Q From Stephen Wan, Australia: I’m looking for the origins of the Australian slang phrase fair dinkum, which I’m told originates from Chinese. It means real, and is used to allay any potential disbelief about some claim the speaker is making. Apparently, Chinese gold miners in the nineteenth century would tell others of any discoveries of gold using the phrase din gum meaning ‘real gold’ in Chinese.
A It’s an excellent story, and for all I know the Chinese words do really mean that. I’ve encountered the story before: it’s recorded in a 1984 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald, no doubt among many other places. It’s just another example, I’m afraid, of folk etymology — a well-meaning attempt to clarify the puzzling and explain the obscure.
Most dictionaries published outside Australia and New Zealand are unhelpful, just saying “origin unknown”. But it seems very possible that it comes from an old English dialect term, which is recorded principally in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary of 1896-1905. He found several examples of dinkum in various parts of England in the sense of a fair or due share of work. He also encountered fair dinkum in Lincolnshire, used in the same way that people might exclaim fair dos! as a request for fair dealing. But there’s no clue where this word comes from, and dictionaries are cautious because it is not well recorded.
It turns up first in Australian writing in 1888 in Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, in which it had the sense of work or exertion: “It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak”. Early on it could also mean something honest, reliable or genuine, though this is actually first recorded in New Zealand, in 1905. Fair dinkum is recorded from 1890 in the sense of fair play, and soon after in the way that Australians and New Zealanders still use it — of something reliable or genuine. There have been lots of related phrases since, like dinkum oil for an accurate report.
For me, being about as far from Australia as it’s possible to get on this planet, the word brings to mind Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, about a future penal colony on the moon in which everyone speaks a weird patois containing elements of Australian and Russian slang. The sentient computer at the centre of the story is described as “a fair dinkum thinkum”. Go figure.