The story of ‘mate’


 by Bruce Moore

Bruce Moore is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and editor of the forthcoming (2016) 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.

Mate is one of those words that is used widely in Englishes other than Australian English, and yet has a special resonance in Australia. Although it had a very detailed entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the letter M was completed 1904–8), the Australian National Dictionary (AND) included mate in its first edition of 1988, thus marking it as an Australianism. A revision of the OED entry for mate was posted online in December 2009, as part of the new third edition, and this gives us the opportunity to test the extent to which the word can be regarded as Australian. Not one of the standard presently-used senses of mate in OED is marked Australian. What are they doing to our Australian word?

One of the OED senses that matches an AND sense is mate used as a form of address. OED says: ‘used as a form of address to a person, especially a man, regarded as an equal.’ This sense has been in use since the sixteenth century. The OED notes that mate is not used in this sense in the United States, and Australians will be aware from its use in British television programs that it is not exclusively Australian. It is interesting, however, that the OED’s one quotation to illustrate the sense after the 1940s is from the Australian novelist Peter Carey in 1981, in an example that demonstrates its use by a woman: ‘“Come and sit here, old mate.” She patted the chair beside her.’1

Mates at Mount Alexander gold diggings.

Mates at Mount Alexander gold diggings.

The AND definition differs slightly from the OED one: ‘a mode of address implying equality and goodwill; frequently used to a casual acquaintance and, especially in recent use, ironic.’ Examples of the ‘ironic’ usage include: (1953) ‘I’ll remember you, mate. You’ll keep!’;2 (1957) ‘I’ve just been sweating on an opportunity to do you a damage, mate.’3 The quotations chosen to illustrate the OED entry do not include this ironic, and sometimes hostile, use of the term. This range of usage with the primarily positive mate is analogous to the range of usage with the primarily negative term bastard in Australia. Bastard is mainly used in a derogatory way, as it is in all Englishes, but in Australia it can also be used in a good-humoured and even affectionate way. Sidney Baker captured the range of meaning when he wrote in 1943: ‘You are in a pub knocking back a few after work and being earbashed by a mate. At length he reaches the point he has been rambling round so long and, after a pause, you (the bashee) say: “You’re not a bad old bastard—for a bastard!”’4

Source: Matt Davidson,

Source: Matt Davidson,

The heavily ironic Australian use of mate is enshrined in a famous quotation from Australian political history. In 1983, Labor Party leader Bill Hayden recalled a moment when there were rumours that he was to be dumped as leader, and a colleague comforted him ‘Oh, mate, mate’. Hayden commented: ‘When they call you “mate” in the N.S.W. Labor Party it is like getting a kiss from the Mafia.’5 Although possibly not exclusively Australian, this ironic and sometimes hostile use of mate is certainly more common in Australia than elsewhere.

The primary Standard English sense of mate is illustrated by this OED definition: ‘a companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner.’ It is this part of the sense that receives special attention in the Australian National Dictionary. The first thing AND does is to separate out some shades of meaning, and so one of them is: ‘an acquaintance; a person engaged in the same activity.’ This sense covers quite a range of relationships, but the essential point about it is that the relationship involves no close bond of friendship. Typical examples include: (1919) ‘The boy had joined his mates in one of the little cemeteries on the Western front’;6 (1934) ‘Seventeen of our mates were killed in the mining industry last year’;7 (1972) ‘A mate in Australia is simply that which a bloke must have around him. Mates do not necessarily want to know you.’8

'Mates don't necessarily want to know you.' Source: News Corp Australia

‘Mates do not necessarily want to know you.’ Source: News Corp Australia

This separation prepares the way for the essential Australian sense of mate, and the sense that validates its inclusion in a dictionary of Australian words: ‘a person with whom the bonds of close friendship are acknowledged, a “sworn friend”.’ Some of the central quotations that establish the sense are these:

(1891) Where his mate was his sworn friend through good and evil report, in sickness and health, in poverty and plenty, where his horse was his comrade, and his dog his companion, the bushman lived the life he loved.9

(1977) ‘He’s me mate. I gotta help ’im,’ he stated simply and incontrovertibly. … There was no answer to that, Gunner knew: the outcome of this incident had been predetermined by the peculiar chemistry of compatibility, by social mores and by the almost tribal ties of marriage, all pledged with countless beers. It was personal, traditional, and deeply masculine.10

Shearing mates at Hughenden, 1920s. Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Shearing mates at Hughenden, 1920s. Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Especially in many of the early examples of this kind, the emphasis is, as in these passages, strongly masculine. Henry Lawson writes in 1913: ‘The man who hasn’t a male mate is a lonely man indeed, or a strange man, though he have a wife and family.’11 And a writer in the Bulletin in 1945: ‘You can’t kid me that a woman could ever be a mate like you an’ me know it.’12 In 1960: ‘“My mate” is always a man. A female may be my sheila, my bird, my charley, my good sort, my hot-drop, my judy or my wife, but she is never “my mate”.’13 In the early records there are occasional references to women, but when they do occur they lack the intensity of emotion associated with the male references: (1923) ‘My wife is standing at the gate—No man could have a better mate’;14 (1946) ‘Sally was elated by his recognition that she could be a good mate.’15 It is intensity of emotion that characterises the male references: (1986) ‘Silence was the essence of traditional mateship. … The gaunt man stands at his wife’s funeral; his mate comes up, says nothing but rests a gentle hand briefly on his shoulder.’16

In addition to mate, the word mateship appears in the quotation at the end of the last paragraph. In Standard English, mateship can mean ‘the state of having a mate; a pairing of one animal with another’ (OED), but it is the human sense of mateship that is exclusively Australian. The OED defines it as ‘the condition of being a mate; companionship, fellowship, comradeship’, and labels it ‘chiefly Australian and New Zealand’. AND defines it: ‘The bond between equal partners or close friends; comradeship; comradeship as an ideal.’ Some of its seminal and early uses, not surprisingly, come from Henry Lawson, since it is a concept that was forged in the bush tradition. In ‘Shearers’ (1901) Lawson writes:

They tramp in mateship side by side—
The Protestant and Roman
They call no biped lord or sir
And touch their hat to no man!

And in ‘Before We Were Married’ (1913):

River banks were grassy—grassy in the bends,
Running through the land where mateship never ends.

It is a tradition that is continued in the First World War, and memorialised in the remembering of that war: (1935) ‘The one compensating aspect of life as then lived was the element of mateship. Inside the wide family circle of the battalion and the company were the more closely knit platoon groups.’17

Mateship in Athens, 1941-43. Source: Australian War Memorial

Mateship in Athens, 1941-43. Source: Australian War Memorial

When in 1999 Prime Minister Howard proposed a draft preamble to the Constitution that included the sentence ‘We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship’, there was some public outcry over the inclusion of a term that, because of its role in a male tradition, appeared to exclude half the population. Prime Minister Howard argued that mateship was ‘a hallowed Australian word’, although his co-author in the draft preamble, the poet Les Murray, confessed that it was ‘blokey … a man’s thing’.18 This debate was a sign that the Australian myth, which mateship embodies, perhaps no longer has the power that it held in the past. The association of mateship with Australian egalitarian traditions was articulated most clearly by Russel Ward in The Australian Legend (1958): ‘He believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better. … He is very hospitable and, above all, will stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they be in the wrong.’19

The power of this myth may have weakened, but it is only through an understanding of the historical background of terms such as mate and mateship that we can understand why they have such a central place (even when contested) in the Australian psyche, how their Australian meanings differ from their Standard English meanings, and why they belong to the core set of terms that help to express Australian values.


1 P. Carey, Bliss (St Lucia, Qld, 1981), p. 95.
2 T.A.G. Hungerford, Riverslake (Sydney, 1953), p. 50.
3 B. Reed, Cass Butcher Bunting (Port Melbourne, 1957), p. 38.
4 S. Baker, The Drum: Australian Character and Slang (Sydney, 1959), p.  69.
5 Bulletin (Sydney), 13 September 1983, p. 60.
6 A. Wright, A Game of Chance (Sydney 1919), p. 9.
Red Star (Perth), 3 August 1934), p. 2.
8 K. Dunstan, Knockers (North Melbourne, 1972), p. 52.
9 ‘Smiler’ (A.A.G. Hales), The Wanderings of a Simple Child, 3rd edn (Sydney, 1891), p. iv.
10 R. Beilby, Gunner: A Novel of the Retreat from Crete (London, 1977), p. 177.
11 H. Lawson, Triangles of Life and Other Stories (Melbourne, 1913), p. 237.
12 Bulletin (Sydney), 12 September 1945, p. 12.
13 D.M. McLean, The Roaring Days (London, 1960), p. 1.
14 J. Moses, Beyond the City Gates (Melbourne, 1923), p. 96.
15 K.S. Prichard, The Roaring Nineties (London, 1946), p. 224.
16 Bulletin (Sydney), 21 January 1986, p. 36.
17 J.P. McKinney, The Crucible (Sydney, 1935), p. 63.
18 Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 March 1999, p. 4.
19 Cited from 2nd edn (Melbourne 1966), p. 2.

6 thoughts on “The story of ‘mate’

  1. Pingback: Link love: language (64) | Sentence first

  2. In 1993 I heard “mate” being used by female university students in a similar way to men. A common exclamation of frustration was “Aaw m-a-a-a-t-e”, with a long falling intonation. These students also used the term “guys” to refer to each other – “Are you guys ready to eat?”

    I also remember remember my grandmother in her grief on hearing the news that my grandfather had died: “Me and Alec, we was great mates.” This was in 1960.

  3. Pingback: mailgooglecomatugraselektrikcom

  4. Great to occasionally still hear “Me old china” from “China Plate”,
    rhyming slang from Mate.
    Or Cobber, the mate you would die for, love our lingo!

  5. Strictly speaking the rhyming slang ‘china plate’ (and ‘china’) originated in Britain in the late 19th century, so we can’t claim them as Australian.
    Cobber is a well-loved Australianism dating from the same period, but is not heard much now, sadly.

Comments are closed.