Is Sheila Australian or Irish? Some sites say Irish and some say Australian.
Let’s just say Sheila used to be Irish, but years ago the word was transported from Ireland to Australia and the word is now as Australian as, dare I say it, Bruce.
Some people feel the word carried derogatory attitudes towards women and some women called Sheila have changed their names because of this.
Sheila was once fairly common in Ireland, but it had some different spellings.
G.A. Wilkes in Exploring Australian English says Sheila was a babe. I presume he means she was good looking, but he doesn’t explain.
My book Insults and Vulgarities, I use when I am upset with somebody, says Sheila is half of Sheila and Bruce. I knew I read Bruce somewhere.
John (“Nino”) O’Grady puts it nicely in Aussie English when he says “we’re proud of our sheilas”. He goes in to say “you won’t find better lookers anywhere”.
Bill Hornadge spoils it a bit, but I can’t use his illustrations because this newspaper’s editor might get upset.
But my big dictionary says in the first instance “Australian and New Zealand colloquial”.
It says it became assimilated after Irish use.
My Illustrated Australian National Dictionary puts the first use as March 22, 1828, in the Sydney Monitor. It spells the word as Shela.
In the early days, many Irish came here – either willingly or unwillingly – and the word sheila seemed to have been adopted by this country, to the extent that sheila has been associated with Australia the same way that Paddy retains its Irish connections.
The word seems not to have made a big impact on the Australian language at that time. Morris’s Dictionary of Australian Words, published in 1896, made no mention of sheila.
Sidney J. Baker’s masterpiece called The Australian Language (my copy 1966) mentioned the word many times. He also mentioned shaler, another early term for sheila.
The Times literary supplement of 1976 referred to the “nude sheilas” from the brush of artist Norman Lindsay. No wonder other women didn’t like the word sheila. Actually, Lindsay was quite a good artist, if you like his choice of subjects.
My big dictionary says sheila, “now Australian and New Zealand colloquial”, means a girl, a young woman, a girlfriend. I would have thought, from that description, that all women past the age of, say, 40 would have been delighted if somebody called them a sheila.
To muddy the waters, however, G. A. Wilkes in his Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, dated 1978, said that although the word sheila was not derogatory, “no woman would refer to herself as a sheila”.
An Australian woman in Scotland embarrassed fellow tourists when she berated an entertainer for calling her a sheila. He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.
Years ago, the Catholic Communications Centre in Sydney caused a furore when it aired some “ocker” television advertisements. One line said: “Jesus had fed 5000 blokes, that’s not counting all the sheilas and kids.” But the advertisements were soon withdrawn because Australians apparently were not ready for a display of ockerism.
If there was one thing that turned women off the word sheila, it was a ditty that I still remember from my younger days. It went something like: “Half a pound of Mandy Rice; half a pound of Keeler. Put them together and what have you got; a pound of sexy sheila.”
If you don’t understand, ask your parents.
I know a woman who changed her name from Sheila. She preferred Sam.