bum steer

A bum steer

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, was not found helpful, or caused one to be led astray. It does not imply either intentional or unintentional provision of information, and is not generally regarded as pejorative.

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

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

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

Citations and notes


  • 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

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