Dinkum and its variant fair dinkum are quintessentially Australian terms. Compare the somewhat old-fashioned jonick, meaning (as does dinkum) ‘fair; genuine; honest; true’. We know that jonick is an Aussification of British dialect jannock, ‘fair(ly), straightforward(ly)’: ‘Square jonick, I kid you not!’ Where does dinkum come from?


We frequently hear the furphy that dinkum is Chinese. In 1984 the Sydney Morning Heraldreported: ‘Jim Kable believes that "dinkum" may come from the Cantonese expression "din kum", meaning "real gold". It would have come, he says, from Chinese workers during the gold rush’. This furphy is still often repeated. On an Internet site, Business Review Weekly (Interactive)23-31 July 1997, I came upon a review of an art exhibition in Canberra called Above and Beyond: Austral/Asian Interactions.The reviewer had this to say:

In their catalogue essay, curators ... say that the word ‘dinkum’ derives from the Cantonese for real gold, perhaps a vestige of the Chinese influence on Victorian gold fields. Above and Beyond underlines that, in terms of forming our cultural identity, the ‘dinkum’ art of the Heidelberg School of Sir Hans Heysen was relevant a long time ago. It is true that one of the meanings of the Mandarin word  ding is ‘very; most; extremely’, hence in Mandarin ‘extremely gold’ would be  ding jin, but this collocation can’t possibly be the progenitor of our Aussie dinkum. Cantonese comes closer to putative parenthood with ding kam (‘top gold’). The trouble is that we haven’t a shred of evidence that this collocation was ever used by the Chinese, whether on the goldfields or out of them. It seems to me that the marriage of ding and kam was not solemnised by the Chinese at all but was a shotgun wedding performed by European amateur etymologists trying to explain where the devil our Aussie dinkum sprang from. One can almost hear them say, ‘Let us "Leave our pribbles and prabbles, and desire a marriage" of Ding and Kam’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor).However, all the evidence to hand leads to the conclusion that (apart from a single word pakapoo, which is the name of a Chinese gambling game) Australian English did not borrow any words from Chinese. Furthermore, where there is British dialect evidence for the provenance of an Australian word, this is usually to be preferred. A surprising amount of Australian slang derives from British dialects.

In the dialects of Lincolnshire and Derbyshire there is a word dinkum (dincum in Derby) which means ‘work; a fair share of work’. It is not widely recorded, but there is an 1891 record from a coal-miner who says ‘I can stand plenty o’ dincum’, that is, ‘I can put up with any amount of fair work’; and from north Lincolnshire there’s the record of a person who says ‘You have gotten to do your dinkum, soä you understand’. The first record of the word in Australia has this meaning. It occurs in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms(1888): ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak’, that is, ‘an hour’s hard work’.

More importantly, in the north Lincolnshire dialect we have the idiom fair dinkum which means ‘fair play’, ‘fair dealing’, ‘that which is just and equitable’. In fact, the notion of ‘fairness’ has always been associated with dinkum. It is from that connotation of ‘fairness’ that the particularly Australian meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’ developed in the first decade of this century. It first appeared in writing in 1908, in E.G. Murphy’s Jarrahland Jingles:‘When up I brings me plumber’s kit / An’ gives ’em dinkum gabbie’.

There was an interesting development of the word during World War 1. Dinkum was used as a noun to describe an Australian soldier. In 1917 the war historian C.E.W. Bean writes:

The sort of Australian who used to talk about our ‘tinpot navy’ labelled the Australians who rushed at the chance of adventure the moment the recruiting lists were opened ‘the six bob a day tourists’. Well, the ‘Tourists’ made a name for Australia ... The next shipment were the ‘Dinkums’ — the men who came over on principle to fight for Australia — the real, fair-dinkum Australians. Throughout the war, the term dinkum continued to be used for an Australian soldier, but it disappeared in this sense almost immediately the war ended.

By the end of the World War 1 the term dinky-di had appeared as an intensified version of dinkum. And at about the same time we get the development of expressions such as dinkum Aussie and the dinkum oil (which first appears in C.J. Dennis’s The Moods of Ginger Mickin 1916).

By the late 1970’s the phrase dinky-di Aussie had become so firmly established that the ‘Aussie’ bit could be omitted as superfluous. Thus in a 1981 headline we read that ‘Bob Ansett’s a born-again dinky-di now’.