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Q From Mark Hansen: I have found a term that appears to be completely Australian in usage, if not origin. The word is chook which is slang for a chicken. Is this native to Australia or did it originate elsewhere and then take root here better than anywhere else? Any ideas on the origin of the word would be helpful.

A Not solely Australian, since New Zealanders make a claim to it as well. And I’m not sure that it’s actually slang: I’d prefer to describe it as colloquial regional English.

In one sense it’s natively Antipodean, since that form of the word certainly grew up there — it’s recorded in various pronunciations and spellings in Australia from the 1850s on (in New Zealand somewhat later), at first as chookie or chucky. The chook form emerged about 1900 and has outlasted the others.

In another sense, it’s actually an English word, one that was taken to Australia and New Zealand by emigrants. Back in the sixteenth century chuck was a familiar endearment. Shakespeare is first recorded as using it, appropriately enough in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It survives as an endearment in some parts of Britain today, such as Yorkshire and Liverpool, the latter having the vowel pronounced to my ear part-way towards chook (and I’m told that chook is known from various dialects). There’s the American nickname (even sometimes the given name) of Chuck, often used as a pet form of Charles, which comes from the same term of affection (the sense “to give a gentle blow under the chin” is probably from a different source, as is chuck in the sense of food that turns up in the cowboy’s chuck wagon).

All these except the given name could, and indeed still can, refer to literal chickens. The name seems to have been an attempt at imitating the clucking of farmyard fowls, so it’s a close relative of cluck, which was similarly invented.

There are other forms, too, principally the chucky one that seems to have been the first Australian version. Those of us who were young in the 1980s, or who like me had a misspent middle age, will remember the arcade game Chuckie Egg; in Britain there’s a supplier of table birds whose name is Chuckie Chicken. I’m told that in Liverpool a chucky egg can be a soft-boiled egg mashed up with butter, and chook can be a general word for food and also a mildly insulting term for an old woman.

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