If you live in Australia or have travelled around Australia, chances are you’ve heard the word ‘mate’ a lot here. For instance, you might’ve heard, ‘G’day, mate’ or ‘How ya doin’, mate?’
Living in Melbourne, I’ve friends from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different age groups living different lifestyles. Western, Asian, Indian, hippies, hipsters, corporate business types, baby boomer types – so many of them say ‘mate’ all the time.
The idea of ‘mateship’ goes hand-in-hand with the word ‘mate’. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, very broadly ‘mateship’ is ‘an Australian code of conduct that emphasizes egalitarianism and fellowship’. Throughout Australian history and up until today, saying ‘mate’ is a mark of Aussie culture:
1. Mateship as devotion to the nation and convict history
During the world wars and colonial eras, ‘mate’ was used among Australian ‘diggers’ (soldiers) as a term of encouragement, encouraging necessitous solidarity, trust and loyalty towards each other whilst putting their lives on the lines. Calling someone ‘mate’ while defending the country was an ode to brotherhood alongside facing the hardships of fighting wars.
Australian teacher Peter Baskerville put it this way: the word is profoundly tribal and goes towards forming bonds to withstand ‘duress faced by Aussie POW’s in the Japanese death camps of WW2’. This spirit is reflected in the mini-series Changi (miniseries) (2001), film Gallipoli (1981) and TV-series Anzacs (1985).
As illustrated in a scene from Gallipoli that was set in Australia in 1910: ex-railway labourer Frank Dunne and young stockman Archy Hamilton wander lost in the desert enroute to enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force. The dialogue between them goes:
Frank: There’s only one reason why I haven’t knocked you down mate.
Frank: ‘Cause I don’t feel like carrying you to the next bloody water hole. Now shut up and don’t open your yap about the war again!
As such, our ‘mate’ back in the day is someone we have to put up with regardless of our differences. In his book Mateship: A Very Australian History, Dr Nick Dyrenfurth traces the term back to the very first white Australians and noted, ‘The convicts brought with them from Britain the term mate, and they used it amongst themselves. They even rather provocatively termed their jailors mate and the basic message was ‘you’re no better than us.’’
2. Mateship as equality and egalitarianism
These days ‘mate’ is tied to the idea of respect, fair opportunity and giving others a fair go in Australia; all for one, one for all. Our ‘mate’ is supposedly our equal and someone we accept no matter where they come from – you’re a person like me and I’m like you.
But ‘mate’ is also a sensitive word. During the 1999 Australian constitutional referendum there was debate about including the term ‘mateship’ in the preamble of the Australian constitution. It did not go ahead in a time where then-Prime Minister John Howard pushed for tougher rules surrounding migration intake and previously denounced multiculturalism alongside the One Australia policy. More recently in her 2011 Australia Day speech, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard praised the spirit of ‘mateship’ and ‘a fair go’.
At pretty much all of the places I’ve worked in Australia, ‘mate’ gets thrown around every day. My white and female colleagues will call out ‘Bye, mate’ to anyone going home for the day, male or female, any gender in between. At a previous job where I handled inbound calls, clients on the phone have said to me, ‘Nah, mate. It went like this…’
3. Mateship as blokey culture…and more
Today ‘mate’ comes with stereotype: it’s associated with masculine culture, not usually a word that’s directed towards women or used by women. This stereotype dates back to over a century ago when Australian poet Henry Lawson wrote a short story titled Mateship and referred to the grandest of mates as ‘blokes’ – men.
The average Aussie thinks of ‘grabbing our mates for a beer over a barbie’ and ‘playing sport with our mates’ when they are bored – typical activities where generally more males participate in over females (as seen on Aussie beer and sport ads too). There’s also the general consensus here that Aussie guys usually don’t call their girls ‘mate’ unless they are pissed off with them, seeing them as a friend and nothing more.
Going back to the places where I’ve worked: guys call me ‘mate’ on platonic terms, and I don’t mind. Sometimes, though, I get called ‘darl’ which is considered the female equivalent of ‘mate’ and it irks me…and that’s another topic for another day.
4. Mateship as a greeting
Often Australians use ‘mate’ as a simple greeting, as a way to address one as someone or somebody. It’s a way to politely get someone’s attention – our mate, someone we want to talk to – without even knowing the other person’s name. Or if we can’t remember their name.
When I took calls for work, callers have said to me: ‘G’day, mate.’ ‘How’s it going, mate?’ Can you look into this for me, mate?’ Sounds ‘bout right, mate’. ‘No worries, mate.’ ‘See ya, mate.’ No need to address me by my name at all.
5. Mateship as friendship…or not
Our mate, our friend. There’s often a sense of camaraderie around the term ‘mate’ when it’s used in conversation that flows along nicely. There’s also a sense that we don’t mind having each other in our lives. However, the word isn’t always used in a nice way and can be used in an ironic, hostile way. When politician Bill Hayden was dumped as Labor Party leader in 1983, a colleague sarcastically comforted him, ‘Oh mate, mate’. A few times on the phone at work, angry callers who refuse to listen to me go, ‘Now listen, mate’. ‘Fuck off mate’ is also something I’ve heard drunk people say on the streets of Melbourne.
* * *
In general, ‘mate’ is more casual than formal a word in Australia and everyone is pretty much familiar with it here. However it’s not always approved by the everyday person. In 2012, the word was banned by hospital Northern NSW Local Health for coming across as ‘disrespectful, unprofessional, disempowering’ – overly endearing in a sense.
Recently the word ‘mateship’ was swapped for ‘friendship’ on a sign along the sacred military site Kokoda Track, infuriating Aussie veterans. Local government reasoned that the term carried overtly Anglo-Saxon, male connotations – valid point and some have said the word is devalued currency, clichéd, overused and over-exhausted.
I don’t have a problem with anyone calling me ‘mate’, but it’s not a word I use. It just doesn’t form a part of my vernacular and as a kid I don’t remember hearing it much. I only started hearing it when I went to university, and I came to see that it’s a part of Aussie slang Australian English. Naturally, a typical Aussie bogan (the equivalent of the American redneck) would use ‘mate’ more than the recent typical migrant from Asia.
Though I don’t say ‘mate’, I don’t mind others using it – they can say what they want to say. Sometimes we take words too literally these days. Or maybe not.
What does ‘mate’ mean to you?