The Story of Dinkum.

Everybody knows the Australian expression (fair) dinkum, but where does it come from? Bruce Moore, who is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, has the answer in an Ozwords post (excerpted from his book What’s Their Story? A History of Australian Words); after laying out a couple of folk etymologies (from “fair drinking”; from Cantonese “‘ting kum’ meaning genuine gold”), he gets down to brass tacks:

A major argument against the purported Chinese origin of dinkum is the fact that the word is attested in British dialects, and that even fair dinkum appears in one of those dialects. A large number of Australian words derive from British dialects, and dinkum is one of them. In the dialects of Lincolnshire and Derbyshire there is a word dinkum that means ‘work; a fair share of work’. There is an 1891 record from a coal-miner who says ‘I can stand plenty o’ dincum’, that is, ‘I can put up with any amount of fair work’; and from north Lincolnshire there is the record of a person who says ‘You have gotten to do your dinkum’. The first record of the word in Australia has this meaning. It occurs in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1888): ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak’, that is, ‘an hour’s hard work’. A more recent Lincolnshire dictionary defines dinkum: ‘It means to give fair or deserved punishment to; the correct punishment, justice; to do what is fair and right.’ The Essex dialect has dinkum meaning ‘above-board, honest’. More importantly, in the north Lincolnshire dialect there occurs the idiom fair dinkum meaning ‘fair play’, ‘fair dealing’, ‘that which is just and equitable’. In fact, the notion of ‘fairness’ has always been associated with dinkum. It is from this connotation of ‘fairness’ that the particularly Australian meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’ developed in the first decade of the twentieth century. This dialect evidence is so dinkum that we do not need to look elsewhere, and certainly not to Chinese miners.

He goes on to tell a great WWI spy story and concludes, “Dinkum was one of those words that served to articulate Australian values during the First World War—it belongs, especially, with Anzac, digger, and Aussie, and is the opposite of furphy.”


  1. Hat, I assume you know what an indentured kanaka is?

    Kanaka is a name for the South Pacific islanders, who were commonly ‘blackbirded’ (abducted) to work in the canefields of Queensland in the 19th century. Many of their descendants still live in Australia.

    I was interested to note that it’s a word meaning ‘people’ or ‘person’ used by various Polynesian people to refer to themselves. In Hawaii it refers to a Hawaiian of Polynesian descent (a Native Hawaiian).

    The Urban Dictionary defines it as:

    a word only used by a person of Hawaiian Descent or polynesian descent usually a white or haole person who says that to a Hawaiian will get knocked

    A usage note at the American Heritage Dictionary says:

    Kanaka, which simply means “human being” in Hawaiian, is found today mostly in historical contexts and is not usually appropriate in ordinary discourse. As with many terms that refer to ethnic identity, Kanaka can suggest ethnic pride in some contexts while in others it may be taken as derogatory.

    I’m not sure whether it’s regarded as derogatory in Australia. It wasn’t regarded as particularly derogatory when I was younger but things change.

  2. AJP Lucie-Smith says

    I can find dinkum in North Lincolnshire Words, 1881, by Edward Sutton (E.D.S.), nowhere else, but I didn’t try Derbyshire.

    THESE words are taken from the marsh, wold, and fen districts lying between Grimsby on the north, Boston on the south, Lincoln on the west, and the sea-coast on the east, with Louth for the centre. The vocabulary of all these parts is the same, but the pronunciation is coarser and fuller in the marsh districts. All vowels are pronounced as if double ; thus lai-at, roo-ad, boo-an, ma-il, for late, road, bone, mile. The dialect is fast disappearing…

    Peculiar preterites in use in this dialect are the following : viz. belt for built ; hat for hit ; snew for snowed ; mew for mowed ; ewet for owed.

    It all sounds a bit DH Lawrence gamekeeper to me.

  3. AJP Forkin-Robin says

    There are some good woody Lincolnshire words here.

  4. AJP Lucie-Smith: mow, mew, mown is perfectly good Old English (māwan, mēow, mēowon, (ġe)māwen).

  5. AJP Lucie-Smith says

    Matthews gives Old & Middle English derivations, but in Lincolnshire glossaries elsewhere I found lots of words that really don’t spring from anywhere near Lincolnshire. It can be irritating at times, “doant” for don’t for example.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    None useful to say except that “Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms” brought back memories I thought forgotten. I read it many years ago.

  7. George Gibbard says

    Hawaiian kanaka ‘man’ reflects common Polynesian *taŋata. I think the changes shown in the Hawaiian, t > k and ŋ > n do not occur elsewhere in Polynesian.

  8. George Gibbard says

    Sorry, I see you said it means “human being” not “man”.

  9. I think the changes shown in the Hawaiian, t > k and ŋ > n do not occur elsewhere in Polynesian

    t > k does:

  10. PS. It’s clear, from Blusts’s data in the appendix, that ŋ > n is by no means rare in Polynesian.

  11. Judging from Wikipedia and this article, the word ‘kanaka’ was a Hawaiian word that was applied to South Sea islanders from the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides, and other places. Since ‘kanakas’ were also used in Canada and the United States, this suggests that this was not so much a universal term in Polynesian and Melanesian languages as a universal term in white colonialism.

    This kind of international colonial usage does not appear to be an isolated phenomenon. Other examples include names like ‘possum’ and ‘jabiru’, used for species from the Americas and also applied to Australian native animals.

  12. It sometimes even backfires on Europe. The inherited English name of the elk₁ (I mean Alces alces) was transfered to the wapiti (Cervus canadensis) in North America, which consequently became elk₂. At the same time, the American population of elk₁ was renamed moose (both wapiti and moose being of Algonquian origin).

    Four hundreds years later, the Eurasian elk₁ is known as the Eurasian moose to most English-speakers. Even more curiously, some of the Asian subspecies of (Cervus canadensis) are called wapitis (the Altai wapiti, Tian Shan wapiti etc.) even by people who call the American wapitis “elk”. The reason, I suppose, is the fact that the Asian elk₁ are still known as “elk” rather than “moose” to many non-Americans. Thus, to avoid confusion, more confusion has been generated — and compounded by the fact that the southerly subspecies of “wapiti” in Asia are called Central Asian red deer. To be sure, the jury is still out on whether they are really members of the same species as the Siberian “wapitis” and the American “elk”, but they are no “red deer” sensu stricto (Cervus elaphus) either.

  13. The creation story for “fair dinkum” that I recall reading many years ago (I can’t remember in what sort of source, but not an *obviously* unreliable one, although of course etymology does not have the best signal:noise ratio) was that it was an eggcornish reanalysis of “vere dignum,” so from Latin rather than Cantonese. Not unlike “hocus pocus,” I suppose. Perhaps the learned Southern Hemisphere lexicographers do not take this alternative account seriously enough to even bother to debunk it, although some googling reveals the existence of others who have heard this account, so at least my memory of it is not hallucinatory.

  14. When the Scotsman came to America and went to the zoo, he looked at the moose for some time, and then muttered, “If that’s yer moose, I dinna want to see your rats!”

  15. JW Brewer’s “vere dignum”, it should be lnoted, is a quotation from the old Latin Mass: Vere dignum et justum est, it is truly right and just (to give thanks to God). It seems far-fetched to me even so,

  16. I like the ‘vere dignum’ explanation very much. I’d guess it was purposefully jocular, rather than innocently eggcornish. No more farfetched than ‘mercy buckets’.

  17. AJP Łoś Pederasta says

    No moose comments would be complete without saying that the Norwegian is elg, which you can say with great élan because that’s the French word for moose. Or elk.

  18. Mynd you, møøse bites Kan be pretti nasti…

  19. J. W. Brewer says

    Yes, that the bi-gram “vere dignum” would have been frequently heard by the nontrivial percentage of the early Anglophone settlers of Australia who had attended religious services in a language they did not actually understand is a (perhaps modest) point in favor of the plausibility of the theory.* What is, however, more certain is that a non-trivial number of Australians in later generations who did know Latin would likely at some point be reading a Latin text (whether the Ordinary of the Mass or something else), come across the words “vere dignum,” and suddenly think “you know, that sounds strikingly like ‘fair dinkum.'”

    *The usual “performance style” of the Latin Mass in the centuries before Vatican 2 was such that some parts of it were murmured inaudibly but other parts done more loudly, such that those who frequently attended Mass might recognize them phonetically even if the meaning was opaque (and even if they lacked the literacy or the financial wherewithal to be following along in a missal), and as best as I can tell the “vere dignum” bit (right after the Sursum corda but before the Sanctus) would have been done audibly.

  20. What is, however, more certain is that a non-trivial number of Australians in later generations who did know Latin would likely at some point be reading a Latin text (whether the Ordinary of the Mass or something else), come across the words “vere dignum,” and suddenly think “you know, that sounds strikingly like ‘fair dinkum.’”

    Yes, exactly; this appears to be a textbook case of folk etymology.

  21. Stefan Holm says

    Piotr: møøse?

    Is that supposed to be the Scottish plural of ‘mouse’? If so, don’t tell me that they also say løøse instead of ‘lice’. That would correspond perfectly to the Swedish paradigm mus-möss, lus-löss (well, except V:C instead of VC:).

    Sorry the No/r/the/r/ne/r/s, our kinsmen, did worse in their referendum than the Catalonians. Anyway the Nordic Council would never have approved their wish to become members – out of fear of the City in London and the Bankenviertel in Frankfurt am Main. There’s too much oil within the territorial waters of Scotland. Added to the assets of the Norwegians it certainly had been too much even for Wall Street. Had they then contacted Gazprom for mutual cooperation and made a long time trade deal with the Chinese the third world war would be a fact.

    But whatever the result (as far as I have read, the younger were more pro-Scottish and the older more pro-English) auld lang syne is there to stay, you Scotland the Brave.

  22. t>k in Polynesian: Sāmoan has two registers, the more formal one using [t], the more informal one using [k]. A beautiful dissertation by John Mayer (U of Hawaii, 2001) delves into an ocean of structural, historical and sociolinguistic intricacy involving the two styles, as he calls them.

  23. Sāmoan

    I did not realize the first vowel was long! And checking my Hawaiian dictionary, I find that (of course) the Hawaiian word is Kāmoa.

  24. LH, thanks, that’s interesting. Normally Sāmoan and other Polynesian /s/ corresponds to Hawaiian /h/, so you’d expect hāmoa, if it was an inherited word. In borrowings from English and other languages, [s] is often rendered as /k/, e.g. Kamuela ‘Samuel’. The online dictionary of Hawaiian also has ha‘amoa, which looks like a folk etymology with the ha‘a- causative/stativizer. I don’t know enough Hawaiian to interpret it confidently: maybe ‘chicken-like’?

  25. The rendering of [s] with /k/ in loanwords is of course due to the fact that /k/ is the only lingual obstruent in Hawaiian, and any coronal or dorsal stop, affricate or fricative is a possible allophone of /k/. Thus, whisky is adapted as wikeke, strap as kalapu, but also thousand as kaukani, zinc as kini, deer as kia, etc.. There are some lexical exceptions where /s/ is used as a marginal “foreign” phoneme: masakeke ‘mustard’; I’m not sure why it hasn’t been fully naturalised as *makakeke. Too many k? But ticket becomes kikiki unproblematically.

    The long ā in Sāmoa seems to reflect earlier *aʻa (see Tongan Haʻamoa), so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Hawaiian preserves the inherited version alongside a more recently adapted loan. We need an Austronesian expert to enlighten us.

  26. Piotr, the Proto Polynesian glottal stop is lost in most Polynesian languages, except Tongan and a few others, so the glottal stop in the Hawaiian name can’t be inherited. But it probably is borrowed, from Tongan I presume; I take back the folk etymology explanation.

    The most plausible explanation I’ve seen for the name Sāmoa is from sā-moa “the Moa family”. The first part, from Proto Polynesian *sa’a, has no Hawaiian cognate (if it did, it would be hā-):

    “Tui Manu’a, the chief of Ta’u, claims descent from Tagaloa-Lagi, and to be the first and real king of Samoa. The family name of the Tui Manu’a is Moa from which it is claimed that the name Samoa originated. Sa denotes the possessive case, so Samoa can be interpreted to mean ‘Moa family.'” [JPS 34(134):124(1925)]

    The s in Hawaiian loans reflects a later usage, in the written language at least, from when more Hawai‘ians were bilingual in English and comfortable with pronouncing the [s] and other English sounds.

  27. the glottal stop in the Hawaiian name can’t be inherited

    Of course, I should have thought of that 🙂

    The s in Hawaiian loans reflects a later usage…

    No doubt, there are chronological strata of borrowings, the youngest of them with some loan phonemes (and other “exotic” features such as consonant clusters). Still, the adoption of foreign [s] is still a capricious process. I don’t think masakeke ‘mustard’ can be significantly younger than mokokaikala ‘motorcycle’, for example.

  28. Interesting that the Linconshire dialect resource AJP links to has “BILGE [v.] drink immoderately”. “Binge”, “A heavy drinking-bout”, comes from Lincolnshire/East Midlands dialect meaning, originally, “to soak (a wooden vessel). Are they related? I think we should be told.

  29. You’re right about the s>k sometimes postdating s>s in Hawaiian. I’m guessing that statistically, the more ‘strict Hawaiian’ transliterations were earlier, though it’s also possible that 19th century Hawaiian traditionalists played a part in this. Someone must have researched this, for sure…

  30. On further inspection, the earliest Hawaiian Bible translation (1828) uses plenty of non-Hawaiian sounds, characters and consonant clusters: Iesu Kristo, Aberahama, Davida. The latter was also use by the great 19th century historian Davida Malo.
    19th century Hawaiian papers, major disseminators of Hawaiian lore and culture, likewise used Ianuari for ‘January’, Buke for ‘volume’ and even Nu Zilani for ‘New Zealand’.
    So I don’t know when the fully Hawaiianized transliterations listed in the dictionary became popular. There must be an interesting story there.


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