Where did the term eshay come from?

Mark Gwynn

Australian National Dictionary Centre

The 2022 Netflix television series Heartbreak High introduced many people to the Australian word eshay. The word puzzled some Australians, and most of the international audience of the award-winning series, who never heard it before.

One of the central characters in this high school drama is a school kid named Ca$h. He deals drugs, steals cars and wears distinctive brand label clothes including Adidas and Nike polo shirts. To similar aged school kids from metropolitan areas, he is immediately identifiable as an eshay.

Our working definition for eshay at the Australian National Dictionary is "a young man who is part of a group associated with anti-social behaviour and characterised by the wearing of certain brand label clothing".

When the original version of Heartbreak High appeared on Australian television screens in 1994, the word eshay didn’t exist. It’s not until 2002 that we first find evidence for it in the form eshay lad. This provides an interesting clue to the origins of the term because is often used synonymously in Australian English for eshay.

While meaning a boy or young man is documented from the 1500s, it is not until the 1980s that we find a more specific sense emerging in British English refering to a young man who is a bit of lout - a boorish type who gets around in a group. This sense of entered Australian English and came to refer to young men known for getting into trouble and wearing distinctive brand clothing, as well as other accoutrements such as bum bags. However, the origin of its accompanying epithet, eshay, is a little harder to pin down.

Around the time eshay lad appears, we find evidence for an exclamatory use of eshay as a way of expressing approval or gratitude. In this form it is often used in the plural form eshays where it can simply mean ’great’, ’excellent’. Examples from Twitter (’X’) for this use of the word include: ’ESHAYS got my first fishing rod’ and ’Getting a parking spot on John street, first round. Eshays’. This exclamatory sense provides us with some clue to the possible origin of the term.

The language used by eshays is often remarked upon. As well as the usual teenage slang we find the frequent use of pig Latin. For instance, we frequently see ’eshay lad’ in the form ’eshay adlay’ - the initial consonant, ’l’ in this case, is transferred to the end of the word and a vocalic syllable ’ay’ is added. It is possible that eshay originally evolved from a pig Latin form of ’yes’, hence its use as an exclamation. It has also been suggested that it is a pig Latin form of ’sesh’ referring to a session of smoking marijuana - an activity often associated with eshays.

Many comments about the character Ca$h expressed surprise at seeing a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of an eshay. Usually maligned by their peers, it is possible that eshay could be on a similar trajectory to acceptability, just as the once despised larrikin of the 19th century went from a young street hooligan to the lovable rogue of the 20th century.