Mate: What’s the history of our most treasured salutation?
It’s a short word with a long history. How has the term ‘mate’ evolved in Australia? And how is it used today?
It’s such a little word. Mate. Small, but with long Australian legs, having survived and thrived through the convict era, the gold rushes, two world wars and the first two decades of the 21st century. Mate can mean many things in Australia, from the tenderest greeting to the whiplash of condemnation.
It can radiate great goodwill or the oiliest insincerity. It depends on the intonation, the circumstances of its delivery and who is saying it to – or about – whom.
Academics have expended much time and energy grappling with the word. A prime minister caused a national convulsion when he tried and failed to co-opt mate’s conceptually broader companion, mateship, for a preamble to the Constitution.
The Australian National Dictionary offers long explanations for no less than four forms of common usage of the word. At least one substantial book has been published exclusively about it.
Mate has functional uses too: it is employed vigorously to fill lapses in remembering names when acquaintances meet. It has long been accused of excluding women from its embrace, yet it was adopted by some bold first-wave feminists and, in some modern settings has become at least somewhat gender-neutral.
It crosses social and political barriers without drawing breath, and may fall as easily from the lips of a person on the street as those of a rich and powerful industrialist; from a prime minister to a blue-collar labourer, and many of those between.
So where did this little word come from? How has it managed to last and become so ubiquitous? And do Australians use it differently from everyone else?
Where does the word mate come from?
Mate made its way in the 1300s to Middle English from the Middle Low German ge-mate, meaning the act of eating at the same table. It is related to maat in both Proto-Germanic and Dutch, meaning partner, colleague or friend. To make the leap to today, we might think about friends gathered around a barbecue. The old mate in ge-mate, after all, meant meat.
Etymologists say sailors and labourers were calling each other mate by the mid-15th century. Later that same century the term had evolved on ships to refer to an officer, the mate, who saw that the orders of the master or commander were carried out.
The old Middle Low German ge-mate means to eat around the same table – and the mate bit meant meat, too. Credit:Getty Images
From about the 1540s, the word was also being used in English to mean “one of a wedded pair”. Thus, from the very start, it was a word about companionship, eating and working together and/or a formal partnership.
For the most part, it implied an equality among those to whom it referred. Shakespeare used the word mate in a number of his plays, including in the sense of companion, associate or comrade.
In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance, he has Valentine declare of his friends, a band of outlaws, “These are my mates, that make their wills their law”.
How did mate leap from the old world to a new Australia?
In the years before British lawmakers began sending convicts to the new colony of Australia, Britons – mainly those of the working class in the cities – were commonly using the word mate. It meant friends of all types and included both men and women.
Most of Australia’s convicts were drawn from the same classes that used mate as an everyday term. As they made the voyage to Australia, the convicts were surrounded by associates of the ship’s officers: the surgeon’s mate, the carpenter’s mate and all the rest.
The word, thus, was everywhere among those imprisoned and transported. They were outcasts, with no choice but to share hardship, and a vast majority were men, just like their jailers. They began assigning the word mate a higher meaning – something that belonged to those who had to rely on each other for not just companionship but survival.
Mateship might have been about shared experience but it was often short on romantic ideals. In Tasmania, convict mates who escaped sometimes ate each other. On Norfolk Island, mateship was turned on its head. To escape their torture, some mates were said to draw lots to murder the other, guaranteeing the murderer would also get the death penalty, like his mate.
Soon, however, mate was being used in broader social settings, although exclusively among men. Nick Dyrenfurth, the author of Mateship: A Very Australian History, writes that by 1826, Australia’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, had noted the peculiar convention of mate being used as a greeting to strangers.
Here was the start of a double-edged sword. By calling one another mate, but also using the word to address those considering themselves to be social superiors, the convicts were declaring no one was their better.
Most of those in the colony were still overwhelmingly men, about three-quarters of whom, in the early period, would never find a woman to marry. If one’s mate in the old world included the sense of a partner from the opposite sex, it no longer applied for the majority in Australia.
“Masculine public culture grew apace,” writes Dyrenfurth.
“Gambling and drinking became wildly popular,” writes Nick Dyrenfurth in <i>Mateship</i>.
“In the absence of formal amusements, gambling and drinking became wildly popular pastimes among both convicts and captors, as did testosterone-filled sporting contests such as cockfighting, bare-knuckle prizefighting and horse racing. This isn’t to argue that such a culture didn’t similarly develop in other settler societies, notably New Zealand, but in Australia it acquired a particularly pungent masculine odour.”
The gold rushes in the 1850s supercharged mate.
A sudden and massive inflow of hopeful immigrants to the uncertainty of the goldfields meant men teamed up, out of necessity, to dig shafts. This “teaming up” of pairs of mates was already established among travelling bush workers: shearers, drovers and the like who relied on each other for company, safety and muscle.
Log sawyers, for instance, had little choice but to work in pairs, one on each end of a crosscut saw. They were business mates in very lonely places, and to retain that mateship and trust – for both practical and social purposes – each would be prepared to defend the other in a tight spot.
The Cockneys of East London had by then embraced rhyming slang, and this vernacular made the gold-rush trip to the Australian diggings. This form of slang meant only those in the know understood that “me old China” meant mate (China plate rhyming with mate).
However, one’s “China plate” excluded Chinese diggers.
An illustration of the anti-Chinese Lambing Flat riot in 1860. Credit:Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW
The often vicious anti-Chinese sentiment of the time morphed into Australia’s long-lasting official White Australia policy. Also excluded, in the main, from white Australia’s approval of mates were Australia’s Indigenous people.
From the late 18th century through the 19th century, Aboriginal people were treated with violence, contempt and, at best, patronising praise or sympathy.
Among the crew accompanying Matthew Flinders on his famous circumnavigation of Australia in 1801–3 was Bungaree, a Guringay man from what is now known as the Broken Bay area of NSW.
Flinders wrote that Bungaree was a “worthy and brave fellow”, but when the explorer came to write a book detailing his adventures, it was about his shipmate Trim – his cat. Statues were raised to Trim, but not a single statue to Bungaree exists in Australia.
In the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, with literacy spreading fast, Australian writers embedded the idea of mateship, particularly in the bush, deep in Australian mythology.
Henry Lawson elevated the concept, his much-quoted The Shearers from 1901 one example:
They tramp in mateship side by side
The Protestant and Roman
They call no biped lord or sir
And touch their hat to no man!
Here was the idea that religious bigotry and social inequality had no place between mates – who were, of course, understood to be white males.
Women rarely made it to such exalted places in bush literature unless they were all-suffering and stoic, like in Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife. Left alone with her four children, her husband gone droving (with his mates) and forced to deal with the threat of a snake beneath the family hut, her lonely travails are celebrated.
Tom Jones (left) and Henry McLachlan (right) help Norm Glover make it the end of the Anzac Day march in Sydney in 1991.Credit:Michele Mossop
How is mate connected to digger and cobber?
The trenches of World War I combined all the elements that mateship was supposed to be about: the shared experience of hardship, the need to rely for your life on your mates, all enacted within the company of men.
This mateship, which remained virtually unchanged through all the wars involving Australia in the 20th century, began embracing women in the professional soldiering era of the 21st century in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theatres of conflict.
The word “digger” – still used to identify Australian soldiers – first became interchangeable with mate on the Western Front.
Digger, interestingly, is another word that harkens back to the goldfields and the egalitarian ideals of the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854.
The enduring example of mateship from Gallipoli remains Simpson and his donkey: an ordinary man extending the hand of a mate to anyone in great need.
The most revered among the men who took part in Australia’s first major action on the Western Front – the battle of Fromelles – remain those who, at great risk to their own lives, carried the wounded, their mates, off the battlefield under fire.
A giant statue at Fromelles depicting just such a rescue is named Cobbers, another word interchangeable with mates. Cobber probably came from a Yiddish word, chaber, meaning comrade, used in London during the 19th century, but it is no longer anywhere near as common as mate in Australia or the armed forces.
The Cobbers statue at Fromelles, France.Credit:David Ellery
How did mate get into politics?
By the middle of the 20th century, mate was so familiar to the Australian ear it could be used in novel ways to mean different things.
An embittered Bill Hayden, having been forced out of the leadership of the federal Labor Party, unloaded when speaking at the 1983 Labor Party conference, recalling that one of the plotters had approached him with the words: “Oh mate, mate.”
“When they call you ‘mate’ in the NSW Labor Party, it is like getting a kiss from the Mafia,” said Hayden.
Then prime minister Bob Hawke with the man he replaced as leader of the ALP, Bill Hayden, in July 1984.Credit:David James Bartho
The reputation of a former Whitlam government attorney-general, then High Court judge Lionel Murphy was plunged into scandal over the use of the phrase: “And now, what about my little mate?”
He was allegedly referring to a lawyer with questionable connections, and a magistrate – to whom he allegedly uttered the question over the phone – felt that Murphy was trying to get an improper deal for his “mate”.
Paul Keating famously loaded hostility, irony and humour into the word …
Although Murphy was later acquitted of trying to pervert the course of justice, the phrase “little mate” has become forever unsavoury.
Paul Keating famously loaded hostility, irony and humour into the word when answering a question from opposition leader John Hewson in the early 1990s.
Hewson had inquired why Keating, then prime minister, wouldn’t call an early election.
“The answer is, mate,” spat Keating, “because I want to do you slowly.”
The concept triggered an eruption of passion in the late 1990s when then prime minister John Howard tried to insert the word mateship into a preamble to the Australian Constitution.
Howard believed mateship embodied what he called the national character and was a central value in the laconic and egalitarian fair go. But many Australians made clear they didn’t want mate or mateship hijacked by a politician, particularly one involved in what was known as the culture wars – an early attempt to undo what conservatives saw as political correctness.
Having withstood a hail of derision from political foes, media commentators and feminists (Eva Cox said mateship evoked the “smell of spew in the pubs … mates going gang bang with some sheila”), Howard finally conceded he’d lost the fight only when the Australian Democrats wouldn’t support the legislation.
Who says mate these days? Responses vary.Credit:Getty Images
How is mate used today?
Today, mate remains a favoured greeting among blokes in Australia, including those who might dust it off more in certain contexts, such as at football games. But what of women?
Dr Johanna Rendle-Short, an honorary researcher in linguistics at the Australian National University, reported in 2009 that more women aged 18 to 29 were using mate compared to women over 50.
“The preliminary study [of 689 women] seems to suggest that instead of mate being characterised as a neutral term used by men to show equality and egalitarianism, young women now see mate as a friendly and fun term that, along with many other address forms, is available to show intimacy,” she wrote in the Australian Journal of Linguistics.
Our own limited and unscientific survey suggests the use of “mate” among women is complicated.
One young woman initially said no one ever called her “mate”. “Except my best friend,” she added. “She calls me mate all the time. It’s nice. But men have never called me mate.”
After a bit of thought, she added: “I have experienced mate used at me in a condescending way, usually at the end of a sentence. Something like ‘No way, mate’ or ‘Whatever, mate’.”
There was the drawn-out use of the word – “maaaate” – when remarking on something spectacular, ridiculous or unbelievable.
Another, aged 40, said there were several different ways in which “mate” was used among women she knew. “For instance, if you found yourself frantically trying to explain away a text that just popped up on your phone from, say, ‘Jake’, you’d say something like, ‘He’s just a mate, promise’.”
There was also, she said, the aggressive use of the word. “Listen here, mate,” translated to “back several steps up and walk away.”
And there was the drawn-out use of the word – “maaaate” – when remarking on something spectacular, ridiculous or unbelievable.
Another woman, in her mid-60s, was less impressed with the word. “No one has ever called me mate, and I’ve never called anyone mate,” she said. “Not ever.”
Part of the fun may well be that mate, by now, is so layered with meanings from the past that some Australians cannot deploy it without a trace of ambivalence, or at least a wry knowing. Or perhaps this most resilient of words in Australia has finally come to mean what it was supposed to have meant in the first place: friends around a table.
This explainer was first published in our anthology What’s It Like To Be Chased by a Cassowary? Fascinating Answers to Perplexing Questions.
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