On the job: ‘darl’ and ‘old mate’

by Christina Greer*

Like many students, I have supported myself through university by working in various hospitality jobs. We learn pretty quickly how to adapt our behaviour and language to different situations on the job. We talk to our co-workers in one way, our manager in another, and there are many ways in which we can address customers, depending on such things as their sex and age, the formality of the venue, and whether they are in a group or alone. Our intention is to be polite and to avoid giving offence. Wait staff are constantly, though not necessarily consciously, adjusting their language in the work place to suit the customer.Food and Beverage

But wait staff don’t always get it right. One who didn’t was a twenty-year-old woman who served my mother in a restaurant. The young woman repeatedly addressed her as darl throughout their exchange, which my mother felt was inappropriate and patronising, given their age difference. Darl (sometimes darls) is term of endearment, chiefly Australian, dating from the 1930s: “ ‘Oh, darl, don’t you bother’, he begged. ‘I hate you to get all het-up.’ ” (K.S. Prichard, Haxby’s Circus, 1930)  It is a colloquial abbreviation of darling, and is used to address someone you know very well, such as a spouse, an intimate, or a family member. It is also sometimes used as a more general term of address to strangers, in much the same way as love or dear are used. For instance, you may sometimes hear an older person in a shop or a bar address a customer this way: What can I get for you, love/dear/darl? However, the young woman who addressed my mother as darl had misread her customer, and what was probably intended as a friendly way to put a customer at ease had the opposite effect. My professional advice to inexperienced wait staff is to stick to more formal terms of address in such situations. Just to be safe.

imgres-3I have come across another Australian word recently in the hospitality trade. It is the word mate, which is being used in an interesting way in the compound term old mate. As an example, when a restaurant customer drops his fork on the floor, my manager will say to me: ‘Can you get old mate on table twelve a new fork?’ Another staff member will point someone out to me,  saying: ‘Check out old mate standing by the bar’.

The word mate in Australian English most commonly means ‘a close friend’, or ‘an acquaintance or fellow-worker’. You will often hear old mate in a context like we’re old mates from high school, but that’s not the way I hear it used on the job.  Old mate in this context does not imply that the person is old, or that the speaker has an existing relationship with them. It is not usually used in front of the person being spoken about, although it can be; sometimes I have heard staff refer this way to someone who is in close proximity to them: ‘I have been helping old mate here.’

images-1Current dictionaries do not include this sense, although some evidence for it can be found online. The site Urban Dictionary defines old mate as ‘a replacement term for a person’s name within a sentence’. There are other terms in English that replace the name of a person you do not know, or whose name you have forgotten: whatsisname and whatsername, for example. But old mate is a little different. In the examples above it does not necessarily replace a name, but rather one of these terms: the person, that person, or this person.

Although there is not a great deal of evidence for this term yet, the online evidence suggests that this usage of old mate may be Australian. If anyone is familiar with it, please leave a comment.

*Christina Greer is a research assistant at ANDC.

10 thoughts on “On the job: ‘darl’ and ‘old mate’

  1. Nice! I had only heard ‘old mate’ used as a term of address – so very interesting to see it used in reference.The other version of’mate’ that I have heard as a term of address is ‘matey’ – does that ever turn up in reference?

    • We have no evidence for ‘matey’ on file used in reference as ‘old mate’ is used in the evidence in this blog. I will explore this possibility further. The lexical and linguistic dynamism of ‘mate’ in Australian English couldn’t rule anything out! My favourite is former Labor leader Bill Hayden’s comment in 1983: “When they call you ‘mate’ in the NSW Labor Party it is like getting a kiss from the Mafia”.

  2. “Old mate” and “old love” are definitely Australian, specifically you get it a lot form people in Queensland (maybe even predominantly Far North Queensland). You use it to refer to someone you’re not speaking directly to as per your examples, ie “Have a look at old mate over there”, “Can you pass this to old love?”, or “How is old mate going?”

    • I have heard this use of ‘old mate’ in the Army in recent years. Possibly because much of the Army is now based in northern Australia

  3. During most of my Army career l had never heard the expression but in recent years the use of ‘old mate’ in this way has become quite common in the Australian Army. Possibly because much of the Army is now located in or has rotated through northern Australia.

  4. Claims so far are that this is predominantly used in northern Australia, however living in the Hunter region of NSW I have heard this term the most, even more so than in Queensland.
    In my social circles, in the Hunter region, the meaning is extended to a term of reference for inanimate objects/ other nouns which one has either forgotten the name of/ can’t be bothered naming correctly/ if the speaker wants to test other interlocutor’s aptitudes. (It functions largely as a pronoun.)
    E.g.; “could you chuck us the oldmate?”; “have you fixed oldmate yet?” “it’s over there, under the oldmate”; “oldmate’s next door watching the oldmate”; “they’ve gone to the oldmate for a bizzle”

  5. Old mate is the opposite of mate. I have only ever heard Old mate used to refer to someone not a part of the group eg. “old mate over there was looking for the boss”. Alternatively used for someone you think you are better than e.g. “Old mate thinks we should go north, the idiot”. It is not a term of endearment in Australia. If someone calls you old mate they are not being nice.

    • yeah that’s on the money. It’s a term that’s gone to the dark side of sarcasm. He’s not my mate, he’s a pain in the bum. That’s why we say “Bloody old mate is being a pain in the arse.”
      Probably not Aussie, but “old mate” interchangable with ‘bugalugs’ when old mate used in sarcastic mode.

  6. Having been born, raised and lived in Sydney, I had never heard the term “old mate” until 3 years ago, when my husband and I moved to the mid north coast of NSW. Certainly “mate”, but never combined with “old” and never in the context described. However, my husband obtained local work and was at first puzzled and then amused to often hear the term used to refer to just about anybody when their name was not readily to hand, eg. his boss would say “don’t forget to collect the money from old mate”, or “old mate up the road is waiting for you”. We also noticed when building our house that the true “local” subbies would use the term frequently, whereas subbies who had relocated from down south wouldn’t. So I began my search to try to find out just where the term is used. As we’ve never heard it in the city, I would assume it’s mostly a country expression. Contrary to what Knowyourslang and Stevo assert, I have not heard it used to mean the opposite of “mate”. Indeed, I have only ever heard it to have overtones of warmth and friendship

  7. Thanks for your comments Ann. It’s interesting that you first heard ‘old mate’ on the mid-north coast, not in Sydney. It tallies broadly with what we are seeing in the earlier comments, which suggest it occurs in northerly parts of the country – certainly north of Sydney. Interesting too that your experience of it is in a positive, or at least neutral, context. Knowyourslang and Stevo have a different understanding of ‘old mate’ as a disparaging term. Perhaps it is used a bit like ‘bastard’ in Australian English; the tone can vary from disparaging (‘some bastard stole my lunch’) to affectionate (‘haven’t seen you for years, you old bastard’).

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