The story of ‘dinkum’

by Bruce Moore

Bruce Moore is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, who is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. The following is an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words (published by Oxford University Press Australia, 2010).

What's their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.

What’s their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.

Dinkum and its variant fair dinkum are among the central Australian terms. Australian English has had two other terms with much the same meaning as dinkum—‘fair; genuine; honest; true’—but they are no longer used. Jonick was one of them, and it appeared in Australia in the 1870s as a variant of jannock ‘fair, straightforward’, a word that has widespread use in English dialects. It became obsolete in Australia by the 1950s. The second term, ryebuck, is probably a Yiddish word and a variant of German reibach ‘profit’. It became common in Australia in the 1890s as an expression of agreement or assent (much the same as ‘all right’) and as an adjective meaning ‘good, excellent’. As with jonick, it had largely disappeared by the 1950s, although it has been retained as the title of a popular Australian folk song ‘The Ryebuck Shearer’ (the expert or ‘gun’ shearer). Dinkum, however, has been such a strong word in Australian English, that synonyms have hardly been necessary. The word dinkum is first recorded in Australian English in 1890.

Where does dinkum come from? One of the earliest (and unlikeliest) explanations occurs in a letter to a newspaper in 1943, which takes the word back to the gold rushes of the middle of the nineteenth century:

Coffee tent and sly grog shop. S.T. Gill, 1854. Source: National Gallery of Australia

Coffee tent and sly grog shop. S.T. Gill, 1854. Source: National Gallery of Australia

The word ‘dinkum,’ meaning a genuine man—what the Americans call a ‘regular fellow’—came from the old Australian gold rush days. The miners used to gamble after the day’s work, and anyone who stayed ‘cold sober’ was looked upon as having an advantage—an unfair one—over the other players. So it became a point of honour that all should drink together—‘fair drinking’ was the slogan. Some of the foreigners pronounced the phrase ‘fair dinkum’. And so Australians adopted the pronunciation, at first jocularly, but as time went on a new generation inherited the word ‘dinkum’ without knowing anything of its origin.1

In response, another correspondent offers a different account of the origin of the term during the gold rushes:

Mr R.B.J. Clayton … is wrong in his assertion that ‘fair dinkum’ is a corruption of ‘fair drinking’. It is a well-known pidjin English word, and means ‘a fair thing’. I have traced its literary use in Australia to the early ’80’s. Before that it was in oral currency in Canton and other parts of China, as well as Hong Kong. It is probably a century old, for, as students of philology know, no intrusive word comes into literary use until it has been well established in oral use. In Australia it was commonly used in transactions with Chinese goldminers and vegetable vendors and indentured kanakas.2

This is the beginning of the story, which will emerge more strongly in the following decades, that dinkum is Chinese. Here are two recent manifestations of the story:

(2004) Fair dinkum is derived from the Victorian gold rush days when gold had to be sold to government assayers. The Chinese (Cantonese) would say their pickings were ‘ting kum’ meaning genuine gold.3

(2005) It is more than possible that that most dinkum word ‘dinkum’ has its origin in the Chinese ‘ding kam’, meaning ‘real gold’.4

In the history of the origins of Australian words, this is one of the more enduring folk etymologies. It has the staying power of such ‘old chestnut’ folk etymologies as the claim that posh is derived from ‘port outward, starboard home’ or that wog comes from ‘western (or wily) oriental gentleman’. It is true that one of the meanings of the Mandarin word dǐng is ‘very; most; extremely’, and so in Mandarin ‘extremely gold’ would be dǐng jīn, and in Cantonese ding kam would mean ‘top gold’. We have no evidence, however, that these Chinese combinations were ever used by the Chinese, whether on the goldfields or out of them.

Chinese miners. Source: National Museum of Australia

Chinese miners at the goldfields. Source: National Museum of Australia

The real problem with this Chinese explanation is that it is difficult to imagine a social situation in which a transfer from Chinese to Australian English might have occurred—the Chinese were largely segregated on the goldfields and treated with hostility. Australian English did not borrow any words from Chinese.5 Moreover, the fact that the word dinkum appears so late (1890) is further evidence against its origin in the gold rushes. It is true (as the letter writer above points out) that words take some time to move from speech to print. This, however, was untrue of the Australian gold rushes of the 1850s, when there was an explosion of publications describing the gold diggings and their social milieu, and when new words therefore appeared very quickly in print.

A major argument against the purported Chinese origin of dinkum is the fact that the word is attested in British dialects, and that even fair dinkum appears in one of those dialects. A large number of Australian words derive from British dialects, and dinkum is one of them. In the dialects of Lincolnshire and Derbyshire there is a word dinkum that means ‘work; a fair share of work’. There is an 1891 record from a coal-miner who says ‘I can stand plenty o’ dincum’, that is, ‘I can put up with any amount of fair work’; and from north Lincolnshire there is the record of a person who says ‘You have gotten to do your dinkum’. The first record of the word in Australia has this meaning. It occurs in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1888): ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak’, that is, ‘an hour’s hard work’. A more recent Lincolnshire dictionary defines dinkum: ‘It means to give fair or deserved punishment to; the correct punishment, justice; to do what is fair and right.’6 The Essex dialect has dinkum meaning ‘above-board, honest’.7 More importantly, in the north Lincolnshire dialect there occurs the idiom fair dinkum meaning ‘fair play’, ‘fair dealing’, ‘that which is just and equitable’. In fact, the notion of ‘fairness’ has always been associated with dinkum. It is from this connotation of ‘fairness’ that the particularly Australian meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’ developed in the first decade of the twentieth century. This dialect evidence is so dinkum that we do not need to look elsewhere, and certainly not to Chinese miners.

First World War diggers. Source: Australian War Memorial

First World War diggers. Source: Australian War Memorial

Although dinkum appeared in the 1890s, the evidence indicates that its really widespread use occurred during the First World War. There was an interesting development of the word during the war when dinkum was used as a noun to describe an Australian soldier. In 1917 the war historian C.E.W. Bean writes:

The sort of Australian who used to talk about our ‘tinpot navy’ labelled the Australians who rushed at the chance of adventure the moment the recruiting lists were opened ‘the six bob a day tourists’. Well, the ‘Tourists’ made a name for Australia. … The next shipment were the ‘Dinkums’—the men who came over on principle to fight for Australia—the real, fair-dinkum Australians.8

Throughout the war, the term dinkum continued to be used for an Australian soldier, and this was known to troops from other countries, as in this story from an American officer:

First World War diggers. Source: Melbourne University Press

Source: Melbourne University Press

Admiral Mayo, of the United States Navy, told at a dinner a story about slang. ‘It is all very well to decry slang,’ he said, ‘but I know a case where a knowledge of it would have saved a man’s life. The man was a German spy. Disguised as a major of the Australian forces, he penetrated the Australian lines. His English was perfect, but not so his Australian slang. Australian slang, by the way, is the weirdest in the world, “Fair dinkum” in that lingo means “a real Australian”. The German spy fraternised with the Australians and all seemed going well for him, when a blond young giant gave him a searching look and said: “Look here, are you fair dinkum?” The German spy nodded and smiled, “Yes,” he said ‘”I am Major Fair Dinkum.” Then he was taken out and shot’.9

This noun sense of dinkum disappeared soon after the First World War ended, and the combination fair dinkum came to be used as an emphatic form of dinkum: (2010) ‘maybe our media can put the heavies on politicians across Australia to get fair dinkum about law and order.’10 Early in the First World War oil came to be used to mean ‘information, news’ (transferred from oil in the sense ‘the substance essential to the running of a machine), and at the same time dinkum oil was used to mean ‘reliable information; an accurate report’. By the end of the war the variant dinky-di had also appeared. Dinkum was one of those words that served to articulate Australian values during the First World War—it belongs, especially, with Anzac, digger, and Aussie, and is the opposite of furphy.

 

Argus (Melbourne), 4 August 1943, p. 6.

Argus (Melbourne), 21 August 1943, Supplement, p. 7.

Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 January 2004, p. 28.

Newcastle Herald, 10 September 2005, p. 14.

5 The word pakapoo, which refers to a Chinese gambling game played with slips of paper marked with columns of characters, might be an exception. It is from Chinese pai ko p’iao ‘white pigeon ticket’. It is first recorded in Australia (1886), although used elsewhere. The primary Australian sense is the use of the term pakapoo ticket for any document that is difficult to decipher, and more generally for a ‘mess’.

Wodds and Doggerybaw: A Lincolnshire Dialect Dictionary, ed. J. Sims-Kimbrey (Boston, Linc., 1995), p. 77.

7 E. Gepp, Essex Dialect Dictionary, 2nd edn (London, 1923), p. 39.

8 C.E.W. Bean, Letters from France (London, 1917), p. 224.

Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 16 August 1919, p. 8

10 Coolum Weekly, 29 January 2010, p. 16.