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Roger Clarke's Australianisms in 'Waltzing Matilda'

Australianisms in 'Waltzing Matilda'

Roger Clarke

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1995-2003

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An originally aboriginal word for a section of still water adjacent to a river, cut off by a change in the watercourse, cf. an oxbow lake. In the Australian outback, a billabong generally retains water longer than the watercourse itself, so it may be the only water for miles around.


A tin can, maybe two litres (four pints) in capacity, usually with a wire handle attached to the top rim, in which 'swaggies' (and contemporary Australian campers) boil water to make tea (and to kill the beasties in the water they've taken out of the billabong).

coolibah tree (also coolabah)

A particular kind of eucalyptus that grows beside billabongs.

More specifically, a friend tells me that it's eucalyptus microtheca, a small to medium-sized tree to 20m, widespread in arid and semi-arid areas near watercourses and seasonally inundated areas in open woodlands, found in all states except Victoria and Tasmania.


A sheep.

The Macquarie Dictionary suggests that the term is an Aboriginal corruption of 'jump up'. A correspondent, Leslie (Lee) Harvey advises me that the term derives from 'jombok'. "Jomboks are those big, white, fluffy clouds that typically drift across the inland Australian skies in late summer and Autumn. When the aboriginals first saw sheep they were reminded of jomboks and they just changed one letter to avoid confusion in their spoken language. I also think the first European translators misspelled the word jumbuck".


As Australia was settled, there was of course little or no authority and bureaucracy in place. People 'squatted' on patches of land, grazed their animals, grew their crops and built their houses and fences. In due course, as authority arrived, it generally accepted the claims of whoever was in apparent possession of the land (aboriginals had been no match for armed white men, and anyway were largely nomadic across reasonably large areas). Particularly in good quality grazing country, squatters quickly became relatively very well off, hence the term 'squattocracy' which blends 'squatter' with 'aristocracy'. The constabulary tended to work with them to maintain law and order. To non-land-owners, squatters were an object of resentment.


A gentleman of the road, an itinerant roaming country roads, a drifter, a tramp, a hobo. Carried his few belongings slung in a cloth, which was called by a wide variety of names, including 'swag', 'shiralee' and 'bluey'. Given the large number of names for them, they must have been a pretty common sight.


A cavalry soldier, or perhaps a mounted militia-man or policeman. To a swaggie, what was the difference??


A bag to keep tucker in. Tucker is grub, victuals/vittles, or food.

waltzing matilda

Matilda was a mock-romantic word for a swag, and to waltz matilda was to hit the road with a swag on your back. Very few non-Australians seem to understand this, and hence regard the song as gibberish or cute, something like 'Jabberwocky' set to music. "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves ..." indeed.

The term is thought to come from a German expression. Auf die Walz gehen means to take to the road (as of apprentices in the Middle Ages, who were required by their Master to visit other Masters and report back, before they could secure their release. In some trades, at least in some parts of Germany and I believe Denmark, they still do). The dance, anglicised as 'waltz', came several centuries later). Matilda is a girl's name, applied to one's bed-roll. As a correspondent points out, this is a bit of a come-down for a name that originated as the Teutonic Mathilde - 'Mighty in Battle'.

So the poem (doggerel? folk song?) can be interpreted as yet another Aussie complaint about them in authority. We're one of the most urbanised nations in the world, who sort-of yearn for the wide open spaces (there's so much of it out there!), and the freedom that goes with it (or at least seems to go with it, to those that don't live there). So Waltzing Matilda strikes a chord (so to speak), generation after generation, for the same reason that Crocodile Dundee was as popular here as anywhere else - we know we're not like that; but it's fun pretending for a while that we are.

Note: These are my own explanations and interpretations, checked against the Macquarie Dictionary; except for the origins of the term to 'waltz matilda', which, like most Australians, I didn't know until I looked it up.

Another Note: The only one of these words that's basically died out of Australian english is 'jumbuck', although 'troopers' is a bit dated, and 'waltzing matilda' only survives because of this song.

An Aside: When the trooper says "where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tuckerbag?", he seems like a right galah (twit, twerp, nerd/nurd, fool), asking a question he's already declared he knows the answer to. Actually, it's quite sensible, because, at least in Australian english, you say it with your hand extended expectantly, and it means "give it back!". There's lots of examples of such perversity in the language, derivative, I reckon, from the significant Irish element in early Australia (ever wondered why a redhead's called 'blue'?).

A Final Aside: Many non-Australians assume that the cute-sounding place-names and other words in Australian english are from the Aboriginal language. In fact, there were hundreds of aboriginal languages, and many language families largely unrelated to one another. An illustration of the confusions that this has led to relates to the 'kangaroo'. The word was brought back to Britain by Captain Cook in 1770, along with the first drawings of the animal. He had heard it used by North Queensland aboriginals during one of his landings up there. When the first white settlement was established at Sydney in 1788, over 2,000 kilometers south of Cook's landing, the local aboriginals heard the white men referring to the animal as 'kangaroo', and assumed it was the white man's name for the thing. I wonder if anyone knows what it was called in the language of the local tribe on the shores of Sydney Harbour (the Dhurag - spelt whichever way you like, because they had no written language, and are long since extinct). The sailors, marines and convicts didn't have an anthropologist with them at the time, let alone a linguistics professor.

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