The History of ‘Mate’

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.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 25, 2011 : Memorial service with War Veterans on Anzac Day

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 25, 2011 : Memorial service with War Veterans on Anzac Day

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]

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] 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]

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]

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]

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 the core set of terms that help to express Australian values.

This extract is taken from What’s Their Story? A History of Australian Words. The real stories behind some of Australia’s unique and best-loved words are ready to be told. This is a collection of words that have interesting, challenging and often disputed stories to be told about their origins.

ISBN 9780195575002 | Bruce Moore | AU$21.95

[1] 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.
[7] 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.

Spotlight On: Senior Concept Designer, Sue Dani

We’re very proud of our books here at Oxford Australia, and we’re even more proud of the hard work that goes into creating the perfect textbook or digital product. There are a lot of different people involved in getting a book from conception to consumer; today in Spotlight On we introduce you to Sue Dani, a Senior Concept Designer in our Creative Services division.

Name: Sue Dani
Title: Senior Concept Designer*
When did you start at Oxford: mid-2007
Sum up your job in 3 words: conceptual aesthetic problem-solving

What are your day-to-day tasks?
My day-to-day tasks range from creating cover and text designs to meeting briefs (essentially problem-solving – which includes researching subjects, trends, internet, artists, image libraries, visiting galleries and book shops, reading blogs, books, magazines zines etc) through to critiquing and giving/receiving constructive feedback on freelancer and colleagues’ as well as my own designs; working on design layouts (including taking in text corrections and amending/creating technical and other artwork);  liaising with production, permissions, publishers, editors and freelancers and collaborating/brainstorming with, and supporting my colleagues!

What product or project are you most proud of working on?
Working on the Big Ideas Series with the creative Malaysia OUP design team 18 months ago in Kuala Lumpur was a real standout, and I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to work with them to craft their concept designs.  It was challenging to work in a different environment – not only differing systems and processes but also from a cultural perspective. I learnt a great deal during my time there, made many new friends and found it a very rewarding experience.

What is your favourite thing about working in publishing?
My favourite thing about working in publishing is that I feel I am making a difference to children’s lives by making learning interesting and easier – maybe by making maths that little more engaging or making a product easier to navigate, I’m encouraging one child to feel less intimidated and more confident than I did when I was in school!

What advice would you give to someone interested in a role like yours?
A large proportion of my role revolves around conceptual problem-solving.  It’s important to have a strong aesthetic but, it’s just as important, if not more so, to have solid problem-solving skills. In this role you need to be able to work through a problem to present relevant alternatives and it is critical to have a large pool of knowledge, experiences etc. to draw upon for your ideas. My advice to someone interested in this type of role would be to learn as much as they can about everything. From current affairs to connecting and learning from others within/outside your industry – don’t be a static learner but, keep exploring and don’t be afraid to take a risk!

What are you reading right now?
I’m a science fiction tragic – Excession, Ian M. Banks!

*Since completing this post, Sue has become the Design Manager of the Creative Services division.

2015 Resolution results


In January 2015, several members of the OUP team made resolutions for the new year. One year on, we revisit those resolutions to see who made it and who did not.

I have a really silly (but I think achievable) resolution, which is to learn how to do a handstand!
I still cannot do a handstand. Resolution fail.
– Alyce, Higher Education Marketing

To be a BOP (beacon of positivity)!
I think I have not reached beacon level as yet, but I am working on being more glass half full.
– Peter, Managing Director

To read at least one book every three days in 2015.
My resolution was to read at least one book every three days. I’ve been successful “by average” with 125 titles finished in 2015 so far, but might have failed it on technicalities (I read, e.g.,  0 books in March). Who is the umpire on this kind of thing?
– Susannah, Sales Operations

One of my 2015 NY resolutions this year is to pick up a new skill – I’d like to be able to crochet an amigurumi toy before the end of the year.
Alas, my amigurumi resolution got a bit fuzzy and didn’t quite take shape! Concurrent work and study made my best-laid plans a bit woolly, so it’s now balled over to my 2016 list.*
– Alicia, Primary Editorial

This year I want to learn to properly touch type!
Ah *sigh*, just one of the many things I didn’t complete this year. I am potentially faster – but definitely not a competent touch typist. #fail
– Laura, Higher Education Editorial

To give up coffee and drink more green tea.
I gave up coffee and alcohol (apart from the very occasional lapse!) but realised green tea also has caffeine. So I’ve been trying to drink more water (boring!).
– Anita, Primary Publishing

Mine is to read more books!  The more exercise thing never works for me.
I did read more books this year, and snuck in a bit of exercise too!
– Jane, Production

To skip fewer gym sessions.
I did very well until July, and then  I fizzled out.
– Derek, Higher Education Sales

One of my 2015 resolutions is to read more as well as try to widen my reading tastes. In 2014 I aimed to read a book a week and was surprisingly was able to complete this, so next year I’d like to try and read at least one of the ‘classics’ a month.
I’m about to complete my 2015 resolution to read a classic a month! Currently reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and have had a great time this year expanding my reading choices and asking friends and colleagues for their recommendations.
– Stephanie, Higher Education Marketing

To drink more… water!
I totally drank more…water!
Ann, Sales Operations

Did you complete your 2015 New Years Resolution, or have you made one for 2016?

Oxford Word of the Month – January: Australian tea

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noun: a social fundraising event that usually includes the sale and purchase of donated items.

In 1915, the newspaper Nhill Free Press gave notice of a social event soon to take place:

On Thursday, July 29th, a function to be called an ‘Australian Tea’ will be held in the Mechanics’ Hall, Kaniva. All ladies will be expected to bring and to buy one or more gifts, also to provide afternoon tea, the gifts to consist of articles of home produce, such as jams, pickles, eggs, butter, vegetables, fruits, poultry, etc. On account of it being a special effort, gentlemen will be charged one shilling for afternoon tea. (29 June)

From the time of the First World War through to the 1950s, the term Australian tea, along with the variants American tea (also an Australian term, first recorded in 1910, and still used) and American afternoon (first recorded in 1912), were used to refer to a fundraising event involving the sale and purchase of donated items.

The origin of Australian tea is probably a patriotic wartime variant of American tea. The following quote clearly suggests that the American tea was a new type of fundraiser, with a slightly different way of raising money to the later ‘bring a gift, buy a gift’ style of event:

It seems almost impossible nowadays to think of new ways of raising money for one’s pet charity, but the latest is the ‘American Tea.’ The collector for the charity gives notice to her friends that some time in the future she is having an American tea in aid of a certain object, then she will give a prize to the guest who, in the opinion of the other guests, has raised her contribution in the most ingenious way. (Maitland Daily Mercury, 28 May 1910)

Both American tea and Australian tea—the terms and the events—were familiar to many Australians by the 1920s:

The most recent was an Australian tea last Saturday, on the lines of an American tea, to which guests were asked to bring a gift, the proceeds of which were to be used to help local charities. (Table Talk, 10 March 1927)

Australian teas continued to be held through the first half of the twentieth century, but became less common after this. There is still evidence of the events being held, however, but American tea appears to be the preferred term, as suggested by this description of a Tasmanian woman’s fundraising activities: ‘Baking for her famed American tea fundraiser begins weeks before the event and her freezer is filled to bursting with a delicious array of cakes.’ (Hobart Mercury, 26 July 2007)

Australian tea and American tea are both included in the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary (forthcoming 2016).

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