Bum steer

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To give a bum steer is a predominantly Australian and New Zealand idiom which is evident from the 19th century use and means to provide information that is not correct,[1] was not found helpful, or caused one to be led astray. It does not imply either intentional or unintentional provision of information,[2] and is not generally regarded as pejorative.

Bounty (1978 ship) showing the stern and rudder of a typical sailing vessel of the 19th century

The "steer" in the idiom is not originally related to the bovines.[3] Its origin is suggested to be derived from the American maritime humour of trying to steer a vessel in reverse where its stern construction,[4] in the 19th century, lacked the streamlines of the bow, and is therefore prone to miscalculated manoeuvring when using the rudder.[5] The manoeuvring was accomplished through shouted instructions on the wharf to the wheelhouse where the steering was performed, via intermediary deckhands,[6] and was therefore prone to misunderstanding owing to the wide variety of nationalities employed on United States merchant vessels during the 19th century.

Bounty (1960 ship) showing steering wheel and its location relative to the stern on a vessel of the 19th century

The idiom, as used in Australia and New Zealand, reached the United States in the 1920s[7] probably after exposure to Australian troops on the Western Front, and is recorded in the UK since 1944.[8]

In the United States the expression refers to a poorly conditioned young bullock.[9]

Citations and notes[edit]

  1. ^ for example, p.137, Kitching
  2. ^ p.468, Urdang
  3. ^ p.49, Smith
  4. ^ p.1619, The Chambers Dictionary
  5. ^ p.73, Day
  6. ^ deckhand
  7. ^ p.125, Barnhart, Steinmetz
  8. ^ p.32, Fergusson, Partridge, Beale
  9. ^ p.43, Kirkpatrick, Schwarz


  • Smith, Chrysti M., Verbivore's Feast: A Banquet of Word & Phrase Origins, Farcountry Press, 2003
  • Kirkpatrick, E. M., Schwarz, C. M., The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms, Wordsworth Editions, 1993
  • Fergusson, Rosalind, Partridge, Eric, Beale, Paul, Shorter Slang Dictionary: From the Work of Eric Partridge and Paul Beale, Routledge, 1994
  • Kitching, G. N., Wittgenstein and Society: Essays in Conceptual Puzzlement, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003
  • Urdang, Laurence, The Oxford Thesaurus: An A-Z Dictionary of Synonyms, Clarendon Press, 1991
  • Barnhart, Robert K., Steinmetz, Sol, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988
  • Day, Thomas Fleming, Rudder, Fawcett Publications, 1958
  • The Chambers Dictionary, Edinburgh, Allied Publishers, 2007