G’day Inmate








This photograph was posted to reddit today under the subreddit “History memes”. The text in the image says, “Mate is just short for ‘inmate’ because Australia was literally a bunch of convicts forced to live there.”

It is correct that Australia was once a British penal colony (1788-1868). However, the use of mate in the English language predates Australian colonization.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mate was used as a form of address as early as the 14th Century, when it meant, “A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner”.

Mate isn’t “just short for inmate” (a process of forming a new word from another word that is called back-formation). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, inmate is a more recent word than mate. Inmate dates back to the 1580s when it was formed from in (“inside”) + mate (“companion”) to mean “one allowed to live in a house rented by another.”

Mate has been in use since the 1300s, but the word has a special resonance in Australian English. From a cultural standpoint, mate is a cultural key word that expresses Australian values. Mate means more than just “friend.” A stranger or even an enemy can be addressed as “mate”, although the word often refers to a close bond of friendship, borne of shared experiences and values. Similarly, the related concept of mateship is an important cultural idiom in Australia. Mateship and mate embody equality, loyalty, and solidarity. Mateship is often associated with Australian soldiers known as diggers, especially during World War I. As columnist Margaret Burin put it, mateship “is a term that conjures images of young men providing unconditional support for one another amid the toughest of conditions.”

According to author Nick Dyrenfurth in his book “Mateship: A Very Australian History,” the use of mate in Australian English can still be traced back to the convict era. He says, “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’.”

If you’re interested in reading more about mate in Australian English, Linguist Anna Wierzbicka’s book “Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words” has a whole section dedicated to the word.

But as for the claim that “mate is just short for inmate”, this is a folk etymology.


With thanks to Professor David Perlmutter for drawing my attention to the reddit posting.

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

2 Comments on "G’day Inmate"

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  1. Gene Brown says:

    Very interesting Karen! It’s good to know the etymology of the word inmate. Kind of like what would would now call a “roommate” or a “housemate”, right? g

    • Exactly! The etymology of “mate” is even more complicated. “Mate” comes from German mate, gemate, meaning “eating at the same table, messmate”, which comes from Proto-Germanic ga-maton, meaning “having food together.”

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