Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms

This section contains a selection of Australian words, their meanings, and their etymologies.

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The word jackeroo was originally a Queensland term (recorded from 1840) referring to a white man who lived beyond the bounds of close settlement. Later, a jackeroo was 'a young man (frequently English and of independent means) seeking to gain experience by working in a supernumerary capacity on a sheep or cattle station'. A jackeroo is now 'a person working on such a station with a view to acquiring the practical experience and management skills desirable in a station owner or manager'. The word can also be used as a verb, meaning 'to work as a jackeroo'. The term jilleroo is sometimes used for a female jackeroo.

In 1895 A. Meston in Geographic History of Queensland proposed an Aboriginal origin for the term:

Another word used throughout Australia is jackeroo, the term for a 'newchum', or recent arrival, who is acquiring his first colonial experience on a sheep or cattle station. It gas a good-natured, somewhat sarcastic meaning, free from all offensive significance. It is generally used for young fellows during their first year or two of station life. The origin of the word is now given for the first time. It dates back to 1838, the year the German missionaries arrived on the Brisbane River, and was the name bestowed upon them by the aboriginals. The Brisbane blacks spoke a dialect called 'Churrabool', in which the word 'jackeroo' or 'tchaceroo' was the name of the pied crow shrike, Stripera graculina, one of the noisiest and most garrulous birds in Australia. The blacks said the white men (the missionaries) were always talking, a gabbling race, and so they called them 'jackeroo', equivalent to our word 'gabblers'.

The etymology proposed by Meston appears to be without foundation. There is no confirmatory evidence of a bird name tchaceroo in the Brisbane language, or of anything like this being applied to missionaries.

Is it possible that the term has an English origin? The personal name Jack is often used in contexts of manual work (e.g. a device for lifting heavy objects) and appears in such idioms as a jack of all trades.

This perhaps fits the later meanings of jackeroo, but unfortunately it does not explain the original Queensland meaning. In 1875 Campbell & Wilks in The Early Settlement of Queensland write:

A black fellow.. warned me.. that their intention was first to spear all the commandants, then to fence up the roads and stop the drays from travelling, and to starve the 'jackeroos' (strangers).

The jury is still out on this term. Is it possible that it is a Queensland Aboriginal term not for 'crow shrike' but for 'stranger'?

1869 Queenslander (Brisbane) 1 May: He seemed to think that a cove who comes into the bush as a jackeroo has nothing else to do but sit down and order the men about; but when the overseer was about he was quite another fellow and he was as quiet as a mouse.

2012 M. Hercock Desert Droving: A word of recall here about jackeroos. They were the privileged class of learner, who ate at the homestead with the manager, not with us ringers.

Jacky Howe

A (navy or black) sleeveless singlet cut nearly to the waist under the arms to give freedom of movement. The Jacky Howe is worn especially by shearers and other rural workers. It was named after the style of singlet worn by shearer John Robert (‘Jacky’) Howe who established a world shearing record by hand-shearing 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes at Alice Downs, Queensland, in the 1890s. His world record stood until 1950 when it was broken by a shearer using a machine. Jacky Howe is first recorded in 1900.

1925 Cairns Post 24 March: You know, Mr Editor, those Jacky Howes are cool and comfortable, are they not?

2011 M. Thornton Jackaroo: In his Jackie Howe, his biceps bulge, the size of footballs.


Jumbuck is an Australian word for a 'sheep'. It is best known from Banjo Paterson's use of it in Waltzing Matilda.

Two of the earliest appearances of the term show Aborigines using it in pidgin English:

1824  Methodist Missionary Society Records:  To two Brothers of mine, these monsters exposed several pieces of human flesh, exclaiming as they smacked their lips and stroked their breasts, 'boodjerry patta! murry boodjerry - fat as jimbuck!!' i.e. good food, very good, fat as mutton.

1842 Port Phillip Patriot 19 July: The villains laughed at and mocked us, roaring out 'plenty sheepy', 'plenty jumbuck', (another name of theirs for sheep).

The origin of the word is not known. It may possibly be from an Aboriginal language, or it may be an Aboriginal alteration of an English phrase such as jump up.  Some suggested etymologies are very fanciful indeed. In 1896 a writer in the Bulletin suggested:

The word 'jumbuck' for sheep appears originally as jimba, jombock, dambock, and dumbog. In each case it meant the white mist preceding a shower, to which a flock of sheep bore a strong resemblance. It seemed the only thing the aboriginal imagination could compare it to.

Whatever the case, jumbuck was a prominent word in the pidgin used by early settlers and Aborigines to communicate with one another, and was thence borrowed into many Australian Aboriginal languages as the name for the introduced animal, the sheep. For a further discussion of jumbuck, including its possible origin in Malay, see a previous 'Mailbag' article in our newsletter Ozwords.

1847 Argus (Melbourne) 22 October: Shearing is the great card of the season, and no settler being the owner of jumbucks can give a straight answer upon any other, than this all absorbing topic.

1981 P. Barton Bastards I have Known: My favourite was a little grey mare that ... knew more about handling sheep than most sheep dogs. She sensed the first day I was on her that I was a novice with the jumbucks.

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