The greatest pleasure I have ever known is when my eyes meet the eyes of a mate over the top of two foaming glasses of beer

Henry Lawson, Australian Legend, Early 20th Century

We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship

Draft Constitutional Preamble, John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, 1999

It would take an awful lot of courage to jump on the back of a crocodile, but I suppose that's what you do for a mate

Thursday Island Police Sergeant Graham Burridge, The Courier Mail, August 20, 1999.

I lost my mate.

Stewart Euston, on the death of a fellow miner, The Courier Mail, 28 May, 2000

The West Australians assumed that death was certain, and each in the secret places of his mind debated how he would go to it. Mate, having said goodbye to mate ... went forward to meet death instantly, running as straight and swiftly as they could at the Turkish rifles. With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia ...

War Historian C. Bean, writing from Gallipoli, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2002

Mates having a laugh over a beer

Mateship as part of the Australian Language

Australian love their mates. Or do they? There is no doubt that linguistically, the word mate is strongly entrenched in the Australian Language - more so than in any English variant in the world.  Although many Australians, and indeed Americans, would not know it, mate is used and has been used for centuries in working class English english.  As with other working class English traits, what makes our mate usage distinctly Australian is the fact that it is used unequivocally by all layers of society.  From brickies to pollies, every dinkum Australian male uses the word mate every day of their life.  

So how is it used? And what does it actually mean? Does it simply mean, 'friend'? Does it add anything at all to the semantics of what is being said? As with any foreign language, you must consider the context in which it is used over time to gauge a meaning.  Consider, for example, the following:

Last week I received a phone call concerning the member for Burnett. The caller was asking about workers compensation. I said, "Mate, according to protocol, you should go to your local member." Do honourable members know what he said to me? He said, "He's never home." He said, "He's about as handy as an ashtray on a motor bike.

Hon. Mr PEARCE, MP. 9 Jun 1999 Legislative Assembly 2271

This is a typical use.  All mate contributes here is that the speaker is not in a formal situation. If mate were said in an aggressive tone, then that would also add to the semantics.  Somewhat paradoxically, the fact mate has been used does not mean that the speakers are mates.  For example, Prime Minister John Howard would not consider Saddam Hussein to be his "mate", yet his advice to international media was that:

If there is a faint hope of this thing being solved without military force, that faint hope is for the whole world saying the same thing and saying it very loudly to Iraq -- and most particularly the Arab states saying, 'mate, the game is up'.

Reuters, Australian PM: Tell Iraq, 'Mate, the Game Is Up', Feb 10 2003

In all this usage appears to be equivalent to the American buddy, which, tragically, is in some circles encroaching on mate usage in Brisbane at least.  Other examples of this usage are as follows:

"Pot a XXXX thanks mate" is how one would go about ordering beer in Queensland.  Generally in response to the question, "Are you right?"

"Thanks mate" is the standard thank you, said, for example, after the beer has been handed over.  "Thank you", itself, is almost absurdly formal to an Australian in most contexts. 

Mate can also be used as a greeting, or as part of a greeting:

"G'day mate" is a standard greeting, either between mates or strangers.  Normally not used in a highly formal, introduction situation (although G'day, without the mate, can be).

"G'day mate, how are ya?" is a variation on this greeting.  The standard response is, "Good thanks mate. How are you?".  Note well that invariably ya is used in the question, whereas you is used in the response.   

"Maaaate!" is a greeting sometimes used between mates who are pleased to see one another.  

Mate may also be used as roughly meaning friend. "He's my mate", "We're mates" or "He's my best mate" are common examples.  However, as with all translations, something is lost when 'friend' replaces mate. "He's my friend", "We're friends" or "He's my best friend" does not communicate the same message. It sounds childish at best.  There is no other word for it in English. 

One man was caught through the side of the head, severing his right ear but not killing him.  He lay... in a dangerous position - right in line of a point from which some snipers were were potting our lads... A man crawled out of our shallow trench and wormed his way along the ground to a position within a couple of yards from this man.  Ping! Zipp! Zipp! Bullets hit the ground... but the rescuer worked his way snake-wise until he got to the wounded man.  Clumsily turning the man over he shouted, "How's she going, mate?". There was no answer. He yelled, "Strike me pink the poor bugger's just about outed", and began to drag him... he got a bullet through his ankle but managed it at last and we cheered him. He looked over and grinned. 

Private Percival describing a rescue of one man by his brother, Gallipoli, 7 August 1915.
The rescuer was shot by the Turks shortly after. The brother lasted two days.

"orrr Maaate" may also be used, believe it or not, as a means of persuasion: "Sorry guys, I can't join you for a beer", "Orrr maaate, carn ya piker, just one or two". 

There are no doubt many other contexts and shades of meaning we have not documented.  Please let us know. 

It should be noted that the mate usage documented above is the language of Australian males. As discussed elsewhere, the Australian society has historically been male dominated, as recognised by pollie Gareth Evans in the context of the preamble debate, in which the Prime Minister of Australia suggested mateship should be in our new constitution:

`Mateship' is a good and honourable word. It is a great Australian word; it is a quintessentially Australian word—yes, it is all of those things. But the trouble is it just does strike, on all the available evidence, the overwhelming majority of Australian women as too blokey and, accordingly, just not the right kind of word for this sort of document. The trouble is that our whole history has been too blokey, and women today and tomorrow just do not need language in the Constitution reinforcing that kind of imagery.

Address by the Hon Gareth Evans QC MP to the House of Representatives, Canberra, 24 March 1999 (Hansard pp 3582-4).

And it isn't just the men who contend Australia essentially has a male history.  Professor Marilyn Lake also found the use of mateship in the preamble inappropriate: 

It's a real return to the spirit of the 1890s when what was quintessentially Australian was the relationship between men. National identity was grounded in the writings of people like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson and continued with Gallipoli and right through the Second World War to our social institutions such as surf lifesaving and racing and the pub.

Professor Marilyn Lake, Female Historian, La Trobe University, Sydney Morning Herald, March 24 1999. 

Of course, Prime Minister John wouldn't have a bar of it:

It is one word in all of this which is so unarguably, distinctively and dramatically and proudly Australian ... I don't find that exclusively blokey and I don't believe any fair-minded Australian understanding the history and the spirit of this country would, either.

John Howard, Prime Minister,  March 23 1999. 

So what then do women use instead of mate? Some women, especially working class women or women in remote areas, have adopted the male language (and attitudes) as their own.  In North Queensland recently, for example, one bloke was grievously insulted by another as he stumbled home from the pub.  As would be expected, he went the biff and knocked the bastard to the ground.  It was only then that, to his horror, that he discovered that the bloke was in fact an Aboriginal woman. He immediately helped her to her feet, said something to the effect of,  "Jeeze, look I'm really sorry about that. I thought you were a bloke!".   She just casually brushed the dust away from her clothes and said, in a broad Australian accent, "ahhh you're right maaate", and went on her merry way as though nothing had happened.  

In relation to mateship.... [it] is an attitude that pervades Australian society, and in that context I have absolutely no difficulty with it

Mr Olsten, Premier of South Australia, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March, 1999

In the big smoke however, women, on the whole, do not use mate nearly as much as men do. In a Brisbane law firm, a young female solicitor was chastised by a male for saying, "Thanks buddy" upon being handed some documents.  "Try and be Australian", was the reproach. Her retort, "what should I be saying, 'mate'?" demonstrated this too was inappropriate, and the gap in the female Australian language was apparent.  Unfortunately, it just the way Australian society developed.  The men spent time doing blokey things including drinking with their mates while the women attended to domestic chores.  Now that women are out and about socially, they have adopted the 'mate' speech usage. But on the whole they don't appear to want use the masculine word.  It will be interesting to see how this develops.  In the meantime, a woman's role in Australian society is discussed more here and some usage feedback is here

Finally it should be noted that men normally do not call women mates. They may say, "She's a mate", or "We're just mates'. But generally they will not say, "G'day mate", or "thanks mate", or "pot a XXXX thanks mate" - this usage is strictly reserved as part of the rituals of mateship.  Generally, the word mate is simply dropped from the sentence if it is being addressed to a women. 

Mateship as part of the Australian Culture

I would like to see those great Australian characteristics that have been the golden thread through successive generations still there. I want us always to be seen as Australians, not as Americans or as Europeans or as Englishmen or as Asians. As distinctive Australians having those great qualities of classless-ness and mateship and fairness which have been the hallmark of Australians through all experiences and all generations.

Prime Minister, John Howard, 13 September 1998. 

What does John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia (and a conservative at that) actually mean when he speaks of mateship? Why is it important to him, and why does he think that it is important to the country?  The notion of ones mates being important is long entrenched in the Australian culture:

The typical Australian ... was seldom religious in the sense in which the word was generally used. So far as he held a prevailing creed, it was a romantic one inherited from the gold-miner and the bushman, of which the chief article was that a man should at all times and at any cost stand by his mate. That was and is the one law which the good Australian must never break. It is bred in the child and stays with him through life ...

CEW Bean, The Story of ANZAC, 1921

Even before that, in the hard days of convict life and of gold diggings, rebellions and floggings, it was a man's world, and a man had to stick by his mates if he was to get by:

For more than 50 years Australia was almost entirely a masculine country.  As late as 1840 the proportion of males to females was two to one. Not until the about 1880s was a reasonable balance struck between the sexes. It was inevitable that men should be thrown together, that they should rely on one another, that a strong accent should be placed on companionship. This was the heritage passed on to men and youths long after the population balance between the sexes had been adjusted.

Sidney Baker, The Australian Language, 1945

That heritage between men is still alive and well as we approach the eve of the twenty-first century.  A man loves his mates, although he would rarely admit it, and, should you look deep in into his heart, you will see that he values them more than most things in his life.  Often, as alluded to above, this has traditionally had the effect of excluding women.  This is cultural - for the first hundred years the women were simply not there. And if they were, they were not part of the drinking, masculine culture that developed into mateship. 

But - and there is no sense denying it - Australian mateship is mainly for men. It was - and is - difficult to be mates with a woman.

Phillip Knightley, Australia: A Biography of a Nation, 2000

Do not our men habitually desert their women at social gatherings and crowd around the beer keg, swapping yarns, laughing raucously, literally wallowing in the rituals of mateship?

Ronald Conway, The Great Australian Stupor, 1976. 

Ronald goes on to ask 'what keeps so life consuming and emotionally impoverishing a cult of male behaviour so alive for generations after its social and historical relevance?'.  His own theory is because an Australian male is driven to his mates as they are privately manipulated and motivated by their wives, and seek men out to 'air those unrealised fantasies of manhood which the domestic rut at home has now made impossible'.

While some may say it might be true that a man can driven to the drink by his wife, it is not true to say that mateship continues to flourish because of women. It is because the old culture continues, as cultures tend to do, just as the shouting practice continues, and our language continues.  We are a distinct people, and this is our culture. Why should it change?

A simple code of mateship and nationalism explains the enduring appeal of the Returned & Services League of Australia. The unswerving loyalty to mates and assertive Australian nationalism which give the League its strength are easy to understand.

Official Returned & Services League History, 1999. 

In the [Japanese POW] camps the Australians discarded their differences and became a tribe, a tribe which was always the most successful group. The core of this success was an ethos of mateship and egalitarianism which not only survived the ultimate dehumanising duress of the death camps, but shone through as the dominant Australian characteristic. 

Paul Sheehan, Among the Barbarians, 1998

But mateship has much more to it than just drinking with the boys.  It also has to do with other qualities that are dear to an Australian's heart. Qualities such as giving everyone a "fair go", and sticking by your mates, be they be in a blue or be off their face.  You can't let your mate down.

What is a mate nowadays? Someone you can rely on - through thick, thin and middling; past hell and high-water... In any trouble you know what he will do, without argument, because, since he is your mate, it is exactly what you would have done yourself..... Seems contradictory, doesn't he? - your mate. He is! My Australian oath he is! Look at my mate! Take it from me, there was never such a pig-headed son of a twisted mallee root since mates were discovered. Yet I stick to him; I can't get rid of him; he is inside my skin; he's me, bother him.

Thomas Dodd, Australian Worker, 1926.

I don't abandon mates just because they make mistakes.

Prime Minister John Howard, Daily Telegraph, 20 March, 2002

A month shy of his 101st birthday, Norm Pope reflects "all the time" on his war experiences.. "You think of all your mates and what went on and the war itself. You think about how they got killed and how you tried to save some of them and how you couldn't because they were too far gone. You think about how you were lucky yourself and what you would do if you could do it over again, how you would try to protect them."

Memories of Kokoda still fresh, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August 2005

The two world wars exacted a terrible price from us - the full magnitude of that lost potential, of those unlived lives can never be measured. And yet, some of the most admirable aspects of Australia's national character were, if not conceived, then more fully ingrained within us by the searing experiences of those conflicts. None more so than the concept of mateship - regarded as a particularly Australian virtue - a concept that encompasses unconditional acceptance, mutual and self respect, sharing whatever is available no matter how meagre, a concept based on trust and selflessness and absolute interdependence. In combat, men did live and die by its creed. 'Sticking by your mates' was sometimes the only reason for continuing on when all seemed hopeless. I was moved by an account written by Hugh Clarke, who, like thousands of other Australian and British servicemen, endured years of senseless cruelty as a prisoner of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. He couldn't recall a single Australian dying alone without someone being there to look after him in some way. That's mateship.

Prime Minister John Howard's speech delivered at Australia House in London on November 10, 2003

I had lots of good mates but they're all gone

Peter Casserly, Australia's last WW1 digger, aged 107, 2004

Mateship existed between the convicts. Mateship continued to develop among the gold miners.  Mateship thrived with our diggers in the World Wars.  Mateship survives, in the face of all cultural onslaught, at all levels of Australian male society, from railee to Prime Minister.  We are mates.

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