top of page

Why Do Australians Say Mate? Why Did Australia Ban Mate in 2005?

Mate. It’s just as Australian as the outback or kangaroos. If you do an Australian accent, chances are, you said "G’day mate!" But where did it come from? And also, you’d be surprised to find out that Australia banned using the word "mate" back in 2005.

Where Does The Word "Mate" Even Come From?

a small European German village street

a map of The Holy Roman Empire (Germany in the 1500s)
The Holy Roman Empire (Germany in the 1500s)

The origin of the word "mate" comes from the Middle Low German "mate" or "gemate" during the 14th century. It meant two people eating food (mate) together (ge-). Mate has similar origins to "maat" in Dutch and other German forms, which both mean friend or partner. Eventually, it meant "one of a wedded pair" in the mid-1500s.

Eventually, it became a way to address other sailors and laborers. Later on, "mate" became the title of a naval officer. Despite this, the word "mate" has long implied equality between the people to whom it referred to.

How Did Mate Become Uniquely Australian?

Australia started as a prison colony in the early 1800s, and the convicts being transported were typically from the laborer class back home in England. In addition to this, as they were being transported, they would have been around the ship’s crew for a while, and may have picked up the habit of referring to people as "mates."

When they arrived in Australia, life became much harder for them, and "mate" now became a word that meant not only friend or companion but also someone who you mutually depended on for survival.

By 1826, "mate" had become a casual greeting for complete strangers, not just close friends. The Sydney Morning Herald explains the major but subtle effects of this

old photo of Australian farmers plowing a field
By calling one another "mate," but also using the word to address those considering themselves to be social superiors, the convicts were declaring no one was their better.

So Why Do Australians Say Mate?

"Mate" is a word that brings equality to all who use it. And future Australian events, such as the World Wars, also established the word "mate" as not just a friend but a companion who you depend on and suffer hardships with, whether or not you know him or not.

You can read more about Australian history here

Australians Actually Didn’t Want The Word Mate To Be Protected

Australian Prime Minister John Howard

In the late 1990s, then-Prime Minister John Howard attempted to add the word "mateship" into Australia’s Constitutional Preamble. However, the Australian people didn’t like how "mate" was being politicized and shot down the idea. It was only a few years later that Australians again banded together over the politicization of the word.

So Why Was "Mate" Banned?

Canberra, Australia at sunset

Well, it wasn't much of a ban, but it made headline news worldwide. On August 18, 2005, security guards were instructed not to use the word "mate" and were instead instructed to use more formal words like "sir" and "ma’am." The ban was implemented after an MP (member of parliament) or government official complained. A higher-ranked civil servant had directed security guards not to use "G'day, mate," as it may cause offense.

Although it wasn’t a nationwide ban, the news of the ban did cause national outrage. It drew outrage from every viewpoint on the political spectrum.