Tuck and tucker

Tucker is a distinctly Australian word at the very centre of our culture. Over the last decades we have been slowly learning to appreciate the Aboriginal food heritage that we call, bush tucker. It is the bush food that First Nations Australians gathered, hunted and cooked before British settlers brought farming and livestock. We also sing about a tuckerbag in Waltzing Matilda. The roguish swagman has used it to stash the stolen livestock (the jumbuck, Australian for lamb).

However, the word derives not from Australian sources but from the 18th century English slang word, tuck. It has survived in Britain, Australia and other Commonwealth countries (India, South Africa, and New Zealand). School canteens across the Commonwealth are known as tuck shops.

Two early references are John Badcock’s Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf (1823):

Blow-out – a good dinner will blow-out a man’s tripes like any thing; so will a heavy supper. Either, or any other gormandising meal, is also ‘a famous tuck-out’;

Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) describing life at Rugby School gives a mention:

The Slogger looks rather sodden, as if he didn’t take much exercise and ate too much tuck.

The origin of the word is a family of shopkeepers in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thomas ran Tuck’s Coffee House in the 1780s in the university city of Norwich in the UK (it had a library for its customers). In 1820 William Joseph is listed as a confectioner in Duncan Place, Hackney, just outside London. His son Thomas James Tuck (see below) is identified in 1846 as a baker in the same street.

So we assume that young gentlemen in the boarding schools of England (not famous for their food) such as Rugby, Harrow and Eton received food packages bought from Tuck’s in London and therefore the food got the nickname. The word took off and was adopted across the British Empire, hence tuck shops in widespread use.

But Australia has a much stronger connection. Thomas James and his brother William Frederick left London in 1852 and migrated to Australia, probably to take advantage of the Victorian gold rush of that time. William opened a confectionery shop in Melbourne and Thomas a similar shop in the goldfields. A painting in the National Gallery of Australia by Augustus Baker Pearce, The Myers Creek Rush – near Sandhurst (Bendigo) Victoria shows the shop with T J Tuck & Sons shown over the door.

So tuck becomes a word used by gentile boys in the boarding schools of England and tucker by the rather less gentile gold-diggers of the Victorian goldfields.