Footwear in Australian English

Oz shoe

by Mark Gwynn

There are a number of terms in Australian English related to footwear. Several of these are associated with footwear worn originally by workers in rural areas of Australia, where sturdy boots were necessary in industries such as farming and droving, and for working in rugged outback terrain. Our beach culture too has generated terms for boots and shoes. A number of Australianisms related to footwear are discussed below.

A well-worn blunnie

A well-worn blunnie.

blunnies: ankle-length leather working boots, usually with elastic sides. Blunnies is a colloquial abbreviation of Blundstones, with the addition of the common Australian suffix ‘y’. Englishman John Blundstone moved to Hobart in 1855 and began importing and manufacturing boots in the 1870s, establishing the company J. Blundstone & Son in 1892. The company has changed hands over the years, but the Blundstone name remains unchanged. Evidence for Blundstone’s boots is recorded from the late 19th century, and subsequently the elliptical form Blundstones, but the form blunnies is not recorded until the 1980s. The popularity of these boots here and abroad is a common theme in the Australian media: ‘An enduring Aussie icon, “the Blunnie” has also become a groovy international fashion accessory. Brooke Shields bought five pairs on her last visit to Australia.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1999)

chewie on your boot: a phrase originally used by barrackers (supporters) in Australian Rules football as a call to discourage a player from performing well (for instance at kicking or running), or to deride a player thought to be performing poorly. The element chewie is an Australian abbreviation of chewing gum, and is recorded from the early 20th century. The first evidence for chewie on your boot is found in the 1960s in a sporting context. Since then, the phrase has moved into more general use as well, as in this letter to a newspaper: ‘We will be uprooted from Kambah and finally returned to the Wanniassa High [School], where I should have been in the first place! “Chewy on your boot” to the ACT Schools Authority’. (Canberra Times, 14 June 1978)

double pluggers: rubber sandals (see thongs below) with a thong attached to the sole by two plugs. The term is first recorded in the 1990s and is often found in the context of a celebration of Australian informality: ‘Australia day is a time to relish your own cliches…. Take off your double-plugger thongs and frisbee them at your mates.’ (Canberra Times, 20 January 2008)

An advertisement for elastic sides in the Central Queensland Herald, 22 September 1955 (via Trove at the National Library of Australia)

A 1955 ad for elastic-sides in the Central Queensland Herald. Source: Trove, National Library of Australia

elastic-sides: boots without laces and with a piece of elastic inset into each side; often abbreviated to ’lastic-sides. There is evidence for elastic-sides from the 1840s. Although these boots are traditionally associated with Australian bush costume, they are often worn today by tradespeople and industrial workers. Their popularity has waxed and waned over the decades, but the fashion for elastic-sided blunnies in recent times shows this type of boot is still the footwear of choice for many Australians. The following demonstrates the enduring connection of the boots with the bush:

Mick’s roving eye noted Cameron sitting on a stool at the far end of the bar deep in conversation with a chap whose cut immediately announced him as a Southern squatter, flat-heeled elastic sides and the hat on his knee with the brim turned down all round, you could pick’em anywhere. (Marie Mahood, Bunch of Strays, 1996)

sandshoes: canvas shoes with a rubber sole, often used for sport. This chiefly Australian sense is a specific use of the British English sand-shoe ‘a shoe adapted for wearing on the sands or at the sea-side, spec. a canvas shoe with gutta-percha or hemp sole’ (Oxford English Dictionary). The Australian sense of sandshoe is recorded from the 1880s, and contributes as well to a cricketing term: a sandshoe crusher (in the written record from 1984) is a ball bowled at the batter’s feet in a game of cricket—also known as a yorker.

elastic sides versus thongs (on the right)

Elastic-sides versus thongs.

thongs: flat-soled rubber sandals held on the foot by a bifurcated thong passing between the first and second toes. This term is in US usage too, but the earliest evidence is found in Australian sources from 1960. Thongs are ubiquitous in the Australian summer—on the beach, at camping grounds, and just about anywhere that informality will permit. The humble thong is strongly associated with an Australian stereotype: ‘It is a sight unique to Australia—the vision of a man in shorts, towelling hat and thongs, lugging his esky of beer and leading his family or friends to the cricket. (Peter Luck, This Fabulous Century, 1999)

Celebrity wearing ugg boots.

Celebrity Sarah Jessica Parker wearing ugg boots.

ugg boots: flat-soled boots made from sheepskin with the fleece on the inside. Spelling variants include ug boot and ugh boot. The origin of this term is something of a mystery, even though we know the term was patented in 1971. It has been suggested that ugg boot is an abbreviation of ugly boot, or is derived from the name of a cartoon character (Ugh). Another possible source is fug boot. This term may go back to the First World War and is associated with the flying boots worn by pilots, which were often lined with sheep’s wool. We do know with certainty that the early evidence for the term, dating from the late 1960s and early 1970s, is associated with Australian surfing culture. The first evidence, from an advertisement in a surfing magazine, suggests the benefit for winter surfers: ‘Grab a kite to Surf Dive ‘N’ Ski and you’ll land the greatest array of gear ever.… Ughboots, gas after winter surf’. (Surfing World, issue ii., 1969). In 2006 ugg boot (and its variants) were removed from the Australian register of trademarks and can now be legally marketed and sold in Australia with ugg boot as a generic name. This is not the case elsewhere; the US corporation Deckers has a registered trademark for the term in most other countries around the world.

5 thoughts on “Footwear in Australian English

  1. This sense of thong is obsolescent in the U.S., due to competition from the sense ‘minimalist underpants’. The usual current term is flip-flop.

    • Of course the ‘minimalist underpants’ do create a bit of confusion here, but the flip-flop sense is so well-established that the knickers are forced to take a back seat, so to speak. Context is all!

  2. Pingback: Footwear In Australian English (via OZwords) | mgpcpastor's blog

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