A different meaning

by Mark Gwynn

There are a number of Australian English words, commonly used by and familiar to most Australians, that have shifted their meaning, or had different meanings, over time. Some of these different meanings are subtle, while others are more significant, but the history of the word tells us something about changes in Australian society and attitudes. Many current speakers of Australian English might be unaware of these earlier and alternative meanings of these words, several of which are discussed below.

Barracking for their team

barrack – This word, used as an intransitive verb, is generally understood today to mean ‘to shout in support or encouragement of a person or team; to support something’. It is usually found in sporting contexts: for example, ‘she barracks for the Melbourne Victory football team’. This current sense of barrack goes back to the 1870s. From the late 19th century through to the mid 20th century, barrack was used in a negative sense to mean ‘to ridicule, jeer at, or verbally abuse a person’. It was sometimes used as a transitive verb, as in this 1892 quote from Banjo Paterson: ‘The Australians impartially barracked both sides.’ (World of Banjo Paterson) This sense dropped away by the 1950s. E.E. Morris (19th century lexicographer and editor of the 1898 dictionary Austral English) explains the relationship between the two meanings: ‘The sense of jeering is earlier than that of supporting, but jeering at one side is akin to cheering for the other.’

bludger – ‘a generalised term of abuse, especially as applied to a person who appears to live off the efforts of others’. In recent decades, the term bludger is often heard in relation to people who receive welfare payments, most commonly those people who receive unemployment benefits when they could be working: ‘dole bludgers‘. This current sense of bludger goes back to the early 20th century. The earliest meaning of bludger, however, was a person who lived off the earnings of a prostitute (from the British slang term bludgeoner, a prostitute’s pimp) and it is clear how this led to the development of the more generalised sense. This early sense was rare by the second half of the 20th century.


hoon – ‘a show-off who drives a car dangerously or at reckless speed’. This meaning of hoon is surprisingly recent. It was used by Xavier Herbert in his 1938 novel Capricornia in the sense of ‘a worthless person’, and was used as a general term of abuse. By the middle of the 20th century, hoon was being used to refer to a prostitute’s pimp; this sense soon acquired the connotations of loutishness implied by criminal activities. From the mid-1980s the word hoon came to be applied specifically to young men driving fast cars, often recklessly, and this is now the most common meaning in Australian English, maintaining the connotations of loutishness that had attached to the word in the middle of the century. The earlier senses are no longer as familiar, and we are far more likely to associate hoons with cars.

larrikin – ‘a person who behaves with apparent disregard for social or political conventions; a maverick’. Today’s larrikin is regarded with some affection: someone with a disregard for authority, who is considered to be a good bloke, a bit of a joker, and perhaps a little eccentric. The term has been applied to well-known Australians such as Paul Hogan, Steve Irwin, and the poet Les Murray. While the current sense has been in use since the late 19th century, a larrikin in the 19th and early 20th century was ‘a hooligan; a young urban rough or thug, especially a member of a street gang’. The amelioration of the term probably took place around the time of the First World War, as the Australian soldiers, viewed as heroic Anzacs, were also considered to be larrikins.

public servants

Two early public servants. Convicts depicted by Felipe Bauza, 1793. Image source: State Library of New South Wales

public servant – ‘a person who works for a State, Territory, or the Commonwealth government’. Public servants are professionals employed in government departments and agencies, administering government policy and programs. This meaning of public servant can be dated from the early 19th century, but an earlier sense existed in the first years of European settlement in Australia. The very first public servants in Australia were those convicts assigned to public labour. They worked for the early colonial governments on efforts such as building roads, bridges, and government buildings.