There are numerous theories about the origin of the term. Before World War I, the term "digger" was widely used in Australasia to mean a miner, and referring to a Kauri gum-digger in New Zealand. Renowned soldier and military historian, Captain Cyril Longmore 44th Battalion AIF, first recorded the Australian troops doing trench digging practice on Salisbury Plain prior to embarking to Turkey and being called "diggers" by their mates as the origin of the term. Another story for the origin of this term dates it to 25 April 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign. Following the landing at Gallipoli, General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote to General William Birdwood, the commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), adding in postscript: "P.S.—You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe."
However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that Hamilton's message is the reason why digger was applied to ANZAC troops in general. One other theory is the fact that ANZAC troops were especially good at digging tunnels between their own trenches and the enemies, and were regarded by both sides as diggers, one being derogatory and the other more in jest. The job of digging between the trenches was very hard, especially when both sides' diggers met in the tunnels. ANZACS believed that it was a compliment to be referred to as diggers, because it indicated you were good at a very difficult job.
W. H. Downing, in Digger Dialects (1919), a glossary of words and phrases used by Australian personnel during the war, says that Digger was first used to mean a New Zealand or Australian soldier in 1916. It appears to have become popular among New Zealand troops before being adopted by Australians. The word was not in wide use amongst soldiers until 1917.
While New Zealanders would call each other "Digger", all other nationalities, including Australians, tended to call them "Kiwis". The equivalent slang for a British soldier was "Tommy" from Tommy Atkins. However, while the Anzacs would happily refer to themselves as "Diggers", British soldiers generally resented being called "Tommy".
Between 1998 and 2003, the term was used in the name of a team in the Victorian Football League, the Bendigo Diggers. This was partly in reference to Bendigo's history as a centre of the gold-mining industry. The team changed its nickname to "Bombers" when it became aligned to Essendon. In 2001, Athletics Australia suggested that it would use "Diggers" as the nickname of the Australian athletics team. The proposal was withdrawn after a public outcry and protest from the Returned and Services League of Australia.
- Ramson, W. S.; Downing, W. H.; Arthur, J. R. (1990). W. H. Downing's Digger dialects. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-553233-3.
- Australian War Memorial reading list
- Ross, Jane (1985). The myth of the digger: the Australian soldier in two World Wars. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger. ISBN 0-86806-038-0.
- Laugesen, Amanda (November 2003). "Aussie Magazine and the Making of Digger Culture During the Great War". NLA News (National Library of Australia) XIV (2). http://nla.gov.au./pub/nlanews/2003/nov03/article4.html.
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