This is a glossary of the distinctively Australian words and phrases used in the novel No Sunlight Singing.
The glossary was not part of the original print edition of No Sunlight Singing. It has been compiled for this website by Alan Walker. Each definition is followed by a quote from No Sunlight Singing showing how the term was used.
Many of the words and phrases listed here are quite obscure, even to Australians, as some of them are dated, and some are confined to outback regions. Visitors to Australia would be advised not to use this glossary as a phrase book!
Note on sources
The main reference work used in preparing this glossary was the Australian National Dictionary, 1988, Oxford University Press. The publishers have recently placed the entire contents of this dictionary online, here. You are urged to explore that website for much more information about most of the words and phrases listed here. The dictionary demonstrates the usage and evolution of Australian terms with quotations from Australian writers (including some from No Sunlight Singing).
Other sources are mentioned in the individual entries. There is a Further Reading section at the foot of this page.
Note on offensive language
Most of the informal terms relating to indigenous Australians have been used in disparaging ways by whites, and so have become offensive racial epithets, even though some of these words originated in Aboriginal languages. The dialogue in No Sunlight Singing is sprinkled with such terms, and definitions of these expressions are provided in this glossary. Words labeled as offensive are likely be seen as racist abuse if used by non-Aborigines.
abo Offensive disparaging term for an Australian Aborigine.
None o’ these dames has anything but abos doing housework.
arsy Lucky. Derived from another Australian term with the same meaning, tin-arsed.
I was real arsy to pick up a job here.
babbler Cook. From the rhyming slang, babbling brook.
I think we’ll get something off the babbler.
barcoo rot Scurvy, resulting in chronic skin sores. Named after the Barcoo River district in Queensland.
The long skinny arms were red and freckled, save where suppurating scabs adorned numerous festering sores of the ‘barcoo rot’ type
beauty, beaut Something excellent or extraordinary. These usages are not of Australian origin, but seem to be most widely used here.
I copped that young ’un a beauty ...
‘You’re a beauty!’ Reg gasped. ‘A few minutes ago you were talkin’ about how knocked up they were, now you’re goin’ to bowl her over.’
‘Oh, Bob, you’re a beaut.’ Dave Foster rolled around and slapped the arm of his easy-chair as he roared with laughter.
billy, billy-can Metal vessel used for carrying water, and for cooking, boiling water and making tea on an open fire.
Betty had been squatting by a fire with a billy of water waiting for instructions whether to boil up some of the tough kangaroo meat.
As soon as he was out of sight, Johnny dropped his spears and took a billy-can. To Paddy he said, ‘I go to water,’ waving his arm indicating a huge circle.
bludge An easy job, or slack time.
This job of yours with Native Affairs would be a fair old bludge, wouldn’t it?
bludger Originally, someone living off the earnings of a prostitute. Extended to anyone who relies on the efforts of others, or, simply, an idler.
Soon’s I get rid o’ this big bludger everythin’ be orright.
blue An argument; a fight.
... Dick had a blue with the boss at the last place in ’36 about handlin’ blacks.
blue duck A lost cause.
It seems like a blue duck to me. What I can’t get over, if it’s so good, why hasn’t Smithy come back to it?
bombo Cheap and nasty wine.
Bombo is plonk, you know, Mary. I been on it, an’ it throw me every time.
boong Offensive disparaging term for an Australian Aborigine. By extension, a dark-skinned person from New Guinea or elsewhere. Possibly derived from an Aboriginal word for human being, but used by whites mostly as a term of contempt.
‘P’raps you’d like to help yer friends the boongs,’ he sneered.
buck Offensive disparaging term for a male Aborigine. Derived from the similar usage of the term in the US, for a male African American or Native American.
I wonder where their gins got to? ... They’re cheekier’n the bucks half the time.
bull-ant A large ant with a painful sting. Originally, bulldog ant.
Ever since the last time we put bull-ants in her bed she shakes out everything every night.
cocky's joy Treacle or golden syrup. (A cocky is a farmer, originally a small tenant farmer. The word is derived from the earlier term cockatoo farmer, whose origin is the subject of several rival theories.)
‘Reach us the tin o’ cocky’s joy.’ Reg took the tin of syrup and spread some on the last bit of damper.
cooee To make a call of "cooee", originally used by Aborigines, but adopted by white settlers as well. Used especially to communicate over long distances in the bush. From the Daruk word guwi.
So they laughed and squealed and waved and cooeed to any passers-by.
cop Tolerate, put up with. (Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, 2nd edition, 2005, by Jonathon Green.) Possibly the source of the exclamation cop that, or cop this, used in the same way as "take this", when launching an attack. (The Australian Language, 2nd edition, 1970, by Sidney J Baker.)
Even the old man can’t cop this.
... the whips lashed furiously.
‘... Cop that, an’ that!’
cracker A very small amount of money. Always used negatively, as in "not a cracker".
But we never got a cracker out of it.
creamy Offensive term for a person of part-Aboriginal descent, especially one of mainly non-Aboriginal ancestry.
‘Some o’ these creamy bitches,’ continued Dick, ‘put on airs as if they was white.’
crook Bad, unpleasant. Also, injured, or unwell. To go crook is to complain.
You know how crook it is when the river’s flooding; can’t have a swim, just a wash with a tinful of muddy water.
One night, I pretty crook...
He start to go crook on me. He say, “You too slow, Bessie..."
crooked Annoyed. Often in crooked on, angry with.
Now you can understand I be crooked ’cos I want him and he want her. But why she crooked?
You’re crooked on Stanton and want to see him hurt.
damper A simple type of unleavened bread, traditionally baked in the ashes of a campfire. (Nowadays sometimes served with extra virgin olive oil in trendy cafes.)
At a packing-case table Harry and Reg sat down on up-ended boxes to the meal of half-warm, greasy meat and a lump of dry damper.
dilly-bag An Aboriginal bag of woven grass, sometimes suspended from a cord across the forehead. From dili, a Jagara word for coarse grass, and for a bag or basket made from such grass.
A lot of the wanderers did not come up to specification, as dilly-bags were definitely not recognized as clothes for sacred occasions.
do one's block Become angry. Also lose one's block. From the British slang use of block for head, as in expressions like "knock your block off".
Get moving before I do me block.
do over Assault, beat up, handle roughly. (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993 edition.) Derived from earlier British senses of swindle or tire out, do over is now used with this physical attack meaning in Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Dictionaries differ about where this usage originated.
We think we should go out an’ do ’em over. We can’t let ’em get away with this.
drum Reliable information.
‘Look, mate, I’ll give yer the drum,’ he said, lowering his voice impressively, ‘don’t expect nothin’ at this place...’
easy With no particular preference, especially in the phrase "I'm easy." Originated in Australia, according to Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, 2nd edition, 2005, by Jonathon Green.
Oh, well, what’s the difference, now or the end of the week? You don’t care how soon you leave, an’ I’m easy.
form Pattern of behaviour. Derived from horse racing form. Often used in the exclamation, commenting on disgraceful conduct, "How's his rotten form!" (A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, fourth edition, 1996, by G A Wilkes.)
... I found what Stanton’s form was with the natives, and, I don’t mind admitting it, I was shocked.
How’s their rotten form? ... These big cattle stations keep the blacks when times are good and chase ’em when there’s a drought on.
gin Offensive term for an Aboriginal woman. It is derived from the Dharuk word diyin, meaning woman, or wife, but it has come to be used as a highly derogatory term, often in connection with sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by whites.
Now when I get back here I’ll get some blacks, must have a gin at least.
gin-burglar A white man who sexually uses Aboriginal women.
I’m not exactly a gin-burglar, you know. I have to be persuaded.
gin rorting Sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by white men. Rort, in Australian English, can be either a wild party, or a fraud.
I hear all these old hands talking about gin rorting, as if it’s the national sport in the Territory.
give [something] a go Make an attempt at something. Used elsewhere, but said to have been recorded earliest in Australia.
Anyway, we’ve decided to give it a go to the end of this week ...
go bush To follow a traditional Aboriginal way of life. Also, to travel cross-country; to leave the city for the country; to leave one's usual surroundings.
Tommy an’ me we t’ink we go bush, but now no can do. Tommy say we prob’ly starve. We not know bush. Jus’ like white people.
goanna A large lizard. Called a monitor in other countries. The word is from an alteration of iguana.
True to his word he was there—with a huge goanna, fat as a whale from gorging on dead cattle.
greenhide The untanned hide of an animal.
Then she had started to lash Lily with a short piece of greenhide rope.
grog Any kind of alcoholic drink, including — perhaps especially — beer. An extension in usage of the standard English word, meaning rum or other spirits mixed with water.
There’ll be grog there. Get stuck into it and get half-drunk.
half a note Ten shillings. Before Australia switched to decimal currency, a note was slang for one pound.
‘You can’t afford a quid,’ said Peter. ‘Give us a half a note; that’ll do you.’
halfie Offensive term for a person of one-half Aboriginal descent.
Say, Les, what’s the drill with these halfies? ... That dance I went to th’other night. There was all colours there—black, white, brown, and brindle.
homestead The owner's or manager's residence on a sheep or cattle station.
The Wodalla Station homestead lay quiet as if dozing under the late afternoon sun, as the travellers skirted around it looking for the blacks’ camp.
in it Taking part in an activity.
‘... Are we going to have a game of five hundred tonight?’ asked Peter.
‘I’ll be in it,’ said Dick.
jackeroo A trainee on a sheep or cattle station. Historically, the jackeroo was a young man with "good family connections", and often from England, working to gain experience that would be useful in a future career as station owner or manager, but employed on menial work and possibly paid very little. The character in No Sunlight Singing described as being of "that strange breed, the jackeroo" was presumably one of these young men from a different social background from the rest of the station hands. During the Second World War, jilleroo came to be used for a female station hand. The origin of the word jackeroo is not known, though several theories have been put forward. Also written jackaroo.
Well, Eric was a jackeroo here, been here a year or more, a good kid too, he was picking it up fast.
jonnick Genuine. Variant of the British dialect word jannock.
Come here an’ have a gander at this an’ tell me if it’s jonnick, or if I’m seeing things.
johnny-cake A small, thin damper — that is, an unleavened loaf baked in the coals of an open fire. The word is probably adapted from the U.S. term johnnycake, but the Australian version is usually made with wheat flour, while the American version is a cornbread.
Mixing up the parcel of weevily flour with a little water she made johnny-cakes which she dropped into the ashes to cook.
killer Farm animal to be slaughtered for immediate consumption.
There’s not much killers about. We never seen much beef, did we, Dick?
laughing-side (Of boots) elastic-sided.
...dirty bare ankles which disappeared into a broken-down pair of ‘laughing-side’ riding boots.
lob Arrive unexpectedly; turn up.
She lobbed there from a mission.
lolly A sweet, a candy. A broadening of the British term for a lollipop or iced lolly. Lolly water is sweet soft drink.
Paddy ... finally got out, ‘Lolly, me want lolly.’ The storekeeper grunted, and picked out a fly-specked penny candy bar.
It’s nice and sweet, they lap it up like lolly water.
lubra Offensive term for an Aboriginal woman. From a Tasmanian Aboriginal word. This is the one colloquialism for Aborigines that is used in the narrative of No Sunlight Singing, as well as in dialogue, so the author presumably felt it to be a neutral term, rather than a derogatory one. However, many contemporary dictionaries flag lubra as offensive, so it would appear the term has now come to be widely regarded as unacceptable.
In front of it squatted a middle-aged black man and two lubras, one fairly old, the other much younger.
metho Methylated spirits.
I just finished work up at the house, while you rotten with metho.
mia-mia A temporary shelter — originally, one used by Aborigines, but later extended to cover any traveller's temporary shelter. From an Aboriginal term, but opinions differ about which Aboriginal language provided the original: see "The Mystery of Mia-Mia" in Ozwords (PDF - page 7), from the Australian National Dictionary Centre.
Cosily built with bits of this and that, some old iron, some bags and sheets of bark, a mia-mia hugged the bank.
milk bar A snack bar specialising in drinks made with milk. (Australian Oxford Dictionary.) The phrase has been used in various countries, but originated in Australia. Sidney J Baker, in The Australian Language (2nd edition, Sun Books, 1970) describes the invention of the milk bar as a means of reducing a milk glut during the Great Depression, and reports that the first one was perhaps opened in 1930 in Pitt Street, Sydney, by the Burt brothers. However the term had been used earlier. In 1888, a "milk bar" at 474 George Street Sydney advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald for a waitress (26 November 1888, page 14 - discovered using the National Library of Australia's online newspaper archive.) After the Second World War the term evolved, in some states of Australia, into a name for a neighbourhood shop selling general provisions, without any particular emphasis on milk products: what might elsewhere be called a corner store.
... the heart of Darwin seemed gay and brightly lit, as street lights and lights from the theatre, cafés, and milk bars were doubled by reflections in the wet road.
mob A group of Aborigines, an Aboriginal community. Also, a group of people sharing some characteristic, generally used in Australia without any disparagement. The Australian Oxford Dictionary also shows it as meaning the friends one usually associates with, which can be seen in the quote below about being "one of the mob". They're a Weird Mob was a comic novel about Australians by "Nino Culotta" (John O'Grady). The word is also used for a flock or herd of animals. Mob is also used (though not in No Sunlight Singing) for a large quantity or number of anything.
I keep telling you, there’ll be no manhandling of blacks. And, anyway, I think there’s some mistake. They didn’t seem a bad mob to me.
We’re all easy-goin’ round here. Before you know it you’ll be one of the mob.
... they had a few head of cattle and a mob of goats ...
moral A certainty (in a sporting contest, etc). Originally British slang, from the phrase moral certainty. Now chiefly Australian.
He was a moral beat las’ Sat’day. Wasn’t he? ... He couldn’t ’a’ got beat on’y they pocketed him.
mulga Various trees and shrubs of the dry, inland country. From the Yuwaalaraay language.
Then they squatted in the meagre shade of a patch of grey-looking mulga...
my word Exclamation of emphatic agreement. A variation on the British usage as an expression of astonishment.
‘You got a baby?’
‘My word,’ smiled Mary. ‘Have a look at her.’
new chum An inexperienced person. Originally a newly arrived convict.
And Rosie had been too busy ... to coach a new chum.
nicki-nicki Black twist tobacco.
Nancy suddenly remembered that she had scored a plug of nicki-nicki. So everyone lit up and soon mosquitoes for twenty yards around were flying for shelter.
nuggety Stocky, compactly-built, muscular.
... their nuggety, hard-muscled bodies were covered with dirt ...
offsider An assistant in an occupation. Originally a bullock-driver's assistant.
Oh, Anna, this Mary, your new offsider.
on the track Travelling through the country, looking for work or living off the land. Also, on the wallaby track.
And on the track living on goanna and often nothing.
phizgig A police informer; a grass, or stool pigeon. Also fizgig.
... he’s s’posed to carry a paper to say so if some phizgig wants to see it.
piccaninny Offensive term for an Aboriginal child. Adapted from West Indian pidgin. Also used to mean tiny, as in the phrase used in No Sunlight Singing, piccaninny daylight, first light in the morning.
Nice fresh young girl like Mary, she soon get fixed up with piccaninny.
’Safternoon ... you camp, then come piccaninny daylight you bin go bore.
plonk Cheap, low quality wine. Also used in casual speech for any alcoholic drink. The word originated in Australia, but is now widely used in Britain and elsewhere. Possibly derived from vin blanc.
One fella gimme two bob but other fella on’y have bottle-plonk.
ringbark Kill a tree by removing a ring of bark from the trunk. Also used figuratively, as in this example from No Sunlight Singing.
... that damned chain ringbarked my leg.
I just finished work up at the house, while you rotten with metho.
saltbush Various plants that thrive in saline soil in inland Australia.
... a miserable clump of saltbush that still paraded a few dried stalks but scarcely a leaf.
sheila A woman. Derived from British slang, but now confined to Australian and New Zealand use.
With these white sheilas you never know where you are.
shoot through Leave, run away.
One time a family of regulars shot through just when there was work to be done.
shot, the Something meeting with approval. Often in the expression "that's the shot".
I like gamblin’, but I like to do it the easy way. If you’re lucky you can get all you need off the Chinamen in Cavenagh Street. A nice game of fan-tan or pi-ku’s the shot.
skillion roof A sloping roof of a lean-to or shed.
With iron skillion roofs and white-washed hessian walls standing out stark and glaring against the lush green of the wet season, a scattering of various-sized huts squatted low along the hillside.
sling Give money, or pay a bribe.
I think we should sling in to help... I’ll put in a quid, anyway.
... they have to be declared O.K. by Native Affairs. But what makes the difference, God only knows. They might have to sling to some head.
snatch it (Take wages owing and) resign.
I still don’t know whether I snatched it or got sacked.
sool To urge.
An’ the boss sooled me on. He says, “Oh, Bessie, you have a kid by this Paddy an’ we have the best horseman in the world.”
spell A break from work or effort.
Soon after sun-up, Johnny waved them to the ground. ‘Little bit spell then we do another two-three hours.’
spin Five pounds (money). (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993 edition.)
‘You got off light at a spin.’ [following a court case]
spinifex Spiny grasses found in arid and semi-arid areas of Australia.
... the plain ... for the most part studded with grey spears of spinifex and drooping, almost lifeless scrub ...
station A sheep or cattle farm/ranch. The word farm fails to do justice to the enormous size of some Australian cattle stations. A Government report from around the period when Book One of No Sunlight Singing is set (the Payne and Fletcher Report, 1937, accessed via the National Archives) revealed that three pastoral companies owned 16 stations in the Northern Territory covering over 45,000 square miles in total (120,000 square kilometres, almost the size of Greece). The word station is used in many phrases, such as station-born, in the second example.
These big cattle stations keep the blacks when times are good and chase ’em when there’s a drought on.
Their own native tongue was used much of the time, but some were station-born and not too glib in this ...
stock-whip A whip designed for use in handling cattle. Used against Aboriginal people in several passages in No Sunlight Singing.
The coloured people burst into frantic movement as the stock-whips hissed and cracked among them.
strong of The essential facts of a situation. Strength of is also used, with the same meaning.
... what’s the strong of it? Who’s Eric an’ what happened to him?
stud Offensive term for an Aboriginal woman used sexually by a white man. Shortened from stud gin.
Well, she’s the old man’s pet stud ...
too right An expression of emphatic agreement. Now used in Britain and elsewhere, but of Australian origin.
‘Feels like winter coming up ... S’pose you get it pretty sharp here.’
‘Too right,’ agreed Peter. ‘It gets bitter at nights...’
troppo Crazy, supposedly as a result of too much time spent in the tropics. The use of troppo in No Sunlight Singing may be an anachronism, as the word is said to have originated in the military during World War Two, while the action of Book One takes place just before that war.
They had been told that the man in charge of the bore was ‘troppo’ and crooked on blacks and just as likely to shoot them as not.
trot A run of good or bad luck.
... if anyone had a bad trot and went broke it made no difference.
‘What about rations?’ asked Basil. ‘Will I give them some tucker?’
utility, also ute A type of small truck, unroofed at the back. This style of vehicle is said to have been designed by Lewis Bandt of Ford Australia in the 1930s (see The Ute - Australia Innovates). A major annual event in the New South Wales town of Deniliquin is the Deni Ute Muster.
‘Good-bye, Mary,’ he said as she climbed into the back of the utility.
... the ute leaped forward and they were gone.
walkabout A journey on foot by Aborigines, away from white society. Aborigines may go walkabout for traditional reasons or, as in Book One of No Sunlight Singing, at the dictates of white station owners.
Run away and go bush, go walkabout like the blacks, you mean?
Boss keeps black people here when times are good and food and water is plenty. He likes to send them walkabout when waters are dry and game all gone.
wet season, also the wet The rainy season in tropical areas of Australia.
At this time, the tail-end of the wet season, it was still running strongly and could well be called a river, but for most of the year it was just a trickle linking a chain of pools.
... ankle deep in water and mud whenever the torrential rains of the wet poured down ...
willy-willy A whirlwind. From the Yinjibarndi language
The half-dead leaves hung listless and motionless, save where suddenly a willy-willy curved from the plain into a bunch of trees, whipping them into brief but frantic motion.
The Australian National Dictionary: A Dictionary of Australianisms on Historical Principles, Oxford University Press, 1988. Online edition here. The long-awaited second edition is said to be nearing release.
The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press. This is a dictionary of all the English used in Australia, and hence most of its content is common to other English-speaking areas. However, the specifically Australian words and usages are labeled as such. The fifth edition was published in 2009.
The Macquarie Dictionary, Macquarie Library. First published in 1982, this best-known of Australian dictionaries has come out in several editions. The 6th edition was published in 2013. Like the Australian Oxford Dictionaries, it covers all the English used in Australia, but unlike those dictionaries, it does not identify specifically Australian words and usages, a shortcoming for anyone interested in studying Australianisms.
A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, by G A Wilkes, Oxford University Press. Like the Australian National Dictionary, this book gives quotations illustrating the use of each term defined. The 5th edition was published in 2008 as Stunned Mullets & Two-pot Screamers : a Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms.
The Australian Language, 2nd edition, by Sidney J Baker, Sun Books, 1970. Undoubtedly dated, but full of interesting material, if you can track down a copy.
Australian National Dictionary Centre. Based at the Australian National University, the Australian National Dictionary Centre provides research for the Australian dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. This website includes numerous resources for learning more about Australian English.
Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, 2nd edition, by Jonathon Green, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005. This general reference book on English language slang has excellent coverage of Australian slang.
Original content on this site is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.
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