‘the big smoke’: meanings and origins

With allusion to smoke as characteristic of an urban area, the expression the big smoke denotes:
1-: In Australian English: any urban area, as contrasted with its surrounding countryside;
2-: In Irish English and British English: Dublin and London.

These two uses of the expression the big smoke seem to have arisen independently from each other, since the Australian-English use is said to be of Aboriginal origin—cf., below, quotations 1.1 and 1.4. It is possible, however, that these two uses later influenced each other.

In early use, the precise acceptation of the expression the big smoke is sometimes unclear.




The earliest occurrences that I have found of the expression the big smoke in Australian English are as follows, in chronological order:

1.1-: From Recollections of bush life in Australia, during a residence of eight years in the interior (London: John Murray, 1848), by the British clergyman Henry William Haygarth (1821-1902):

The most usual, and certainly the most agreeable, mode of travelling in Australia is on horseback […]. On horseback [the traveller] is thoroughly independent […].
At first he has some power of choice in fixing on a resting-place for the night; but, as he gradually leaves behind him the “big smoke” (as the aborigines picturesquely call the town), the accommodations become more and more scanty, until at length a night in the open air is the sole alternative, if he fails to reach the solitary wayside inn.

1.2-: From Government Negligence, about Bathurst’s police force, published in The Bathurst Free Press (Bathurst, New South Wales) of Saturday 9th February 1850:
—however, here, the expression the big smoke seems to denote London, since it is associated with the word Cockney:

We wish to make the police a respectable body—a copy of the police of the mother-country; and to secure this object, we must pay them. We cannot get shrewd, active, and honest men for pauper pay. Fifteen shillings and ninepence a-week might sound very well in the ears of a Buckinghamshire farm-labourer; but when we come to deduct 4s. or 5s. a-week for a Bathurst landlord, 1s. or 1s. 6d. a-week for fire-wood, 1s. 9d. weekly for his clothing, besides sundry other unmentionable expenses, we simple [sic] ask where, if a single man, is the policeman’s bread and cheese to come from? Echo answers where? Should he, however, labour under the misfortune of being married, the sooner he betakes himself to the bush and a sheep station the better. Our colonial mushroom political economists cut and slashed most magnanimously during the discussion of the estimates. Like Cockney sportsmen just let loose from the “big smoke,” they must forsooth have a pop at everything. Mounted police, rural police, and Police Magistrates have in turn, afforded an opportunity for the display of their cheese-paring tendencies.

1.3-: From Life at the Diggings, published in The Standard (London, England) of Wednesday 14th December 1853:
—Eagle Hawk Gully is in the state of Victoria, Australia; here, the precise acceptation of the expression is unclear, but (contrary to what the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, December 2021) states) it is unlikely that the big smoke denotes London:

The following is an extract from the letter of a digger established at Eagle Hawk Gully, Sept. 3:—
“[…] You remember ‘Dead Horse Gully,’ the scene of our sporting adventures. Well, I lately sank a hole there in the deep sinking. Mine ran about 17 feet, and, as it turned out pretty good, I drove in about 40 feet towards the side of the hill. One day I had been more than usually lucky, so next morning betimes I was stirring, made fast my rope to a tree, and down I went by it hand under hand, lit my slush lamp, and proceeded along the drive on my hands and knees, eager to begin work, and thinking of the big nuggets. You remember I was always celebrated for making small drives. Shading the light with my hand I crawled in. Near the far end I stopped to avoid crawling through a small pool of water. Casting the light before me to see how the land lay—horror of horrors!—on the other side of the pool I perceived a pair of small glittering grey eyes intently fixed on me, the cold, malignant expression of which forced the warm blood back to my heart with a bound which nearly suffocated me. I knew at once that it was a snake, and a deadly one, too. Arching its neck with a hissing noise, it collected itself for the fatal spring; starting back, my head came in contact with the roof of the tunnel, and I fell back stunned and senseless. How long I lay in this state I know not, but when I came to consciousness I at first thought that I was at home in the ‘big smoke;’ but gradually the truth forced itself upon me. Where was the snake?

1.4-: From Wild Adventures in Australia and New South Wales, beyond the Boundaries, with Sketches of Life at the Mining Districts (London: James Blackwood, 1857), by the British adventurer Frederic de Brébant Cooper (1836-1885):
Gamilaraay (Cameleroi in the text) is the name of an Aboriginal people whose lands extend from New South Wales to southern Queensland:

One of the blacks came forward to the edge of the cliff and desired a parley. The conversation took place in that compound of the Sydney dialect and broken English, interspersed with Cameleroi, which generally forms the medium of communication between the white men and blacks, but which, nevertheless, would be unintelligible to the reader unless he has travelled the northern districts. I therefore render it into English.
“You wish us to give you up ‘King Billy;’ if we do so what will you do with him? If you send him to the ‘Toom-virran’ (literally, ‘Big-smoke,’ i.e., Brisbane), they will hang him!”

1.5-: From The Illawarra Mercury and Southern Coast Districts Advertiser (Wollongong, New South Wales) of Monday 19th October 1857:

By a Sea-side Scribbler.

The ciphering cits of Sydney could not choose a better time to have the cobwebs of care and toil blown away by the breath of the Old Pacific than the present, nor a better place for that process to be performed than the beautiful district of Illawarra. […]
And now for the financial view. Here we are sure we have won your sweet voices. For five golden pieces of the current coin of the realm, you can come down here, enjoy yourself for a week, and go back to the “big smoke” a new man.




The earliest occurrences that I have found of the expression the big smoke in Irish English and British English are as follows, in chronological order:

2.1 & 2.2-: From correspondences from the Curragh, published in The Waterford Mirror and Tramore Visiter (Waterford, County Waterford, Ireland):
—the Curragh is in County Kildare, Ireland:

2.1-: Of Thursday 10th July 1862:

Tuesday, July 8th, 1862.
A pleasant, as well as a busy locality, is the Curragh at present; the troops are kept at it pell-mell, day after day, without any cessation whatever […].
Hundreds of the “have-nothing-to-do masculines and crinolines” of the big city of Dublin come down here on Wednesday’s to feast their eyes on the gorgeous apparel and flying movements of the soldiers. […] The ladies—the darlings—take an especial interest in the life of a soldier, as you would say if you saw the crowds of beauties who come all the way from the “big smoke” every week to pay us their devoirs.

2.2-: Of Thursday 28th August 1862:
—the Dodder is one of the three main rivers in Dublin:

August 26th.
[…] The Lord Lieutenant is at present in England; when in Dublin, he often took a trip down to see us accompanied by the rank beauty and fashion of the “big smoke;” but lately, I fancy there’s a great falling off in the number of our visiters. The only reason I can assign for this want of courtesy is, that I understand the fair ladies of the metropolis never stir an inch here, there, or anywhere—to the Curragh of Kildare or the Lakes of Killarney, no, not a peg, bazaars, fairs, cattle shows, flower shows, or any other shows, may each and all go on as they will: not one of the Dublin elite would venture beyond the banks of the Dodder, unless escorted by his Excellency and staff.

2.3-: From The Slang Dictionary; or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and “Fast” Expressions of High and Low Society. Many with Their Etymology, and a Few with Their History Traced (London: John Camden Hotten, 1864):
—here, the expression is the smoke:

SMOKE, London. Country-people when going to the metropolis frequently say, they are on their way to the SMOKE; and Londoners when leaving for the country say, they are going out of the SMOKE.

2.4-: From Chapter VI of Hector Ashley, by Francis Mason, published in The South London Press (London, England) of Saturday 16th March 1867:

“She’s all right, doctor; as safe as the bank, under lock and key up stairs”—the speaker pointed upwards as he spoke. “But she’s as sour as a Spaniard, and wont [sic] speak a word if it was to save her life.”
“No matter, captain; she’ll be all the easier taken care of. A woman’s first weapon is her tongue, and when that is quiet she’s half conquered.”
“Very true, doctor; but what are you going to do with her?”
“Well, that depends”—the doctor was wary, and did not like to let even his friends know too much. “But, first, I want you to let me have a boat and a couple of your stout fellows, and as the tide is turned we shall have it with us to London. A sovereign apiece for those who come with us.”
“All right, doctor, you shall have what you want. Here Sandy and you Tom, get ready the four-oar. The doctor and his friend here have got a sweetheart they want to take on the quiet to the big smoke. You understand?”
“Ay, ay, sir.”

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