Gold was discovered in Australia in 1851, first near Bathurst in New South Wales, and then at Clunes and Buninyong in Victoria. The yellow fever, as it was commonly called, had profound social and economic effects. There was a massive increase in population, with some 700,000 migrants arriving between 1850 and 1860. The population was also very mobile, continually on the move from gold rush to gold rush. The yellow fever also affected the Australian language. On 16 September 1851 the Geelong Advertiser’s correspondent at Ballarat reported: ‘Gold is revolutionising manners and language — everything is tinctured with the yellow hue, and ounces, and grains, have become familiar words’. Similarly, in February 1859 the Colonial Mining Journal also expressed the need for a dictionary of the goldfields: ‘A great want felt in this district is a good lexicographer. What is meant or is to be understood by a great number of terms used in the mining regulations by the Mining Board is beyond comprehension’.

Some of the words used were standard mining terminology. Some of them were transported to the Australian goldfields from the Californian goldfields. Many of them, however, are Australian, although many of the terms lasted only as long as the goldrush period itself. This is especially true of the terms associated with alluvial mining, the kind of goldmining which attracted the greatest number and social range of miners, and which ceased earliest, as it gave way to machinery.

In the following list the sense numbers refer to the entries in the Australian Oxford Dictionary.

alluvial lead
claim jumper
(sense 4d)
deep leader
(noun 3; verb 4)
dolly (noun 2; verb 2)
duffer (sense 3)
gold commissioner
gold escort
gold washer
(see hatter2)
jeweller’s shop
(verb 15)
jumper (sense 1c)
long tom
miner’s right
(verb 6)
shepherd (noun 3; verb 3a)
shicer (sense 1)
storekeeper’s rush
tin dish

Even so, the gold rushes provided Australian English with some lasting terms. The importance of the term digger in Australian myth derives from its First World War associations, but its appearance in that war owes much to the analogy drawn between the often deep holes which had to be dug arduously in the search for gold, and the trenches which the soldiers had to dig. The political events surrounding the Eureka Stockade have similarly left an enduring mark on the Australian psyche. Fossick, which now means ‘to rummage or search around or about’, has its origin on the goldfields. The word comes from British dialect where it meant ‘to obtain by asking, to ferret out’. On the goldfields it had two meanings: ‘to search for gold on the surface, sometimes in a desultory or unsystematic way’ and ‘to steal gold from other diggers, especially from an unattended claim’. The second meaning was transferred from literal gold-seeking early on. Thus in 1853: ‘If a man were to take a log of fire-wood from a neighbour’s heap … it would be said he had been fossicking’. The transferred usage was often ironic: ‘If one in want of a dinner called at his neighbour’s tent at mutton time he would be a fossicker’. But it is the first meaning which has survived into contemporary Australian English.

Roll-up in the sense of ‘a mass meeting of miners to consider an individual grievance or an issue of common concern’ is used in mining contexts well into the twentieth century, but by the end of the nineteenth century it had developed its transferred sense of ‘an assembly’, which is now its primary meaning in Australian English: ‘He hoped for a big roll-up at next Thursday’s meeting’. The Australian phrase to knock out a living has its origin on the goldfields, where the ‘knocking out’ was quite literal. Mullock in the sense ‘rubbish, nonsense’, and especially in the phrase a load of mullock (earlier a lot of mullock), owes its existence to the goldmining sense of ‘mining refuse’. The earliest transferred use of the term in Australia points to the connection: ‘A lot of mullock ... is a gold fields phrase, and means, according to my views, anything of no use’ The phrase to hump one’s swag is usually associated with itinerant rural workers of the final quarter of the nineteenth century, but there is no doubt that it arose in gold-rush contexts. All of the early citations (1851–1867) use the phrase in referring to diggers, and the diggings’ phrase is the one which later gives rise to the phrases to hump one’s drum (1870), to hump one’s bluey (1891), and to hump one’s Matilda (1902). Indeed, the term swag achieved its widespread use in goldmining contexts.

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