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The meaning and origin of the expression: Never-never land

Never-Never land

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Never-Never land'?

A utopian dreamland.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Never-Never land'?

The meaning and origin of the term 'Never-Never land'.The term 'never-never land' is now usually applied with a sense of dismissiveness - used when someone is dreaming unrealistically about a utopian future.

Never-Never land is a real place though. The name was first recorded, in the late 19th century, describing the uninhabited regions of Australia - then called just 'The Never-Never'. The more remote outback regions of the Northern Territory and Queensland are still known by that name. This is as much a state of mind and a folk-memory that recalls the pre-settlement outback life with fondness as it is a precise geographical location.

The European emigrant's view of the 'Never-Never Land' was very different from that of the locals. The incomer saw it as somewhere you would never, never want to go. The earliest reference I can find to the name in print is in A. J. Boyd's Old Colonials, 1882:

"My soliloquy ends with the inquiry, 'What on earth is to be done in this wretched Never-never country?'"

In 1906 Henry Lawson published a poem - The Never-Never Country and in 1908, Jeannie Gunn published a popular autobiographical novel - 'We of the Never Never'. This was made into a film, starring Angela Punch McGregor, in 1982. In the text Gunn presents the contrary view as to how the place was named:

"Called the Never-Never, the Maluka loved to say, because they, who have lived in it and loved it Never-Never voluntarily leave it."

That's the same feeling used by later writers when they appropriated the term into their work as a metaphor for a fantasy land. In 1900, Israel Zangwill used the phrase in the title of a play, here described in the New York Dramatic Mirror, November 1900:

"At Wallack's on Tuesday evening Sarah Cowell Le Moyne supplemented The Greatest Thing in the World with the initial performance of The Moment of Death; or, The Never, Never Land, a drama in one act and three scenes, by Israel Zangwill."

Peter panOf course, the best-known use is in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, 1904:

Wendy: Where do you live now?
Peter: With the lost boys. They are the children who fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Never Land.

It is Barrie that brought the term to the everyday language and that's where we get the current meaning. Where did Barrie get it though - imagination or from Australia? 19th century emigrants' travels in Australia were well reported on back in England and, although Barrie's version is truncated to 'Never Land', it's unlikely that he was unaware of the Australian region when he coined the name for the play. It would have sounded remote and exotic to people in Edwardian England and it seems probable that Barrie adapted the name for use in the play.

The number of 'nevers' doesn't seem to be especially significant. In an early review, of a performance of Peter Pan in New York in 1905, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette dispenses with one and two and goes for three:

"When he [Peter Pan] was a very little fellow he ran away from the human world, and lived with the fairies in the Never Never Never land."

The dreamland utopia allusion of the phrase has been tarnished somewhat by the adoption by Michael Jackson of the name 'Neverland Valley' for his Californian ranch.

Another slightly less than positive use of the term 'never never' is its use as a name for payment by installments. This came about in the early 20th century. The reference here is to the apparently never-ending number of payments on a loan, and not in response to Barrie's play or from Australia.

In 1926 Edgar Wallace, in his novel More Educated Evans, described the term:

"Her uncle drove a taxi which he had purchased on the 'never never' system. You pay $80 down and more than you can afford for the rest of your life."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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