Cobbers and mates


Mateship is said to be one of the core values of Australian life. We believe it was forged in tough pioneering times and on the goldfields and sanctified on the battlefields of World War I and all subsequent wars.

In bushfires, floods and drought Australians lend a hand to their mates.

I am not convinced this is trait that is uniquely Australian, that of coming to the aid of our countrymen in times of adversity. Men cheerfully call each other ‘mate’. I worked with someone whose work password was ‘maaaate’. We had to change our passwords every month. He just varied the number of ‘a’s.

A very successful beer ad has men just saying ‘mate’ to each other after a suburban crisis. It is very much a man’s term.

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‘Cobber’ is a term for a friend that is associated with World War I. The accompanying photo shows the sculpture ‘Cobbers’ at one of the battlefields in Belgium. Our young guide in Belgium this last May said to me, “This is Cobbers. I think it is a word Australians used”. He looked at me doubtfully. I was able to assure him it really was a word and I knew it well, even though it was a word my generation didn’t use. I knew it well because I grew up with Cobber, a spaniel, so named by my grandfather a veteran of the Western Front.

My husband grew up with a dog called Mate.

As children we have playmates, a word that evokes innocence and care freeness. As very little children we tagged along with our elders and our grandchildren have ‘play dates’ arranged for them.

‘Pal’ seems to me to be an American usage but I’m willing to be corrected. The only time I have used the word is to differentiate between ‘principle’ and ‘principal’. My pal, the principal walked to the door.

When we’re asked what we value a frequent response is “Family and friends” or “Friendship”.
Most of us work hard at retaining friendships that have come to mean so much to us through the years. The word does not quite convey the grades of friendship we experience.

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Facebook has added a whole new dimension. It has become a verb. You can ‘friend’ or ‘defriend’ someone. I have friends on Facebook who have been my friends for over forty years and some who have been friends for twelve months.

But I have a soft spot for the term ‘Cobber’. It is so distinctly Australian, it recalls a tough time in our history, and I remember a loving grandfather and his little dog.


What do you remember about the term ‘cobber’? What other Australian terms do you like and what do you call your friends? Share with us below