Biscuits in Australian English

A tin of assorted Arnotts biscuits.


by Mark Gwynn

A ‘biscuit’ in Australian English is a small cake that is typically crisp and flat. Biscuits can be either sweet (these are known as ‘cookies’ in North America) or savoury. In Australia there are a number of significant biscuits that have made their way into the lexicon, and several form the basis of Australian English idioms. Some of the best-known biscuits and biscuit-related terms are discussed below.

Anzac biscuit recipe from the 'War Chest Cookery Book'. Image and 'discovery' courtesy of the National Library of Australia team.

Anzac biscuit recipe from the ‘War Chest Cookery Book’. Image and ‘discovery’ courtesy of the National Library of Australia team.

Anzac biscuit: this iconic biscuit is associated with the Australian and New Zealand involvement in the First World War (1914-1918). ‘Anzac’ is an acronym of ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’. Originally used as a telegraphic code for the Corps, ‘Anzac’ came to have several significant meanings: the place where the Corps landed at Gallipoli in 1915; the Gallipoli campaign itself; the individual Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought there; and, by 1918, any Australian or New Zealand soldier or ex-soldier. ‘Anzac Day’, which commemorates Australians who died in all wars, is held on 25 April, the day of the Gallipoli landing. The earliest evidence for Anzac biscuit, no doubt named in patriotic response to the events of the war, comes from a 1917 publication The War Chest Cookery Book, but this biscuit is not the recipe we know today (see image). The essential ingredients of the Anzac biscuit are rolled oats and golden syrup, and the earliest evidence for Anzac biscuit with a familiar recipe was found recently in the Trove database of digitised newspapers, in the Melbourne Argus of 6 July 1921. Not to be outdone by the Australians, New Zealand can also lay claim to early evidence for the term ‘Anzac crispie’ with a similar recipe. For a discussion about the discovery of this early evidence and the role of New Zealand evidence follow this link to a Melbourne Age article that broke the news. Evidence for the shortened form of Anzac biscuit (Anzac) can be found from the early 1920s. Anzac biscuits sold commercially must largely conform to the traditional recipe; the name ‘Anzac’ is protected by legislation and cannot be used in marketing without permission.

bikkies (bickies): money. This is a facetious use of ‘bicky’—an abbreviation and familiar form of ‘biscuit’. The term is often used in the compound big bikkies meaning a large amount of money: ‘There’s big bikkies in shearing if you’re good at it.’ (Bill Marsh, Great Australian Shearing Stories, 2001) There is evidence for this sense of bikkies from the mid-1960s.

An Arnotts biscuit tin for sale on Ebay

An Arnott’s biscuit tin for sale on Ebay

cocky on the biscuit tin: this phrase is used in the simile like the cocky on the biscuit tin, and the variant like the bird on the biscuit tin, to denote someone (or something) that has been left out, or isn’t part of the action; or someone (or something) that is out of place: ‘According to Mr Ballantyne, Queensland sugar growers will forever be like the bird on the biscuit tin when it comes to trying to get their boots inside America’s trade door—on the outside looking in.’ (Townsville Bulletin, 30 April 2002) The phrase derives from the rosella parrot that was depicted on the lids of tins of Arnott’s biscuits. ‘Cocky’ is an Australian abbreviation of ‘cockatoo’—in Australia it often refers to the sulphur-crested or white cockatoo. There is evidence for this phrase from the mid-1960s.

forty-niner: an army biscuit. The term was used by soldiers in both the Boer War and the First World War. The following quotation, from a soldier’s memoir of Gallipoli, gives a likely reason for the name: ‘One particular kind of biscuit, known as the “forty-niners“, had forty-nine holes in it, was believed to take forty-nine years to bake, and needed forty-nine chews to a bit.’ (J.L. Beeston, Five Months at Anzac, 1916)

An iced vovo biscuit

Iced vovo biscuits

iced vovo: this term is used allusively to suggest a lack of substance, intellect, or importance. For example: ‘We’ve got a home-grown one million unemployed, the worst recession for 60 years and a Prime Minister we were forced to have—the biggest iced Vo Vo of them all.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 October 1992) The term derives from the proprietary name of a sweet biscuit made by Arnott’s. The biscuit is topped with strips of raspberry jam and pink icing topped with desiccated coconut. The colour of the icing has generated an attributive usage referring to a light shade of pink: ‘The Iced Vovo tint crops up in the latest range of Christian Dior watches.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 2004) Evidence for the allusive sense can be found from the late 1980s, and for the colour from the early 2000s.

Jatz crackers - the biscuit variety!

Jatz crackers – the biscuit variety!

jatz crackers: this is a rhyming slang term for ‘knackers’—the testicles. The term derives from the proprietary name of a popular Australian savoury biscuit made by Arnott’s. The first evidence we have for this term is from a newspaper article commenting on funny lines used by reporters in the Atlanta Olympic Games: ‘His dual entry is from the men’s diving: “Ohhh, he’s landed on his Jatz crackers”, and, “Ohh, he may have hurt the crown jewels”.’ (Australian, 6 August 1996) The term can also be used figuratively to mean courage or more colloquially ‘balls’.

stiff bikkies (stiff bickies): this term is used (often as an interjection) to mean ‘bad luck’. For example: ‘This bank does not have a branch in the ACT so if you are not connected to the Internet, stiff bickies.’ (Sydney Daily Telegraph, 20 November 2001) ‘Bikkie’ and its variant ‘bickie’ are very common abbreviations of ‘biscuit’—see ‘bikkies’ above. The term is a development of the Australian English sense of ‘stiff’ meaning ‘bad’, ‘hard’, or ‘tough’ which goes back to at least the early 20th century. Evidence for stiff bikkies appears in the mid-1980s but similar Australian compounds including ‘stiff cheddar’, ‘stiff cheese, ‘stiff luck’, and ‘stiff shit’, are found in earlier evidence. These are probably influenced by the standard English compounds ‘hard cheese’ and ‘hard luck’.

Tim Tam slam: the activity of using a Tim Tam biscuit as a straw to suck coffee (or other hot beverage) through, before eating it. We discussed this term in an earlier blog and Word of the Month article. For more about this term with added video footage of the activity see our previous blog.

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