Friday, April 02, 2010

Meaning of Australian English - Waltzing Matilda

Waltzing Matilda remains one of Australia's favourite songs. Yet as the age in which Australia rode on the sheep's back blurs further into the hazy past, an increasing number of Australians no longer remember what the words mean.

Just for the hell of it, one version of the lyrics follows with an explanation of the terms. 

The Lyrics

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

Down come a jumbuck to drink at the water hole
Up jumped a swagman and grabbed him in glee
And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker bag
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me'".

Up rode the Squatter riding on thoroughbred
Up rode the Troopers - one, two, three
"Where's that jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag?",
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me".

But the swagman he up and jumped in the water hole
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree,
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"


Waltzing matilda, waltzing matilda
You'll come a waltzing matilda with me
And he sang as he sat and waited by the billabong
You'll come a waltzing matilda with me.


BILLABONG. A blind channel or meander leading out from a river. Sometimes used just to describe a water hole.

BILLY. An open topped tin can, with a wire carrying handle, used as a kettle for boiling water into which tea was thrown. According to Geoffrey Blainey (Black Kettle and Full Moon: daily life in a vanished Australia , Penguin Books,  2004),  Australia consumed more tea in the 19th century than all of Europe combined. Tea was a satisfying reviver and also disguised the taste of sometimes muddy water.On a hungry track

COOLIBAH. Sometimes spelled coolabah: a species of gum or eucalyptus tree.

JUMBUCK. A sheep. The term is a corruption of ‘jump up' (Macquarie Dictionary, 3rd rev. ed. Sydney: Macquarie, 2001)

SQUATTER. The term squatter was originally applied to people who took their stock outside the official limits of European settlement and squatted on the land. Many became very wealthy, so that by the time of Waltzing Matilda the term referred to a well-off grazier or landowner. Hence the reference in the poem: "Up rode the Squatter riding on his thoroughbred." 

SWAG. The swag might be  chaff bag, containing his billy, provisions and blanket. Possessions could also be rolled up in the blanket. See supporting picture.   

SWAGMAN. An Australian tramp or itinerant worker, so called on account of the swag he carried.

TROOPER. Mounted policeman. The troopers, also known as traps, were not always popular, a dislike dating back to convict days. 

TUCKER BAG. A bag for tucker or food; part of the swag.     

WALTZING MATILDA. The act of carrying the ‘swag' (an alternate colloquial term is ‘humping the bluey').

More information

There are several versions of Waltzing Matilda. I actually prefer the lesser known Queensland version which has slightly different words and a different tune. You can find more information on all this here


Rummuser said...

I first learnt this song in school run by Australian Missionaries. The tune has stayed with me all these years. We used to sing the chorus when an Aussie colleague sang the song in boozy parties. Thanks for the explanation, now the song makes sense.

Jim Belshaw said...

What an odd coincidence, Ramana! Glad to explain!