My wife was listening to the radio and was surprised to hear a piece by Percy Grainger identified as “The Gumsuckers’ March.” Upon investigation, it turned out that gumsucker means ‘an Australian especially from Victoria,’ “probably from the children’s habit of sucking gum exuded by eucalyptus trees.” Is this piquant term still in use?


  1. No. Its heyday was the decade or two before WW I, and it’s now thoroughly archaic. Its sense seemed to fluctuate between “rural settler / poor white farm worker” and “Victorian”. Perhaps the latter was little more than the perversity of a non-Victorian (i.e. Sydney) journalist. Today it doesn’t seem to have even an ironic after-life – but contemporary Australian irony is a vast and intimidating hellscape of which I have little knowledge.

    The strange, tormented people’s poet Joseph Furphy (d. 1912) authored “The Gumsucker’s Dirge”, as dire as the rest of his verse, published in 1896. So, however fluid the term’s definition, it had a life of over two decades. Grainger’s effort came towards the end of that period.

  2. Wilkes’s A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms gives the first citation as 1855.and the last as 1914, In most cases it means a native of Victoria, but it was sometimes used to mean a native-born Australian of rural origins.

    Joseph Furphy’s brother John was the inventor of the famous water-cart, and Joseph (aka Tom Collins) spent a good few years working in the foundry in Shepparton during the day and writing at night.

    The ABC did an interesting radio documentary on the Furphies which can be downloaded here:

  3. we just hate-watched a dire Netflix reality show from oz called “Instant Hotel”, & one of my main thoughts was that everyone seemed to be speaking a kind of internet/TV/kardashian/cinema-born International Americanese, with a lot of discussion of how things were epic or awesome or gangster or whatever.

    i kept wondering how all of the contestants would have sounded, & how many more delightful expressions they might have used, had the show been recorded 30 or 40 years ago. they still did use a few expressions that delighted me, for example that somebody “carked it”, or “budgie-smugglers” for speedos, or “bench” for kitchen counter (? that one was new to me)

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I asked an Australian in another group — now living in Newcastle (NSW), but born and brought up in rural Victoria. He said that he had never heard the word and thought it had become obsolete by the 1940s.

  5. I’d never heard the expression and I’m not Australian. I was born roughly around the period when the previous comments suggest it was disappearing. It’s rarity can be guessed from Merriam-Webster. It’s in the larger unabridged dictionary but not the smaller online version.

  6. “bench” for kitchen counter

    It’s pretty similar to a lab bench, or a workbench for that matter.

  7. For whatever reason, “lab bench” is a term that always seems wrong to me. I have no idea why, especially given that I’m a working scientist (even if I’m mostly a theorist). To make it weirder, “benchtop” seems perfectly fine.

  8. a bank seems like a fine place to do business – standing up. a bench seems like a good place to sit & feed pigeons – sitting down. a counter seems like a bank but definitely not a bench. what am i missing? is a standing-height counter an australian bench?

  9. “Counter” for that part of a kitchen seems wrong to me. A counter separates customers from people who serve them (e.g. cashiers). Kitchens have worktops.

  10. “Bench” is new to me as a kitchen word, but it seems eminently sensible. And both “bench” and the somewhat less sensible “counter” are both more attractive than my pedestrian BrE “surface”.

  11. Trond Engen says

    We call it a kjøkkenbenk. Given the popularity of Scandinavian kitchens, in both the broad and the high end of the market, it’s maybe not so surprising if Scandinavian usage was calqued.

  12. 60yo educated urban Australian here. I’ve never heard this term.
    In general, concerning the meme of the supposed colourfulness of Australian colloquial/dialect language, my advice is: take it with a grain of salt. In the lists of Australianisms that float around the web, excluding flora and fauna a lot of the terms are probably obsolete, and of the rest the ones that amuse you most were probably invented by Barry Humphries (late 20th century comedian) and would only ever be used as a self-conscious joke. I suspect that gossip around the water cooler sounds pretty similar in Australia to other English speaking places. The truth is never as much fun as a good stereotype.

  13. Thanks, that’s a useful reminder!

  14. Morris’s “Australasian Dictionary” (1897) has: “Gum-sucker, n. slang for Victorian-born, not now much used; but it is not always limited to Victorians.” then proceeds to give citations from 1827-1890. I’ve never heard of gumsucker “in the wild”

    Though dated, but giving great examples of mid-20th century usage is “The Australian Language” by Sydney J Baker (1945). The nicknames of inhabitants of Australian states & territories are:

    WA: gropers, sandgropers, groperlanders, straighthairs, Westralians.
    SA: croweaters, magpies, wheatlanders.
    Qld: bananalanders, banana men, banana eaters, kanakalanders, sugarlanders.
    Vic: Yarrasiders, cabbage gardeners, cabbage patchers, cabbage landers.
    NT: Territorians, topenders.
    Tas: Van Diemenese, Vandemonians, Derveners, Derwent ducks, mountain devils, mutton-birds, mutton-bird eaters, barracouters, raspberrylanders, apple islanders, Taswegians, Tassies, Tasseylanders.
    NSW: Sydneysiders, walers, Ma-staters.

    Of all these names, outside of TV and books, I’ve only ever heard Taswegians and Sydneysiders (for residents of Sydney only).

  15. David Marjanović says

    Qld: bananalanders, banana men, banana eaters

    Also banana benders apparently.

  16. So it was obsolescent even in the 1890s!

  17. I was puzzled by “kanakalanders,” but the reason is apparently that kanaka had a secondary meaning of: “a Pacific Islander employed as an indentured laborer in Australia, especially in the sugar and cotton plantations of Queensland.”

    Nowadays, the word kanaka rare and, I think, only used for indigenous Hawaiians. It is not, so far as I am aware, pejorative, but I associate it very strongly with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and thus I tend to avoid it.

  18. What’s the deal with Western Australians and groping? Since this is an old list I imagine it doesn’t refer to their treatment of the fair sex — perhaps their table manners? The difficulty of foraging for food in a barren landscape?

  19. John Cowan says

    Apparently short for sandgropers, a kind of insect found in WA.

    Thus spake the AHD s.v. kanaka:

    Usage Note: The word Kanaka simply means “human being” in the Hawaiian language. When borrowed into English, however, it was naturally used in referring not to people in general but rather to Hawaiians of Polynesian ancestry, or more broadly, to any Polynesian person. Since this usage has often been perceived, and has sometimes been intended, as derogatory, Kanaka is best avoided by outsiders. Among Native Hawaiians, however, it is often used today as a term of ethnic pride, especially in the form Kanaka maoli, a traditional Hawaiian ethnonym which can be translated as “true human being” or “real person.”

    Plainly this maoli is cognate with Māori, as kanaka is cognate with tangata ‘id.’ It’s no wonder that 18C anglophones thought of “South Sea Islander” as a single language.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    Kanaken (plural of der Kanake) is a dismissive German term applied 50 years ago to immigrant workers from “southern countries” (Italy, Spain, Turkey). Some Germans still use it, but effectively only against Turks, since immigration from Italy and Spain has dried up. Younger comedians, some of them Turks, have appropriated the word in a favorable sense. Kanak-Sprak is a kind of Turkish-German deliberately featured in some kinds of rap and hiphop etc.

    There’s a German WiPe article on Kanake.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    “Gropers” is hardly more suggestive than “gumsuckers,” is it? Am I the only reader of this thread who was reminded of the greatest probably-fictitious blues song title of all time “Take Out Your False Teeth, Mama, I Wanna Suck On Your Gums”? Although that was probably an allusion to “Take Out Your False Teeth, Daddy (Your Mama Wants to Scratch Your Gums)”, which is historically attested.

  22. Kanaka is a suggested origin of another derogatory ethnic term, Canuck.

  23. Michael Vnuk says

    Another Australian here, born 1957. I’ve lived in several different states, and I’ve never heard ‘gumsucker’ in the wild, although I was aware of it vaguely from reading books such as Baker’s (note that his first name is spelled ‘Sidney’, not ‘Sydney’ as in the city). I wouldn’t say I mix with people who are using colourful colloquialisms (but perhaps that is because Julian is correct and very few people do speak that way), but my impression is that the following terms still have some currency: bananabender (for someone from Queensland), sandgroper (WA), croweater (SA), Taswegian (Tasmania). I won’t go into names for people from particular cities (eg Sydneysider), as they are usually more self-explanatory. I have also heard Queenslanders calling people from southern states ‘Mexicans’. Another set of names has developed from the rugby league competitions between Queensland and NSW: Queenslanders call members of the NSW team ‘cockroaches’, while NSW people call members of the Queensland team ‘cane toads’. Both names seem to be derived from perceptions of the main pest in the other state, and both names can be generalised from team members to any member of the state’s population.

  24. David L says: What’s the deal with Western Australians and groping?

    As John Cowan mentioned, there is an insect called the sandgroper, and that is usually given as the origin of the nickname “sandgroper”.

    But as far as I know, the insect is not that common – I’ve certainly never seen one. So, I suspect that the origin of the nickname “sandgroper” is more to do with the sandiness of the place. The Swan Coastal Plain is full of white sand, and not very suitable for agriculture. The nicknames for other states usually refer to their main agricultural product, except for WA where you couldn’t grow anything but instead groped around in the sand. The name “sandgroper” would then have been shortened to “groper” etc. Morris also refers to the sand and desert in WA as the origin of the name.

    Outside of Morris’s book, I’ve only ever heard of “sandgroper” and not “groper” or “groperlander”. “Westralia” was also commonly used around the time of the Federation (1900), especially in the names of companies and organisations founded around that time. According to Morris, “straighthairs” referred to the convicts brought to WA. Transportation of convicts stopped in 1868.

    Kanaka referred to the Pacific islanders brought or abducted to work in the sugar plantations in pre-Federation Queensland.

  25. We may well, after the fashion of Fr. Gassalasca Jape, S.J., believe both theories. The Jesuits have always been good with language.

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