Sunday, July 4, 2010


Byter Steve dropped me a note as follows:
I noticed you signed off the Bytes today, using the word “cobbers”. We don’t hear that used so much today, but I would be interested to know how it came about if you have space on a Byte sometime in the future please.
When I used the word “cobbers” previously, I deliberately selected an Australianism that contrasted strongly with the wish for a happy Fourth of July, a contrast between Australia and an American celebration that really has no relevance as a celebration in Australia.

The word “cobbers” has, however (and regrettably) fallen into disuse, having been replaced by the Oz word “mates” and (shudder) by the Seppo word “buddies”.  “Cobbers” was placed on the list of endangered Australian words by the Australian National Dictionary and the Australian Oxford Dictionary in 2003:

(One author puts forward a good argument, also in a 2003 article, that Australians are not adopting American words generally, only those words that have a useful function. For that reason we have not adopted “cell phone” in lieu of “mobile phone”, “soda” for “soft drink” of “sidewalk” for "footpath”.  He also gives examples of Americans taking on Australian words. One expert has even suggested that Australia is the greatest contributor to the modern American language than any other country:

So what is the derivation of the word "cobber"?

It first appeared in print in 1893 in the Sydney paper The Worker. The most common explanations for its origin are that it comes from the English dialectical word “cob”, meaning to take a liking to, or from the Yiddish word “khaber”, meaning comrade. Both suffer from an explanation as to how those words came to mean “mate” within the Australian context, geography and cultural mix.

A better explanation has been put forward.

The following is from:
We searched the internet for more information, and found it, to our surprise, not on an Australian, but on a Canadian website. Writing in The Southern Yarn, newsletter of the Down Under Club of Winnipeg (Canada), Aussie expat Russ Shelton says:

Cobb and Co., founded in 1853 by Freeman Cobb and three fellow Americans, established Stage Coach Lines which eventually extended from Adelaide to Queensland.

Using the imported Concord coach. popularised by Wells Fargo & Co. in USA, the journey was never a comfortable experience over Australia's mostly non-existent roads.

Upon completion over many days of roughing it, passengers assumed the sobriquet of "cobber", a recognition of the intimacy and friendship frequently derived from the experience, hence the greeting ... G'day Cobber.

Even the famous outback poet Henry Lawson was moved to compose The Lights of Cobb & Co., referring to five or six horses in the team:

Past haunted halfway houses
Where convicts made the bricks,
Scrub yards and new bark shanties,
We dash with five and six;
Through stringy bark and blue-gum,
And box and pine we go -
A hundred miles shall see tonight,
The lights of Cobb & Co.
So there you go, cobber.

By the way, the photo above is of a bronze sculpture called Cobbers by Peter Corlette. It was erected in the Australia Memorial Park and Cemetery in 1998 at Fromelles in France. The Battle at Fromelles, in 1916, remains the worst 24 hours in Australian wartime history, with 1,917 Australians killed, 3,146 wounded and 470 taken prisoner.

The statue depicts Sergeant Simon Fraser, a stretcher bearer with the 57th Battalion, who, after the 24-hour battle, returned to the battlefield with his fellow comrades to rescue wounded Australians. Under fire, they rescued around 300 men, some at the cost of their own lives. 

The title of the statue comes from a letter that Fraser wrote a few days after the battle:
"… and I could not lift him on my back; but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man … sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.

- Sergeant Fraser, quoted in Charles Bean, The AIF in France, 1916, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol 3, Sydney, 1929, p.441

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