Some expressions in English are closely associated with particular dialects or regions. Fair dinkum, for example, is used in Australian and New Zealand English and very little elsewhere. A recent analysis shows how popular it is among Australian politicians. But what does the phrase mean, and where did it come from?
Macmillan Dictionary defines fair dinkum as ‘real or honest’. This usage can be seen in an article in The Age on Covid-19 restrictions: ‘Whether you listen depends on whether you trust the person who is telling you what to do. And that depends on whether they are fair dinkum’. Used this way, fair dinkum is similar to on the level or straight up; Australian variants include square dinkum and straight dinkum. The related phrase dinkum oil, which began as military slang in World War I, means ‘true facts’ or ‘accurate information’.
In sport the adjective recurs in the Antipodean phrase fair dinkum go, meaning a well-contested effort or game. Any match or contest can be fair dinkum, in the same sense. Fair dinkum can also be used as an adverb equivalent to fair and square – someone could be defeated or arrested fair dinkum. Brisbane’s Courier-Mail quotes a fighter saying, ‘He beat me fair dinkum.’
Fair dinkum can mean ‘authentic’ or ‘quintessential’ in relation to Australian or New Zealand culture. The OED includes the examples ‘a bit of fair dinkum Kiwi music’ and ‘a real fair dinkum Aussie suburban wedding’, both from the late 20th century. And the phrase can function as an intensifier, like utterly, as in ‘they are fair dinkum mad’.
Dinkum is an unusual word that has invited some fanciful etymologies. One is that it comes from fair drinking. Another is that it’s from a Cantonese phrase like ding kam or ting kum, supposedly meaning ‘real gold’ or ‘top gold’. But these suggestions lack any real evidence – they’re folk etymologies based on contrived phonetic similarity.
The dinkum oil about dinkum is that it probably originates in English dialect. Joseph Wright, in his pioneering English Dialect Dictionary, reports the word’s use in Derbyshire and Lincolnshire in the late 19th century to mean ‘work’ or ‘a due share of work’. He also cites an early Australian example, in the novel Robbery Under Arms: ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak.’ According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word may come from Middle English ding, ‘to work’.
On the Ozwords blog – whose tagline is ‘For the dinkum oil on Australian English’ – lexicographer Bruce Moore says dinkum is ‘one of those words that served to articulate Australian values during the First World War’, hence its long association with the idea of fairness: ‘It is from this connotation … that the particularly Australian meaning “reliable, genuine, honest, true” developed,’ he writes. And that’s fair dinkum.