I'm American, but it seems to me that when I’ve encountered Australian speech or writing, I didn’t have much trouble understanding it. The words are mostly familiar to me. So what’s going on in the song Waltzing Matilda?

An excerpt:

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?"

Chorus snippet

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."

I think that a typical American reader or listener will understand almost nothing of the story without discussion due to the strange vocabulary. For example, did the average British speaker know the Australian meanings of waltzing (an itinerant worker on foot) and Matilda (an affectionate term for a swag) back in 1895?

For that matter, do modern Australians understand this vocabulary easily and is the wording natural?

In addition, does the use of a lot of Australianisms reflect something about social class, the way Cockney English would?

My question is whether anyone ever naturally phrases his thoughts the way the singer does.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Mar 9, 2017 at 2:41
  • You ask whether people know that Matilda means "swag". You might well ask whether people know that swag means "tent" or "sleeping bag" (I didn't).
    – Scott
    Dec 3, 2018 at 1:09
  • When I was in school (in the US, 50-60 years ago) the song was sometimes taught, and generally was accompanied by an explanation of the terminology. I suspect most kids of that era were similarly exposed. We may not remember what a "coolibah tree" is, but we understand the basics of the story.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 3, 2018 at 1:34
  • @Scott - We were taught that "Matilda" means "bedroll". "Swag" is something else in the US (at least in the past 20 years).
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 3, 2018 at 2:26
  • @HotLicks: Yes, I know (I'm in the US). I remember the song being popular here briefly in the 1960s, and the funny thing is that "Matilda" = "sleeping bag" (or something similar) is the one word I remember after all this time.
    – Scott
    Dec 3, 2018 at 2:40

3 Answers 3


It was written in 1895, so much of the language which would have been current then would have developed. For example, Robert Burns' poetry is hard to understand now if you haven't had it explained (note it was written about 100 years before Waltzing Matilda). This will inhibit the average British speaker from understanding, but also Australia was (in part) colonised by British convicts, so the language will be that of the lower classes (class distinction was much more prevalent at this time) which makes it even harder to understand nowadays.

Also, since it has since become part of Australia's heritage (regarded as the 'unofficial National Anthem'), Australians are more likely to understand the lyrics since they would have been explained on their mother's knee, so to speak.

As to whether "anyone ever naturally phrases his thoughts the way the singer does," one must ask whether songs today accurately reflect the way people think currently.

  • Here’s a bit of Burns’ prose from a Wikipedia page: “My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed—which is generally the most difficult part of the business—I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings...” From the relative familiarity of his prose I infer that his poetry is deliberately rich with Scoticisms (the kind of thinking that got me reprimanded a short time back).
    – Chaim
    Mar 9, 2017 at 18:44
  • It seems like your remark about colonization would suggest that the Australian language would be the lower-class English convicts. But my question linked to Aussie English that sounds (to me) educated and only slightly foreign, like BBC English. Perhaps that reflects some social distinction between the Walting Matilda lyricist (on the one hand) and Julia Gillard and Henry Savery (on the other, although Savery also happens to have been a British convict).
    – Chaim
    Mar 9, 2017 at 18:45
  • 1
    @Chaim my point about colonization is that the convict ships stopped around the time of the writing of Waltzing Matilda 1868, so the language would have a large influence from lower-class British language. After that a more diverse range of people emmigrated there, the general Australian language in the middle 1800s was diluted (hence the fact it's so understandable now). Mar 9, 2017 at 20:22
  • 1
    @Chaim Obviously language changes over time, and the more archaic/unfamiliar words have been replaced. For example here's a collection of words (some of which I wouldn't understand, even as a native english speaker) yet if they were in a song, no doubt I would understand them. Another poem to look up is Beowulf, and Cockney Rhyming Slang is an example of language that only a few people understand. Mar 9, 2017 at 20:34
  • @PeterShor I wasn't trying to make the point that Robert Burns himself was contemporary with Waltzing Matilda, I was trying to say that the language poets uses changes over time. Corrected wording, though... Mar 19, 2017 at 20:24

I'm Australian and in my mid 50s. To answer your question as to whether modern Australians understand the vocabulary in Waltzing Matilda, anyone who was born or educated in Australia in my age group knows the meaning of quite a few of the words, and still uses some of the words particularly when out on camping trips. Some of the words are used in Australian television shows like Bush Tucker Man, or in modern camping and travelling shows. Others have been adopted as names of companies, brands, streets and shops. My children also understood all of the words below.

Jolly means happy - jolly fat Santa; someone with a big belly that shakes when he laughs; someone who laughs a lot. Still in use and understood.

Swagman - Someone who sleeps on a swag while camping out bush. Australian outdoor recreational stores like BCF still sell swags. A swag is a thin mattress with or without a personal tent attached to it.The swag can be rolled up tightly and carried on the back if you're hiking. My dad used to be a drover and he slept on a swag for years - his swag roll also had sheets, a pillow and a blanket - our family still use the blanket from his original swag. My son and daughter both own swags and use them on camping trips. In the Australian television series Bush Tucker Man - Les rolls out his swag when he's sleeping outdoors. Upmarket swags have mosquito nets or tarps. Swags for the homeless is an Australian welfare group that designs and distributes swags to homeless Australians. In Waltzing Matilda the swagman was itinerant and carrying his bed on his back rather than camping for fun or work purposes.

Billabong A waterhole or bush swimming hole. A wandering creek which may be dry part of the year. A clothing line in Australia specializing in outdoor/recreational clothes.

Coolibah tree. A common species of gum tree (Eucalyptus) found in Australia. Name of retirement village chain, street names etc.

Billy A can with a handle that you boil water in or can make tea in - still sold in camping stores in Australia. "Put the billy on" means "put the kettle on and make a cup of tea." Seen on some advertisements for tea packets and getaway outdoor advertisements.

Jumbuck - a sheep. More a rural term. Often used in advertising sheepskin or woollen products.

Glee - jumping up and down with excitement; grinning with pleasure. A bit old fashioned. People my age understand it though.

Tucker - food. Still in common use. Schools have tuck shops. Labourers wait for the tucker truck to come by. Tucker time means dinner time. Good Tucker means you like the food that's being served, the nutritional value of the food or how the meal tastes.

  • I'll note that "tuck" or "tucker", meaning "food", is a term known in some parts of the rural US. I can recall Uncle Jeb using the term in The Beverly Hillbillies.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 3, 2018 at 2:25
  • How would you explain my much greater comfort with Julia Gillard's speech than with the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda? Is it the contrast between educated and uneducated speech? Or do politician speak in a more international style deliberately? Urban vs. rural?
    – Chaim
    Dec 3, 2018 at 12:21

It's a folk song which tends to be written using a lot of local dialect words from the area it comes from for example the "The Twa Corbies" from the UK:

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t'other say,
'Where sall we gang and dine to-day?'

Twa Corbies = Two Crows

  • 2
    So the suggestion is that folk songs will generally contain more "dialect"? By contrast, I guess, to songs by professional song writers, as well as the ordinary prose that I've encountered, such as remarks by the Prime Minister in a speech? Does the American song "I've Been Workin' On The Railroad" contain a lot of Americanisms?
    – Chaim
    Mar 3, 2017 at 18:12
  • @Neuromancer See previous comment.
    – Chaim
    Mar 3, 2017 at 19:26
  • 2
    @Chaim Sometimes songwriters throw in a lot of dialect words to establish a distinctive cultural identity, or so I imagine. I've recently found "Jambalaya" to be particularly obscure, although that isn't strictly a folk song.
    – richardb
    Mar 3, 2017 at 20:05
  • @richardb Great example. I'm from New Orleans and I've heard Jambalaya a million times on record, in concerts, and in impromptu singing by amateurs. We know the words will be obscure to outsiders and that's part of what makes it fun to sing; it's a mark of belonging to the culture of the area. It's a bit different to me from Iko, a song we actually don't understand but just imitate, fun for a slightly different reason.
    – Chaim
    Mar 5, 2017 at 17:08
  • 1
    And professional songwriters are generally writing for a larger audience (because $$$), so they use standard/mainstream lingo even if there's a particular local dialect they're familiar with. Mar 7, 2017 at 14:14

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