First they captured the heart of the nation and now they’ve captured the history books with the “Matildas” waltzing in to be named Australia’s word of the year.
Each year the Australian National Dictionary Centre, based at the Australian National University, selects a word or expression that has gained prominence in the national landscape over the past 12 months.
After their mega semi-final run at the Women’s Fifa World Cup, the soaring popularity of the Australian women’s football team has led to the choice of “Matilda” for 2023.
The team name Matildas, Tillies for short, and its singular form were front and centre in newspapers and on banners in August as football mania overtook the country.
The Matildas’ semi-final against England was the most-watched TV program in decades, reaching more than 11 million people. Their success packed out live sites, pubs and living rooms, and even sparked debate about a national public holiday.
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The centre’s director, Dr Amanda Laugesen, said this year’s choice had been easy given the massive popularity of the team and the word’s long history in Australian English tradition.
She said it was also a nod to the growth in women’s sport, inspiring a new generation of women to the game.
“From the 1880s matilda was one of the names for a swag, a bag of possessions carried by an itinerant man looking for work,” she said. “These days most people would only know this in relation to the song Waltzing Matilda.
“It’s only since the mid-1990s that the women’s soccer team has been called the Matildas, but after this year’s World Cup the word has once again cemented itself in the Australian lexicon.”
The team was known as the Female Socceroos until 1995 when the broadcaster SBS ran a naming competition for viewers. Other options included the Soccertoos, Blue Flyers, Waratahs and Lorikeets.
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Laugesen said the exact origins of the term “matilda” in Australian English were unclear but it came from the popular female name.
“The original German name refers to strength in battle so it’s an appropriate name for a team that has inspired so many people this year, particularly young women and girls,” she said.
The centre’s 2023 word of the year shortlist was dominated by words related to the unsuccessful Australian Indigenous voice to parliament referendum, also held this year, including “noer” (a no voter), “yesser” (a yes voter) and truth telling.
Voice was the centre’s word of the year in 2019. Other past winners have come from the realms of pandemics and politics. “Teal” took the title in 2022 after the independent wave in the federal election, while “Canberra bubble” was chosen in 2018 thanks to Scott Morrison’s repeated use of the term.
“Iso” was the winner in 2020, and “strollout” – a comment on the slow vaccine rollout – won in 2021.
Laugesen said the body always tried to choose something distinctly Australian that had become a “word trend” and particularly prominent in the national lexicon.
As for whether more children will be born into the world called Matilda in the next few years?
“Maybe we will see an upsurge,” Laugesen said. “Matilda was already around but we’ve seen so much discussion and prominence [of the team] in the media this year. The word has an Australian history and an Australian story.”