Why Do Australian Politicians Love Nicknames?

By guest author Natasha Frost, Writer, Briefings

Natasha Frost Jul 21, 2023

Supporters of Anthony Albanese during election night in Sydney, Australia, last year.Jaimi Joy/Reuters

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter in Melbourne.

It’s hard to imagine American voters calling President Biden “Bide-o”. It’s even harder to imagine him choosing the nickname for himself. Yet Australia’s current and previous prime ministers — Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese — don’t just go by ScoMo and Albo, they have actively encouraged the nicknames.

Why do Australians love a nickname — and what currency is there for their political leaders in having one?

“The traditional suggestion has been this principle of informality and ‘mateship,’ which is driven by this notion of egalitarianism,” said Evan Kidd, a linguist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Belief in a level playing field in Australia runs deep, Dr. Kidd added. “Australians have prided themselves on not leaning into those kinds of hierarchical structures, which other cultures most definitely have. So we’re less likely to use terms of address.”

To an Australian ear, he said, “Prime Minister Morrison” could sound formal and removed.

“A term like Mr. or Mrs. or Dr. really establishes a form of social distance, which is really different from when you’re calling them ‘Albo,’” Mr. Kidd said. “Politicians probably lean into that because that’s a way in which they can be seen as approachable and friendly.”

Australian nicknames usually take one of a few different forms, according to Dr. Kidd’s research. They might get an “o” on the end, as in “Sammo” or “Robbo” for Sam or Rob. They might get an “ie” — “Angie” from Angela. And they might simply be truncated — from Vivian to “Viv.”

Each of these carries its own connotation, Dr. Kidd said. An “o” ending might be more masculine, and not necessarily as positive. An “ie” or “y” ending is often more feminine and affectionate and sometimes serves as a sort of diminutive. It may also be perceived to be patronizing.

Dr. Kidd goes by “Ev” or sometimes “Evs” from family and friends. “And, of course, I have ‘Evvie,’” he added. “But that’s reserved for my grandmother and my partner.”

Mr. Albanese’s nickname — “Albo” — has been with him throughout his political career, and was his nickname as a child.

But Mr. Morrison seems to have chosen “ScoMo” himself. In 2018, early in his tenure as prime minister, he approached a fan at an Australian Rules football game, and proffered both his hand and that nickname.

At the time, Peter Hoysted, an opinion writer for The Australian newspaper, described the interaction with a kind of howl of dismay: “The problem with our new PM’s current nickname is it commits the unforgivable cultural faux pas of ascribing a nickname to oneself. According to my list of UnAustralianisms this sin stands at number five with number four being winning the toss and bowling.”

Early in his political career, Mr. Morrison underwent a kind of rebrand, in which an approachable nickname like ScoMo was a useful asset, the political commentator Nick Dyrenfurth, of the John Curtin Research Centre, told me.

“He was someone who was actually raised in Bronte, in the eastern suburbs,” a well-heeled area of Sydney, Dr. Dyrenfurth said. “But he sort of reinvented himself.”

Later on, Mr. Morrison received another less flattering nickname, which he did not choose himself. “Scotty from Marketing,” deriving from a satirical Australian news article, came from a perception that he had focused on campaigning over crisis response, as well as his employment before coming to politics.

Nicknames like these, positive or otherwise, as well as the simple use of “mate” have a long history in Australia.

“‘Mate’ was very much deployed by the convicts and others as a kind of a tool against the officers that were essentially locking them up in an open air jail for decades after colonization,” Dr. Dyrenfurth said. “It’s very much a leveling tool.”

He added: “Call someone ‘mate’ — it was essentially saying, ‘You might be guarding us or you might have more wealth or power than the us average folk, but you’re actually not that higher, in the social pecking order of things.’”