Q From Chris and Caroline Hayles, Hampshire, UK: We are trying to establish what is meant by the Old Dart and where it comes from. On a genealogy list we belong to they seem to think it means England, due to Dartmoor Prison, but we have never heard the expression before and nor have any of our friends and family. If you could please enlighten us to its origins we would be grateful, especially as we are English and have never heard of it!
A The first part is easy: it’s a term in Australia and New Zealand with the same meaning as Old Country — the British Isles, in particular England. It’s not known in the Old Country, so it’s not surprising you have never heard it.
This is an early example:
He was from England. ... He is one of the sort who return to the old dart and say that fruit-growing here is a failure.
The Quiz, Adelaide, 18 Nov. 1892. This was a short-lived newspaper which asserted on its masthead that it was “A satirical, social and sporting journal”.
The lack of explanation suggests that the writer expected it to be understood by his readers. There is firm evidence that it was known much earlier, since an inscription on a slate in the roof of a church in Hunters Hill in New South Wales, dated to the 1860s, records a master slater named Hart, “born in the Old Dart, 1796”.
However, the earliest examples in print denote Ireland:
And if England should dare interfere,
Ould Ireland will have a chance again...
Then, when the old dart is free,
Annex’ion to America we’ll plan again.
The Donnybrook-Fair Comic Songster, by a pseudonymous couple calling themselves Mulvaney and O’Flanagan, 1863.
People familiar with the linen producing districts of Ireland, pronounce this climate and soil to be almost an exact duplicate of the “old dart”.
Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 12 June 1880. The term was fairly common in US sources in the latter part of the nineteenth century, frequently referring specifically to Ireland, as here, but also to England and to Britain in general.
Nobody can be entirely certain where it comes from, though it is quite certain it has nothing to do with the infamous Dartmoor Prison. There are earlier usages of dart that suggest it is a dialect way of saying dirt — the Australian National Dictionary has an example from 1859 showing that it was specifically applied to pay dirt in gold diggings. By the 1880s it had been extended in Sydney slang to refer to an object of attraction, some enticing thing or event, or some set purpose.
But the usage in Old Dart seems to look back to the original sense of dirt, albeit figuratively, and the idea behind it seems to be close to the Irish old sod for one’s native district or country.