The colour of change: How teal became Australia’s word of the year

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is tealest of them all?

According to two Australian dictionaries, teal is the word, after independent MP Zali Steggall turned a colour that is not quite blue and not quite green into a term synonymous with a political movement.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre will today announce that its word of the year is teal.

Previously associated with a dark greenish-blue colour and ducks, it now has a unique meaning in Australian English, say the centre’s experts at the Australian National University.

A sea of teal surrounds independent candidate for Warringah Zali Steggall on her election night win in 2019. Credit:AAP

Teal is used in Australia to describe an independent political candidate or politician who advocates for action on climate change and more integrity in parliament.

Teal is also shortlisted to win the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2022, an online poll open to the public. The winning word will be announced on November 29.

Macquarie describes a teal candidate as generally ideologically moderate but with strong on views on integrity and climate change, and notes the colour is associated with their branding material.

Steggall, the member for Warringah who defeated former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2019, said turquoise and teal were chosen by her campaign as a way to stand out from the major parties who had a “ridiculous amount of signage”.

“The biggest problem that independents have always had is how to cut through,” she said. “Often major party candidates barely have to distinguish their own personal credentials because people are voting on a major party with a national policy platform, whereas independents are very much [voted] on their personal character and capabilities.”

She opted against the colour orange, which was already used by regional independents and activist group GetUp. Blue, green and red were already associated with the major parties.

Zali Steggall flanked by her fellow “teal” independents in Canberra.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“I was always looking at what colour resonates with the electorate, and it was that mix of a policy platform that is blue and green, and it was apt for me being a moderate centrist politician very focused on climate and environmental outcomes,” Steggall said.

Teal was a positive colour, one she liked and had worn, and it was associated with healthy oceans and nature, something her beachside electorate cared about.

“Teal has become a shorthand for independent centrists, which is good. I think that is useful. Everyone has used variations of these colours.”

Mark Gwynn, senior researcher at ANU’s National Dictionary Centre, traced the popularisation of the word teal to Steggall’s 2019 campaign. Before that, the only usage he could find was by a New Zealand political group that called itself the Teal Deal.

What was interesting to Gwynn was that many so-called teal candidates did not use this colour in their campaign. “The colour came to represent a movement of independent and strong female voices taking on the establishment.”

Allegra Spender, the independent member for Wentworth, said she was “tickled teal” to have the word recognised and redefined. “It is a sign of how successful the popular movement that elected us has been. The popular demand for integrity, decency and climate action is not just redefining words, it has the potential to redefine our politics, and that something I’m very proud of,” she said.

The Australian National Dictionary includes words and phrases that have originated in Australia ranging from “larrikin” and “cobber”, to “ants pants”, “ambo”, “mad as a cut snake” and “wobbly”.

Other words on the shortlist this year include “cooker” (someone who protests against vaccine mandates, lockdowns and other issues); “eshay” (a teenager or young man who is part of a group associated with anti-social behaviour); and “shrinkflation” (a reduction in the size, quantity or quality of a pre-packaged product while its pricing remains the same or increases).

Macquarie Dictionary’s shortlist includes “spicy cough”, “quiet quitting”, “truth telling” and “hidden homeless”. Other words on the shortlist with less obvious meanings include “prebunking” (challenging the veracity of misinformation), and “skin hunger”, the desire for physical hunger that may have arisen during isolation and lockdown.

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