The call began as an Indigenous Australian custom – a loanword from the Dharuk, the original inhabitants of the Sydney area, and has now become widely used in Australia. It was known among White settlers there in colonial times and Watkin Tench refers to the Aborigines of Sydney calling to each other in this way.
One of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries hinges on the use of "cooee!". The Boscombe Valley Mystery is solved partly because, unlike everyone else, Holmes realises that it is an Australian word. This leads to a suspect.
An expression "within cooee of" has developed. It means "not far from", and seems to be confined to New Zealand and Australian English, and is often used in the negative sense (ie "not within cooee of" meaning not close to).
The word cooee has become a name of many organisations, places and even events. Perhaps the most historic of these was the Cooee March during the First World War. It was staged by 35 men from Gilgandra, New South Wales, 766 km northwest of Sydney, as a recruiting drive after enthusiasm for the war waned in 1915 with the first casualty lists. The men marched to Sydney calling "Cooee!" to encourage others to come and enlist. When they reached Sydney on 12 December, the group had grown to 277 men. To this day, Gilgandra holds a yearly Cooee Festival in October to commemorate the event. Other Cooee Festivals occur across Australia. Cooee is also the name of a suburb in the Tasmanian city of Burnie.
Richard White indicates the important means of demonstrating Australian nationality with the call taking on a consciously nationalistic meaning. He also documents its spread through Empire, to New Zealand and South Africa.