Recently I gave a talk on Australian slang. A woman in the audience asked if I agreed that sheilawas a derogatory word to use about a woman. Her father had told her never to use it. When a UK relative, picking up on what he thought was humorous Australiana, referred to her as a sheila, she had to ask him to desist because it was offensive to her.
For me sheila mostly inhabits the phrase blokes and sheilas which I thought of as possibly still used in the bush, but definitely a nod to traditional Aussie English. Harmless. So I had a look at some evidence of use of the word and found some surprising things.
The Australian National Dictionary gives the first citation for the word:
1828 Monitor (Sydney) 22 Mar. 1953/2 Many a piteous Shala stood wiping the gory locks of her Paddy, until released from that duty by the officious interference of the knight of the baton.
There are many early variant spellings of sheila, some of them perhaps attempting to capture the sound of the name in an Irish pronunciation. There is shaler, shelagh, sheeler, shellah, shela, and shelah. We seem to have settled on the spelling sheila post World War I. In Irish tradition Sheelah was the wife of St Patrick and so St Patrick’s Day was followed by Sheelah’s Day, a tradition which was maintained in Australia in colonial times. There was a lot of drinking associated with both celebrations.
It is post World War II that sheila seems to take a nosedive. The citations show that it is definitely a word used mostly by men, not women, and that the meaning ranges from a neutral ‘woman’ to ‘woman viewed as a sex object’ and finally to ‘woman who is a prostitute, either professional or “amateur”’. Often sheila in its neutral form had an adjective attached. You could be a classy sheila or a grouse sheila, a flash sheila or a bonzer sheila or an old sheila. Men expressed contempt for other men by calling them a bunch of sheilas.
In the following passage Jimmy forgets himself and uses the word sheila in his admiring comments to Helen, the woman he has already described as a classy sheila. She is North Shore and he is working class.
"Jimmy, Jimmy," she said in a husky, panting sort of voice.
I started undoing her frock and she didn't stop me.
"I've always wanted someone like you," I told her. "I used to see drawings in the magazines of sheilas, women like you and-"
Mystall crikey! Something went wrong, then, and. she started
1951Jimmy Brockett Dal Stivens
Helen reacts very badly to being called a sheila and guesses the kind of magazine he has in mind, so she is out!
This one is neutral but it is still man-talk.
Promptly claiming a dance with this young American lass (whose heart she told me later, was doing flip-flops), I returned to my friend, Chief Officer Patrick Grant, now of Sydney.
``Nice looking sheila,'' he said.
``I'm going to marry her,'' I replied; and I did.
1991 Messenger Smogg, Samuel
There was generally the notion that a sheila was easygoing and relaxed in matters of sex.
Whenever he got on to a widgie or sheila who was a good
thing for sure, his old woman let him bring her home and sleep with her.
1965 A Bunch of Ratbags William Dick
The 1970s still has the notion of sheila meaning prostitute:
Just as they did another cab passed and Annie stuck her head out the back window. She called out "See you Bob." The bloke in the cab with her was hanging all over her on the way back to her room for a slice of stalk. Bob said, "She's fairly expensive. Costs you $10 for her, $2 for the room plus the cab fare both ways, and its an extra $10 for her to take her bra off. Regulars don't have to pay for the bra bit. Talk about a rough sheila."
1975 Bush ContractorsBluey
Even when the comments are complimentary there is always the suggestion that the woman is a sex object.
"Sure and you could do worse than hang your hat up to sweet
Nellie," Mick O'Connell advised. "She's a bonzarina sheila, like a
colleen from old Ireland. She'll make a cosy little bedmate for
some lucky bloke one of these days."
1950 Power without Glory Frank Hardy
By the end of the 1970s sheila had been replaced by bird as the more fashionable tem that men used for woman, and sheila was definitely dated. It is only used in this extract because Grafton is trying to be the stereotypical Aussie for the benefit of the Pom.
'What do you do, old chap?' RC asked.
'I write poems and try to fuck sheilas,' said Grafton, playing
The Australian to the hilt. 'And the odd bloke too, if the truth
be known,' he roared, patting Dicky's ample behind.
1987 All About Anthrax Ross Fitzgerald
By the 1980s the feminist movement had made it difficult for men to engage in this kind of language, at least in the cities, and sheila dropped out of sight, except in the blokes and sheilas phrase trotted out as Australiana.
However in the bush there may still be some unreconstructed males who speak in the old way as this citation shows:
"The way she swings her arse no questions I reckon she's a sheila," the Chicken said seriously.
2008 Buffaloes – Life and Adventures in Arnhem Land C. Warburton