Australian Style words



A lot of words have come into Australian English from Aboriginal languages. Think of billabong, corroboree, kookaburra, mia-mia, and of course kangaroo – which was famously misinterpreted by Captain Cook and his crew. It’s true of most of these words that they’ve been reinterpreted or anglicised in some way, but a relatively new addition to the list, ngangkari (‘traditional healer’) has preserved its form and meaning more successfully. It comes from Pitjantjatjara, a dialect of the Western Desert language, from Central Australia. A ngangkari draws on an ancient medical knowledge system that offers a holistic approach to health involving education and cultural practices alongside the use of bush medicine and traditional healing approaches. Only recently have these healers started to be accepted into mainstream medicine, with standardised accreditation for them provided by ANTAC (the Aṉangu Ngangkaṟi Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation), and services provided by them at clinics and hospitals such as the Royal Adelaide. Ngangkari was one of the words shortlisted by the Macquarie Dictionary for its 2019 word of the year. As the modern world lurches from climate crisis to global health threats, it seems that ancient wisdom and the words that represent it become ever more important.

Adam Smith


Given the global spread of English, it’s no wonder that the most exhaustive record we have of it, the Oxford English dictionary (OED), sometimes takes a bit of time to catch up. It wasn’t until March 2012 that the online OED got around to including that great Australian adjective boofy. As if to make up for the oversight, they’ve given us 2 entries: one to describe the stereotypically stupid muscly bloke and the other, spelt bouffy, meaning ‘puffed out’ – used of hair or clothing. The Macquarie dictionary lists both of these under boofy, a shortening of boofhead, whereas the spelling bouffy is explained in the OED by its relation to the French bouffant (swelling). This origin does make sense, and indeed the earliest example in the OED (from the Australian Women’s Weekly, 1960) is spelt this way, as are some later citations. The boof in boofhead may be related to buffle – an obsolete form of buffalo. Whatever that beast’s claims to intelligence, I’m sure most boofy blokes would rather be compared to a thick-skulled, powerful ruminant than a voluminously frocked, big-haired glamour model.

Adam Smith


Over the last 10 years or so, a new form of eco-conscious eating has arisen in Australia – kangatarianism. It is designed for vegetarians who want to occasionally eat meat without feeling guilty (a light-hearted alternative given for the term kangatarian is vegeroo). Kangaroos provide low-fat, free-range, organic meat, give off low greenhouse gas emissions, and are supposedly killed humanely. They make less demands on the environment than farmed livestock. The same arguments are put forward for the consumption of camel meat, by cameltarians. These words appear to be introducing a newly-productive suffix: –tarian (from vegetarian) rather than the standard –arian (as in antiquarian), that proclaims the vegecentric stance of its bearer. There is also the flexitarian, a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat, according to the situation or their mood. While the flexitarian would compromise on their dietary beliefs, usually for sociable reasons like not inconveniencing their dinner host, this new strain of carnivorous vegetarians adheres to an ethical principle of eating for the greater good.

Adam Smith


Petrichor isn’t usually listed among Australia’s great scientific achievements – like the invention of the black box flight recorder, or the cochlear implant – but it was discovered by CSIRO scientists Isabel Bear and Richard Thomas in 1964. It’s the name for the oily liquid they they found to be released from the earth when moistened by humidity or rain. It’s also the name for the distinctive smell that this substance emits.  Like many scientific terms, it is derived from Ancient Greek – petros meaning ‘stone’ or ‘rock’ and ichor, which was the name for the fluid that was supposed to run through the veins of the gods.  So it could be translated as ‘stone-essence’, a descriptive term with richly allusive qualities. Smell is the most primeval of our senses, and is believed to be the one that is most directly processed by the brain. It is deeply connected with memory – a stray aroma from plant, person or place can plunge us instantly back into long-lost recollections. So it is appropriate that petrichor features in Doctor Who, that most nostalgic of sci-fi series – its main character a homeless, time-wandering alien. In one episode petrichor is the telepathically-transmitted password that allows access to the Doctor’s hijacked Tardis. Like the Tardis, some words are bigger on the inside.

Adam Smith
Versions of these columns were previously published in Campus Review.