The Story of ‘Mate.’

Bruce Moore, editor of the forthcoming second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, has an interesting discussion of a classic Australianism at Ozwords:

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? […]

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!’; (1957) ‘I’ve just been sweating on an opportunity to do you a damage, mate.’ 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!”’

There’s a lot more there (the post is excerpted from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words); it’s lexicography at its finest.

Comments

  1. The OED stuff is weird because OED2 had nothing about Australia in “mate, n.2”, whereas the OED3 revision (2001, not 2009, sez OED.com) has two Australian additions, viz, 1d: “Chiefly Austral. and N.Z. to go (also be) mates: to work as an equal partner (with someone).” Also: “mates rates n. colloq. (Austral. and N.Z.) discounted prices or preferential terms for friends or associates (also with sing. concord).”

  2. I’ve seen it bluntly put that Australians call mates “cunt”, and call cunts “mate”.

  3. Ken Miner says:

    Examples of the ‘ironic’ usage include: (1953) ‘I’ll remember you, mate. You’ll keep!’; (1957) ‘I’ve just been sweating on an opportunity to do you a damage, mate.’ The quotations chosen to illustrate the OED entry do not include this ironic, and sometimes hostile, use of the term.

    Any word/phrase can be used “ironically” (I prefer “sarcastically” for this, but no matter). Linguistic pragmatics has already established this. So it is hopelessly redundant for dictionaries to try to include “ironic” senses for all of them individually.

  4. My understanding is that ‘buddy’ or ‘bud’ is used in a similar sense.

  5. Actually, someone called krogerfoot at this thread in LL made this point:

    In US English, using “buddy/pal/friend” to address someone you don’t know well can sound downright threatening. “You talking to me, buddy?”

  6. “I ain’t your buddy, pal” being the standard response, of course.

  7. Can “mate” be used between a man and a woman, or is it used exclusively between people of the same sex? Or is it just between men?

  8. “Don’t call me pal, that’s a Mafia term for punk.”

  9. That reminds me of the scene in Mean Streets when somebody insults Robert De Niro and his friends by calling them mooks – to which they ask, “What’s a mook?” I first encountered that term as part of Troperspeak, where it’s roughly synonymous with henchman, and I’m still not exactly sure what it means in real life.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    The actual term “mook” presumably comes from Hong Kong Cinema, and takes its name from the mook jong, the wooden training dummies used in Wing Chun, whose only function is to get hit.

    In short: 木.

    TV Tropes: as informative as it is time-consuming!

  11. gwenllian says:

    Can “mate” be used between a man and a woman, or is it used exclusively between people of the same sex? Or is it just between men?

    It might not be the same everywhere, but I’ve pretty much always found it to be used regardless of sex. But I was surprised to hear that, at least in NZ English, even women are sometimes addressed as bro. True or just an exaggeration?

  12. I don’t live in Australia, but I don’t think “mate” is normally used for women, although I think there are men who might use it for women they feel they are in a “matey” relationship with (friend, wife, girlfriend, etc.). Even there it’s something of an extension of the male “mateship” paradigm. Men might also use it for animals (such as dogs). This is a friendly use.

    On the other hand, I don’t think “mate” in the aggressive (“ironic” or “sarcastic”) sense would be used towards women. This would normally only be applied to men.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    But I was surprised to hear that, at least in NZ English, even women are sometimes addressed as bro. True or just an exaggeration?

    Or has bro followed man and dude in becoming an interjection whose only meaning is emphasis?

  14. Jean-Michel says:

    The actual term “mook” presumably comes from Hong Kong Cinema, and takes its name from the mook jong, the wooden training dummies used in Wing Chun, whose only function is to get hit.

    This may be the etymology of the word as TV Tropes uses it, but I seriously doubt it’s the etymology of the word used in Mean Streets, for which the OED has an attestation from 1930–that is, before there was even such a thing as Cantonese-language cinema, much less before Americans were watching Hong Kong martial-arts movies (which in the early ’70s were almost all in Mandarin). The OED speculates it comes from the older moke, which originally meant “donkey” but by 1855 was also being used to mean “a person who is stupid, awkward, or incompetent; a dolt, a fool.” I think what happened here is that someone at TV Tropes noticed the similarity between the Cantonese word and the existing English word and decided it could be appropriated for this particular trope.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Fascinating!

  16. I thought mook was a nonce word invented by Scorsese (or whoiever wrote that line). But according to the OED, a mook is,

    colloq. and derogatory (U.S. and Caribbean).

    An incompetent or stupid person; a contemptible person (esp. with reference to low social status).
    The term was undoubtedly popularized both in the United States and elsewhere by its use in the film Mean Streets (1973), directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese. The fact that, in the context of the script, the word is unfamiliar to most of the protagonists has led viewers to believe (wrongly) that the word was coined there.

    The earliest quotation is from 1930. The OED tentatively connects it with regional/slangy moke ‘donkey’ (figuratively, ‘fool’), itself of unknown origin.

  17. gwenllian says:

    December 5, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    Can “mate” be used between a man and a woman, or is it used exclusively between people of the same sex? Or is it just between men?

    Mate can be used as a term of address between spouses. It is used in this way especially by skips (ie. Australians of an Anglo-Irish extraction).

  18. “Moke” in old Australian slang means a horse.

    I saddle up me moke, take a canter through valleys or gallop o’er the plain” (Another version)

    Apparently it was also used in the US to refer to black people? The only reference I know is a rag named “Smokey Mokes“.

  19. J. W. Brewer says:

    I have rented a Mini Moke back in the ’90’s while visiting a formerly-British tropical isle (I think it was the first time in my life I’d driven a RHD vehicle with a stick shift and thus needed to shift with my left hand rather than my right). It seemed nothing like a “mook.” Are there other instances where a random Br dialect word with the GOAT vowel ended up shifting to the GOOSE vowel in AmEng, or is this just etymology-by-random-speculation?

  20. Are there other instances where a random Br dialect word with the GOAT vowel ended up shifting to the GOOSE vowel in AmEng, or is this just etymology-by-random-speculation?

    The latter of course. One could imagine borrowing from the dialect of Norfolk (or northern Suffolk), where oak may be pronounced [ʊuk], but that would probably be stretching it too far. I have no idea if moke exists at all in conservative Norfolk English, and, if it does, whether it’s [mʊuk] or [mʊk] (as in bloke, broke, spoke, woke); the distribution of the shortened vowel is capricious. The normal word for a he-ass in those parts (Essex and East Anglia) is dickey.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Are there other instances where a random Br dialect word with the GOAT vowel ended up shifting to the GOOSE vowel in AmEng, or is this just etymology-by-random-speculation?

    Misremembering a rare word could do such things.

    So could, but that seems less likely in this case, children passing on the word to each other, with no adults involved, for generations. That must be why “asshole” has its vowels switched around in… maybe Bavarian-Austrian dialects generally.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    (They’re similar, but they’re distinct phonemes, as I seem to have edited out at some point.)

  23. Btw, GOAT itself is [gɵt] (with a short vowel) in some parts of New England — a pronunciation related to East Anglian [gʊt].

  24. Moke is alive and well in so-called Hawaiian Pidgin and in Hawaiian slang in general. It means a dude, typically a back-country Hawaiian, none too refined, and large. Mokes are an endless inspiration for comedians, as here. The moke’s female counterpart is the fearsome tita, louder and with even bigger feet.

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