Why Do Australians Call Each Other “Mate”?

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.

Are we all 'mates' in Australia? | Weekly Photo Challenge: Reflecting.

Are we all ‘mates’ in Australia? | Weekly Photo Challenge: Reflecting.

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.
Archy: What?
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.’’

Sometimes we wonder who our 'mates' truly are.

Sometimes we wonder who our ‘mates’ truly are.

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.

Sometimes we just want to help and stick up for our 'mates'. Each and everyone.

Sometimes we just want to help and stick up for our ‘mates’. Each and everyone.

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.

'Mate' or not, often we want the best for others.

‘Mate’ or not, often we want the best for others.

* * *

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?

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227 thoughts on “Why Do Australians Call Each Other “Mate”?

  1. I’ve heard/read about the word ‘mate’. I used to think it implies a friendship or a knowingness/kinship of the sort and, I was somewhat right 😀 Though, the word has more to it meaning, and thanks for such a well-researched post. The ‘mateship’ it seems, has some similarity with the US ‘brotherhood’ or Indian “bhai bhai’ (meaning brother). Interestingly, in all these cases, they refer only to men. Some things, some concepts, remain same worldwide…only their version differs.

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  2. I am amazed at the manner in which you have delved in depth and presented the connotations associated with the word ‘mate’ in Australia and how these have varied through the different periods. You surely have an eye for details, Mabel Congratulations on coming up with this well-researched post. Do they also use the word ‘buddy’ interchangeably with ‘mate’ in Australia?

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    • Thanks, Somali. I’ve heard quite a few of my friends use the word ‘buddy’ here in Australia. It’s not used all the time, but sometimes. But used enough that not many of us are surprised when it is used.

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  3. I have heard this word in a tv series, I think it is just used for friendship. But it was great to know such fine detailed information. It took me to Austrailia.
    WELL DONE MABEL..
    SHREYANS

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  4. Thank you for that explanation and history. Like most, I too thought it was mainly a long-standing common expression of friendship. Knowing how slangs come and go, however, I still wondered if there was more to it. I don’t know why I never bothered to look into it more because that’s what typically tend to do when intrigued about cultures and subcultures. In any case, I’m glad that you shed a lot of light on this.

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  5. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot … we’re such a laid back culture aren’t we? This is such a great article Mabel and I really appreciated the research and depth that went into writing this. I get called mate occasionally, and I actually don’t mind, but you’re right, generally it’s reserved for blokes. 🙂

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    • We certainly have a laid-back culture here in Australia. I think a lot of us Aussies simply like going with the flow. I am sure you are a good mate to many around you, else they wouldn’t be calling you mare, Miriam 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Awesome photography, Mabel! These people are incredible! As for mate, that word tends to mean to me someone you choose to be with for the rest of your life, a partner, a spouse, a friend, a lover. We don’t hear that word much here in the states, at least not where I live. Perhaps other parts of the states you would though. Very detailed post, dear friend, and it is quite easy to see how much research and time you put into it. You really are an excellent writer!! Don’t quit on you! 🌼💗

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    • Thanks so much, Amy. These people in the photos project their art with so much confidence. I like your interpretation of the word mate – ‘someone you choose to be with for the rest of your life’. That is a very strong statement, but when that happens, it is an amazing thing. You keep up your photography 🙂 ❤

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  7. As always Mabel one more wonderful post and so much of research and detailing that goes behind all your post. It amazes me. A simple word “mate” and there is so much work behind it right from the history and the application of the word in our life. Though the overall essence of using such word is universal but it changes its avatar from place to place from country to country and from time to time. In India there is an equivalent phrase “bhai bhai”, pointed by Mani also and many other parts of world we call “buddy” highlighted by Somali, and the very essence of the word is about friendship and equality cutting across the age, gender, profession to occupation to region to religion.

    Good to have some kind of common key to unlock the relationships, generally strained, with strangers, when we meet so many people in our different walks of our life, in office while travelling or while shopping to just while going for a stroll and we keep meeting them, how else could we have expressed our feelings and extend our relationship in a manner which doesn’t transgress into each other’s limiting space. The way you have brought the evolution and use of word by soldiers in war time to how it has been interpreted by the political class and it is just not a mere simple word but how this word has found it’s relevance and made a big difference how a community evolves and how the relationships in community in terms of belongingness and bondage gets shaped and reshaped with time and with people from different parts of the world converging in one country, so much change in culture to customs and to the way inhabitants of each place live, there has to be a common thread one at the formal level and more so at the informal level where we keep engaging and exchanging with people around us…how do we build that bridge of friendship, though momentarily but needed, that is universal and which perhaps is the bedrock of the vast world community.

    “Equality and Egalitarianism” is so much a factor of healthy living in such diverse culture in one community…as human being we all want to be treated equally and treated fairly and this is a basic human need. Unfortunately, we are in a conflict zone with self and with the world around us and we keep fighting and keep arguing for reasons best know to us and we keep justifying our propositions. However irrational it may be. We have become highly judgmental. In such circumstances it is important to get the calm and composure restored, in place and using such common word “mate” and accepted word with a purpose which is well accepted across makes it easy to build a healthy engagement in society…

    Thanks so much Mabel for each time sharing with us one important perspective after another and let this saga of yours and your passion for dissecting the little nuances of life and the way we all live and exchange our thoughts continue forever…

    Have a wonderful day ahead.
    😀

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    • And always Nihar, a very refreshing comment from you. There is more than meets the eye to everything and anything. ‘changes its avatar from place to place from country to country and from time to time’ So splendidly put. Words and language change as people come and go, and as we adapt the way we live to how we want to live and according to what makes us tick. Interesting to learn ‘bhai bhai’. Thanks for teaching me that and reminding me again 😀 Maybe Indian culture is similar to Australian culture than we think, and with many other cultures in this world too.

      ‘how do we build that bridge of friendship’ This is such an important question. Maybe as you inferred, it could be with the word ‘mate’ or ‘bhai bhai’ or any word of the equivalent in between – and these words are used in every day situations that we don’t stop to think about. Perhaps it is these words of mutual understanding that brings us all the more closer, because these words are so relatable no matter our class or social status, making us feel that we are on the spectrum as people in some way, no matter how small.

      ‘Equality and Egalitarianism’ So glad you brought these two notions up. They certainly go hand in hand with the notion of mateship. You are very right in saying that all of us are in some kind of conflict or are guilty of being judgemental in life – be it disagreements with those around us or trying to find ourselves and what we stand for individually, and as a team. Sometimes it’s because we strongly believe in something – human instinct. Being open-minded is key to seeing each other as ‘mates’, key to accepting what things and people are as they are.

      Take care, my friend. It is always a pleasure and honour to chat with you. You too have a wonderful day ahead, Nihar 🙂

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      • I agree Mabel, words may change and context may also change, human emotions and feelings, the fundamentals of human relationship remains. It is about understanding each other and building that mutual understanding that builds the bridges of human relationship across community and countries. Everything cannot be bonded in family but there are relationship without blood relationship but more powerful than blood relationship. It is about meeting of mind and good nature of caring and sharing. The basis of dignity and respect for who we are and how we live of life, the space to live our life the way we want to live.

        Friendship is essence of beautiful relationships of life…more than family, many times they count much more than our family…it is way we look at these fabric of relationship and how we want to be treated and how we treat others.
        Human instinct and open-mindedness is so essentially to explore and expand our definition of friendship and relationship so much a part of life and our existence, we have to be in it and we have to find our space.

        Indeed there are so much similarities in the life and zest between the way Indians and Australians live, may we look at the dissimilarities more than the similarities, may be the difference if more conspicuous in its presence than the commonalities.

        Mabel, indeed always a pleasure exchanging such powerful thoughts and you take care my friend…see how we are using the word “friend” and so much enjoying doing it.
        😀

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        • ‘the fundamentals of human relationship remains…meeting of mind’ Agreed. Nothing like a solid relationship, friendship and connection – which I reckon is what makes many of us tick and feel comfortable at the end of the day. Space is so important for all of us – it defines us as individuals and also in a sense interpolates us to look out at others and the world.

          Forever friends friendship is cultivated over time, not just from open-mindedness but efforts to be there for each other, to make time for each other. It may not neccessarily be bounded by blood, but it is certainly bounded by thought and willingness to stand side by side with each other no matter how different each preson may be.

          Your second last paragraph is gold. You summed up cultural diversity there so well. In fact, I am sure you could write about cultural diversity or any topic that I’ve written on much better and bring around more perspectives than ever 😀

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          • Mabel you have just taken my words, this is exactly how I feel about friendship…it is about the deep understanding and caring for each other and one is able to appreciate the things around us and able to empathize with each other, at the time of need. We all meet and we all love to share thoughts and exchange ideas with each other and it is precisely because we have a sense of broader understanding and we also need to find quality and we all need to put that concerted effort to build on this wonderful friendship…it is not easy and it is not everybody’s cup of tea. There is nothing that stops us to build and maintain such lovely relationship without being related to each other.

            Today with the power of connection, distance has lost all its relevance and physical presence has lost it significance. Anybody with like minded thoughts and with common interest and a good value system and the ability to nurture such beautiful associations…can break the human barriers.

            You are a master on “cultural diversity” and I keep learning from you and weaving magic with so much of research and such insightful perspective backed by data and anecdotes…
            Yes my dear friend always a delight exchanges thoughts with you.
            Have a superb weekend.
            Take Care!!!
            😀

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            • Again, you said it: ‘a sense of broader understanding and we also need to find quality.’ Friendship is grown and built over time, just as the language we speak to each other and the words we use with one another is cultivated and felt over time. It is true that technology and all things computes and phones have enabled us to connect us so much more closer no matter where we are in the world.

              It is very kind of you to refer to me as a master on cultural diversity. I am flattred but in all honestly, I have a long way to go to becoming a good writer. I have a lot to learn from you, writing about so many different topics with words that flow into the other so poetically 🙂

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              • Yes Mabel, the more we think on the role of technology the more we get fascinating on the innovation in digital technology and how it is changing every aspect of our life and more so the the way we connect, communicate and be part of larger community and today we can all say proudly we are all part of a one world community…breaking all the geographical, political, social and so many more which has kept us far and wide and kept us at bay…
                You are a master of cultural diversity and the way you have an eye for such finer nuances of multiculturalism, is indeed fascinating to read and keep reading…
                Hope you are having a wonderful Sunday.
                😀

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  8. I love the sentiment that ultimately we all want to look after each other. In this context I can understand how when ‘mate’ is used in aggression there is still hope that all will work out OK. The history of the word is fascinating. Just shows how much information the words we use contains. Wise words!

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  9. I do use the word ‘mate’, but not very often, Mabel. I have referred to friends as mates, but then I’ve also called somebody I’ve met for the first time ‘mate.’ It’s one of those words that can be used in different forms without anybody else knowing what you’re referring to.
    Over here, in Wales, many males use the word ‘Butt’ instead of mate. It means exactly the same thing as what you have said in this post, but I loath it. It just does not sound right and sounds rather rude to me, but maybe that’s because I’m getting older and I don’t seem to tolerate certain words as much as I did when I was younger? Food for thought.

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    • Aha. So those in the UK say ‘mate’ too. Very interesting to know and agree with you that it can be used in many contexts and it comes off ambiguous but acceptable all round.

      I don’t like the sound of butt either. I’ve heard it occasionally here in Australia. Maybe we are polite not to throw it around too often. That could be very true – our taste in words changes over time. The older we get, maybe the more precise we want to be with what we say.

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