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"G'day cobber," said the painted-faced Pommy Rugby World Cup fan wearing a T-shirt made from his national flag, as he stopped an Aussie passer-by in Sydney last month, "are we in George Street?" The latter replied "Yes, mate, you're right on track."

Sadly, most Australians these days never use the word COBBER. The only time we hear it is when it's uttered by overseas visitors, who are misled by their travellers' guides. It's been superseded by MATE. On Sydney talkback radio last week, a well-known Rugby League player said "Yes mate, it was like this mate, he was running like a greyhound mate, and I tackled him..."

Cobber has been around for a long time, but like the equally lamented Concord (or Concorde) aircraft, is now consigned to history. The Australian National Dictionary Centre has included cobber in its first annual list of what it considers to be the nation's most endangered words and expressions.

It says cobber "probably ultimately goes back to a Yiddish word meaning friend, comrade. It first appeared in Australian English in the 1890s. It is still widely known, but often used self-consciously. It is not used by the young."

The Macquarie Dictionary says the origin of the word is "probably related to British dialect cob to form a friendship with; but cf. Yiddish chaber comrade."

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.

Earlier in this story, we said Cobber has been around for a long time, but like the equally lamented Concord aircraft, is now just history. Now we'll also have to include the Concord coach in that category



Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted December 2003

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