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How you can help save Aussie nicknames

If you know the difference between a bin chicken and a dunny budgie, then the ever-expanding Aussie dictionary needs you.

Matilda's origins

From the 1880s, Matilda was one of the names for a swag – a bag of possessions carried by an itinerant man looking for work.

“These days most people would only know this in relation to the song Waltzing Matilda,” ANU Dictionary Centre director, Dr Amanda Laugesen, said.

It’s only since the mid-1990s that the Australian women’s soccer team has been called the Matildas.

However, after last year’s World Cup, “the word has once again cemented itself in the Australian lexicon”, Dr Laugensen said. 

The word Matilda was chosen as the Australian National Dictionary’s 2023 Word of the Year. But it’s only one of a few familiar terms that have snuck their way into the national lexicon in recent times.

Among them is bin chicken, describing the scavenging bird more properly known as the ibis that is seemingly hot-wired to steal city-goers’ sandwiches.

Not to mention the butchie – the native black and white butcher bird that serenades us from power poles and gum trees – maggie, chook, and mozzie.

Others, such as Noah’s arks (sharks) and brain-fever birds (pallid cuckoos), might produce puzzled looks but they’re all now in the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s (ANDC’s) collection of common Australian colloquial words.

The centre’s language experts, based at the Australian National University (ANU), are hoping to collect even more examples – and that’s where you can help.

They are looking for new contributions, with a focus on plants and animals. 

“They could be names you don’t often hear other people use, or names you knew as a child,” ANDC senior researcher, Mark Gwynn, said. 

“They could also be specific to a particular place, for instance the willy wagtail is often called the djitty djitty in Western Australia.”

Some are relatively simple, like gladdy for gladioli and wedgie for wedge-tailed eagles, while some are more colourful, like flying cane toad for the Indian myna bird and bushman’s clock for the kookaburra.

“Australians are well-known for their use of colloquialisms and slang, and this certainly extends into the natural environment,” Mr Gwynn said.

“From the terrifying saltwater crocodile undergoing the classic Aussie abbreviation to become saltie, to the tiny harmless woodlouse being called the slater or butchy boy, there’s probably not too many creatures that have missed out on a nickname.

“We would love to add more of these colloquialisms to our record of Australian English. People might be surprised that some of these types of informal naming are quite widespread and, in some cases, quite old.”

Each year the ANDC runs an appeal for contributions from the public for the Australian National Dictionary to build on the publication’s collection of Australian words and their origins.

“We look forward to seeing some new contributions, but we’re also interested in finding out if some of the older colloquialisms are still out there,” Mr Gwynn said.

“Are people still calling blowflies dunny budgies, and when was the last time you heard someone say they were having underground mutton [rabbit meat] for dinner?”

You can share your fauna and flora words via the ANDC Word Box feature or contact page.

Related reading: ANU

Photo by Valeriia Miller


John Austin

John Austin

Policy and Communications Officer, National Seniors Australia

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