 1944) is another method of preventing shark attacks. The shark spotter is a person who looks for sharks from the beach or from a boat or plane as part of a shark patrol (first recorded 1926). Observation towers known as shark towers (first recorded 1922) have also been used to look for sharks from the shore. A shark bell (first recorded 1914) is one way of warning swimmers that a shark has been spotted, as is an electronic shark siren (first recorded 1934). Scenes of swimmers quickly leaving the water on hearing these warnings are quite common in the summer period.

A shark tower at Manly beach in Sydney 1951, used by shark spotters

There are also some shark-related terms of a more colloquial nature. Shark bait (first recorded 1912) is used of a person who swims alone or well out to sea. Similarly a shark biscuit (first recorded 1992) is either a surfer on a bodyboard or the board itself—a disparaging term often used by surfboard riders. And Australian English has its own rhyming slang term for a shark: Noah’s Ark (first recorded 1936). This term is often shortened to Noah: ‘A lotta them beaches in Oz are full of Noahs’ (B. Humphries, Bazza Comes into his Own, 1979).

* Several of these terms are used elsewhere while some are unique to Australian English.

** The language is probably Awabakal (north of Sydney).