This chapter is on Australian English. I hope you like it.
George Bernard Shaw once described the British and the Americans as “two nations divided by the same language”. If that applies to the Brits and the Yanks, this also applies equally to Yanks and Australians.
Generally, because most Australians watch a fair bit of American TV and films, the average Australian will understand almost anything you say. However, you may find some difficulties understanding everything said by an Australian, at least in terms of particular words.
In most cases, when a difference exists between the British word for anything, and the American word, the British word is the preferred one for use in Australia (at least in most cases). Australians will understand the American word, both terms will be considered acceptable to use, but the British word will be preferred. For example, a pair of trousers will be held up with braces, not suspenders. (In Australia, as in Britain, suspenders are part of a lady’s lingerie, not a man’s suit.) Similarly, when travelling between floors of a high-rise building, one takes the lift, rather than the elevator.
There are many good websites that provide a list of some of the obvious differences in vocabulary. Here’s one of them: https://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/british-american.htm .
With this, don’t worry if you use an American term and an Australian explains to you, in shocked tones, “Oh, but we say biscuit here.” Your Australian friend is merely taking the mickey (a term I’ll explain later in this chapter). Taking the mickey out of Yanks is something Australians enjoy doing, almost as much as taking the mickey out of Poms (another term I’ll explain). No harm is intended.
There are two other clearly British influences on the Australian use of the English language.
· The first is that Australians mostly follow British spelling conventions: colour/odour/labour (except in the name of the political party), centre, programme, realise, privatisation, arse, ….
· The second clearly British influence is that the final letter of the alphabet is pronounced zed, rather than zee.
As well, Australia has its own slang. One website with a good collection of Australian slang terms is: https://www.australianexplorer.com/slang/ .
For any Yank recently arrived in Australia, I’d recommend going easy on using Australian slang.
For one thing, much of this slang is generally used much more by some Australians than by others:
· more likely rural than urban or suburban;
· more likely working class than middle class;
· more likely older males than women of any age or young people of either gender; and
· more likely Australian-born than a new arrival.
If this slang isn’t used much among the Australians with whom you relate, your use of it will seem a bit artificial and forced.
And in any event (and please note my distinction between my use of the words Yank and Yankee in the introduction to this book), a recently-arrived Yank overdosing on Aussie slang sounds about as ridiculous as a Yankee freshman at, say, Duke or Sewanee returning home to New Jersey for Christmas break speaking with “just the cutest li’l ol’ Southern drawl y’all ever did hear”, merely on the basis of spending a single semester south of the Mason-Dixon line.
This chapter will have a section of some useful Australian phrases, but please – for the sake of your own cred – go easy on the Aussie slang.
One thing Australians inherited from the Brits is rhyming slang, a style of slang first developed by London Cockneys.
In rhyming slang, a word is replaced by a phrase where the last word rhymes with the original word: phone becomes dog and bone; price becomes curry and rice; feet becomes plates of meat.
In the original Cockney rhyming slang, frequently the rhyming word is dropped and the first word is used for the original word. If, for example, you wish to know how much something costs, you ask the shop assistant “What’s the curry?” This isn’t used quite as much in Australian rhyming slang.
For a few more examples of rhyming slang used in Australia, see the website: http://www.alldownunder.com/australian-slang/dictionary-rhyming.htm .
Another example of Australian rhyming slang can be seen in calling someone a merchant banker, even if he has no connection with any financial services industry. In this case, merchant banker is rhyming slang for wanker. (And I’ll say more about this in my later chapter on insults.)
Traditionally, the rhyming slang term for Yank was septic tank. This dates back to the Second World War, when a large number of US service personnel were stationed in Australia, and when Australian and US troops were frequently rivals for the attention of the same young ladies. (It was also at a time when septic tanks were far more commonly used for the disposal of sewage.) I have never heard the term septic tank used for an American by any Australian, other than on TV dramas about the Second World War.
Australians enjoy shortening words, even if the words aren’t terribly long to begin with. Traditionally, Australians shorten words by taking the first syllable of a word and adding either “o” or “ie”/“y” afterwards, depending on what sounds better. As a result, we have such common terms as:
· arvo: afternoon,
· barbie: barbeque, both the social event and the grill on which the meat is cooked, (In this case, it has nothing to do with the popular doll.)
· bikie: motorcyclist,
· bikkie: biscuit, (Please don’t confuse bikies with bikkies.)
· brekkie: breakfast,
· cardie: cardigan,
· chardie: Chardonnay, (Again, please don’t confuse cardies with chardies, although you can drink one while wearing the other.)
· Chrissie: Christmas,
· Commo: Communist (Remember them???)
· footy: football, both the game and the ball used in it,
· fundo: fundamentalist,
· garbo: garbage collector, (Nothing to do with the actress.)
· journo: journalist,
· parmie: parmigiana (In recent decades, the chicken parmie – normally oversized - has become the Great Australian Pub Meal.)
· pollie: politician,
· Salvo or Sallie: a member of The Salvation Army,
· surfie: a person who surfs,
· tradie: a tradesperson of any sort (plumber, carpenter, electrician …),
· truckie: a truckdriver,
· Vinnies: the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
And there are many, many others.
Sometimes the shortened words are used as insults. Abo (for Aborigine), lezzo (for lesbian), and reffo (for refugee) are almost always used as insults. Unless you really, really, REALLY want to be regarded as a bigoted buffoon, don’t use these words.
Seppo is supposedly the short form for septic tank, the wartime rhyming slang term for Yank. Again, as with septic tank, I’ve only heard seppo used in wartime TV dramas.
Some Australians see bloke as the essentially Aussie term for an adult, male human, as opposed to the American word guy. I think it’s more complicated than that.
Firstly, bloke was a British word long before it was an Australian one.
Secondly, both bloke and guy have been truly international words for a long time.
· As British a writer as W.S. Gilbert wrote in the 1880s (in The Mikado) of “a lady from the provinces who dresses like a guy” (and “who doesn’t think she dances but would rather like to try”).
· Similarly, as American a writer as Cab Calloway wrote in the 1930s (in his song Minnie the Moocher) of Minnie’s boyfriend being “a bloke named Smokey” (whom Minnie loved “even though he was cokey”.)
Thirdly, the various colloquial terms for adult, male humans (including bloke, guy, dude, chap, and geezer) all describe different sorts of men. In particular, a bloke is a man of a working-class background (or, at least, working-class pretensions), sport-mad, a petrolhead, and with a reputation (at least in his own mind) as a competent all-round home handyman. A bloke is the sort of man who, at the end of his life, would be euphemistically described in his obituary or eulogy as a “man’s man” (i.e., drinks like a journo, swears like a cop, smokes like a 1970s cabdriver, and farts like a Labrador).
Bloke may not always be the most useful term to describe an individual man, even if there are some cultural pressures in Australia to do so.
Even if it’s supposed to be the standard Aussie slang word for a woman, never describe a woman as a Sheila. Just don’t. That is, unless Sheila happens to be her name. Trust me on this one.
Mate is another one of these words similar to “bloke”.
It used to refer to strong, enduring friendship. It referred to the strong friendship of shared hardship and shared hazards experienced on the goldfields of the 1850s, the battlefields of two World Wars, and the cycles of drought and flood experienced by rural people in Australia over the decades. Particularly among rural Australian males, working class Australian males, and war veterans, a mate was a friend for whom you’d make the same sacrifices as you would for a family member.
Today, the term mate has been greatly cheapened. If anyone calls you “Mate”, particularly if it’s someone you don’t know well, be careful. You may be the potential victim of a con artist’s sting. The person calling you “Mate” could well be trying to involve you in something illegal, or something unethical, or probably both. Be careful; be very careful.
The “Spectatatorial ‘The’”
If you go to a sporting event in Australia, while the players would say they are playing cricket or playing basketball, the fans in the stand would say they are watching the cricket or watching the basketball. This is the case with all sports, whether team or individual, and whether the spectators are watching the match at the stadium or at home on TV. You play tennis at your local court, but watch the tennis when Wimbledon’s on TV.
I call this the “spectatatorial ‘the’”. In my experience, the only other English-speaking country where this is used is Ireland. It’s one of my favourite bits of Aussie English.
Math vs. Maths / Sports vs. Sport
When the word mathematics is shortened, Americans say math, while Australians say maths.
But, on the other hand, Americans will use the plural word sports as a collective term for the various competitive physical actives, whether team-based or individual. Australians will use the singular word sport.
In both cases, the plural word is far more logical.
Mathematics includes a variety of disciples: basic counting, simple arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, statistical analysis …. So thus, the plural maths makes sense.
Similarly, there isn’t a single activity called sport, but the varied activities of tennis, golf, cricket, baseball, basketball, six-and-a-half codes of football, …. So thus, the plural sports makes sense.
You can do one of three things here (but try to be consistent).
· You can stick to the American usage, and say math and sports. (No one will really mind.)
· You can take a diplomatic “When in Rome” attitude, and say maths and sport. (No one will really notice.)
· You can yield to the force of sheer logic, and say both maths and sports.
Yanks, Poms, and Kiwis
Most Australian nicknames for people of various racial, ethnic, or religious groups are deliberately intended as insults and should not be used by people outside the group described by the term. This particularly applies to the word wog (used for any migrant from a non-English speaking background), as well for as any nickname used for Aboriginal people by people of a non-Aboriginal background. As I said earlier in this chapter, using such terms will mark a person out as a bigoted buffoon.
Three terms, however, are generally neutral, not usually intended as insults, and can be used freely:
· Yank, a term with which you’re already familiar,
· Pom (or Pommy), for the Brits,
· Kiwi, for New Zealanders.
These terms will become insults when:
· preceded by the word whinging (an Australian term for habitual complaining), or
· followed by the word bastard. (Please see my later chapter on swearing and insults).
Three particular linguistic atrocities that many Australians can’t really stand as well
There are a number of Australian linguistic quirks that annoy many Australians as well, particularly middle-class Australians.
“Haitch” instead of “aitch”: One of these practices is pronouncing the name of the letter “h” as haitch, rather than aitch.
One of the good things about this is that the use of haitch is one abomination of language that even the most hidebound Anglophile cultural conservative among Australians cannot blame the American media for inflicting upon Australian English.
Some say that haitch is a regional pronunciation from New South Wales. Others say that the use of haitch is a sign of having received an education in the Catholic school system. I disagree with both of these overly-prevalent theories. I actually see a British origin for the use of haitch.
In the UK, upwardly-mobile working class people tend to be very conscious of the need to rid their speech of working class mannerisms. One of the most obvious working class mannerisms of speech is dropping the letter “h” from the beginning of word. Thus, a working class person in the UK would describe the activities at Royal Ascot as being “‘orse races”.
In contrast an upwardly-mobile working class person would take great pains to sound their “h”s, even where an “h” is nowhere to be found. Thus, a working class Brit with middle class pretensions would say that one of the places where horse racing takes place is “Royal Hascot”. (And what better place to add a superfluous “h” than at the beginning of the name of the letter itself, thus aitch becomes haitch.)
I believe the use of haitch among some Australians is a holdover from this British practice.
“Me” instead of “my”: Another Australian linguistic gaffe is the use of “me” as a possessive pronoun. “I’m looking for me glasses. Have you seen them?” This usage is also of British origin and is common in the speech of working class Brits.
When confronted with either haitch or the possessive me, do not correct an Australian who uses either term (unless the Australian is a child whose middle-class parents would have a fit if they heard their child mangling the language).
In any country, it is very discourteous and demeaning for an adult to correct the grammar or pronunciation of any other adult. If a Yank does so in Oz, you run the risk of being considered not only a whinging Seppo bastard, but a bloody snob as well. Just ensure, on your own part, that you always say aitch and my, and that you do not even jokingly lapse into haitch or the possessive me.
“Youse” instead of “you”: One linguistic error that can possibly be blamed on (at least some) Yanks is the use of youse by some Australians as the plural of you.
Now, in an earlier use of the English language, in the age of Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Bible, you was the plural form of such older words as thou, thee, thy, and thine. However, in the centuries between Shakespeare’s day and our own, you has done double duty as both a singular and a plural pronoun.
For some Australians, youse has entered the language as the plural form of you, in the same way that youse is used in some B-grade gangster movies from the 1940s, as a representation of the speech of working class people in some parts of the New York metropolitan area. (Personally, growing up in the deeply working class Bayonne, New Jersey, close to NYC, I’ve never heard youse ever used, except in old gangster movies on TV, until I’ve lived in Oz.)
In my experience, the best way for a Yank to respond to youse is to do so in an American way, and take it as an invitation to say y’all. Now, I think y’all has a much nicer sound to the ears than youse. Most Aussies would think so as well once they get used to it. If you (or y’all!) happen to be either Southern or African-American, this would be pretty natural anyway. But whatever your background, y’all would work. (If you’re from western Pennsylvania, you may want to say yinz, but that could be confusing, and, besides, y’all sounds prettier than either yinz or youse.).
The easiest way for a Yank to help Aussies to get rid of the annoyance of youse is not through linguistic pedantry, but by promoting the profound joys of y’all.
Traps for the inexperienced: avoiding unintentional embarassment
There are some words and phrases which, when used innocently by an unsuspecting American, will cause even a well-bred Australian to roar with mock indignation, followed by uncharitable hoots of laughter. Avoid these terms. (By the way, the Australian meaning of each of these expressions is also the British meaning. File that away in your cranium somewhere.)
To “root”: A discerning American sports fan will “root” for such teams as the Mets, the Steelers, the Jazz, the Penguins, and the mighty Leopards of Lafayette College. In Australia, a fan “barracks” for the team of his/her choice. In Australia, to “root” is a slang term (and a fairly coarse one) for sexual intercourse. Thus, rooting for a team may imply taking your enthusiasm for the game to a rather extreme level.
“Bum”: In the United States a “bum” is a person whose honesty, work ethic, sobriety, morality, and personal hygiene are all highly questionable. In Australia (and in Britain), “bum” is a slang term for buttocks.
“Fanny”: One term used for a person’s buttocks in the United States is “fanny”. When Australians speak of a “fanny”, they refer to a vagina. (This term is used less frequently by Australians than by Brits, but Australians will still be uncharitably amused when an unsuspecting Yank speaks of sitting on one’s fanny, particularly if the person described as sitting in this difficult and uncomfortable position is male.)
To “piss off” / to be “pissed”: In the US, if a person is “pissed off” or “pissed”, she/he is angry. In Australia (and the UK), to be “pissed” means to be drunk, very drunk (but not as drunk as if you’re legless). As well, if you tell an Australian to “piss off,” you’re saying “Get the hell out of here, now!”
Now, every Australian knows the American meaning of each of these terms. They’ve watched enough American TV programmes and movies to know what you mean. When they respond to these words in a shocked way, they are merely “taking the mickey” out of you, to use a term I’ll discuss later in this chapter. I find it’s much more fun to deprive them of this uncharitable pleasure by avoiding these avoidable gaffes than it is to squirm at their mock indignation.
Originally, I was planning to reflect on bloody in my later chapter on swearing and insults. However, bloody (sometimes called “The Great Australian Adjective”) has evolved in recent decades into a reasonably unoffensive term – with no more of an in-your-face obscene impact than hell or damn - for most people (unless one happens to be a teetotal Presbyterian spinster).
For many Australians, bloody serves as an all-purpose word of disappointment and rebuke. A person can use bloody both to describe the political party (or footy team) she/he supports as well as the other side. When an Australian refers to “the bloody ALP” and “the bloody Libs” (or “bloody Collingwood” and “bloody Carlton”) in the same sentence, the listener need to discern from the context which bloody refers to the flawed but fundamentally decent members of the speaker’s preferred party (or team), and which bloody refers to the thugs and felons on the other side.
Bloody also serves as a general intensifier for any description, positive or negative. Something that’s “bloody good” is better than something that’s merely “very good”. Something that’s “bloody bad” is far worse than “very bad”.
Australians sometimes give each other ironic nicknames. A chubby individual can be called “Slim”. Someone tall can be “Shorty”, while his short friend can be “Lofty”. A redhead is frequently called “Bluey”, while “Snowy” may have jet-black hair. Meanwhile, if a used-car dealer or a politician is nicknamed “Honest Harry”, be very careful in your dealings with him.
Sometimes the Australian practice of putting “o” at the end of a word applies to names. Johnno, Jacko, Davo, and Stevo can be popular nicknames. (This usually happens only with male names.)
Some names, particularly those with an “r” in them, can be transformed into a nickname by adding a “zza”. Gary becomes Gazza, Barry becomes Bazza, Darren becomes Dazza, Jerry or Jeremy becomes Jezza, and Sharon (the only female name I’ve seen this really work with) becomes Shazza.
Some surnames can be become nicknames by adding an “ie” at the end. This usually only happens with short names which originate in the British Isles and which don’t end with an “ie” sound. It works with Jonesie, Smithie, and Walshie. It doesn’t work nearly as well with Murphyie, Kellyie, Kowalskiie, Goldmanie, or Papadopoulosie.
A handful of particularly useful Aussie words and phrases
These are a handful of particularly useful Australian phrases. While I’ve said earlier that traditional rural Aussie slang should not be overused by the newcomer, these phrases (among others) are useful for communicating in Australia, however recent an arrival you are.
“G’day”: G’day is a contraction of “Good Day”. It is an all-purpose greeting, pronounced “gidday” in Australia and “gudday” in New Zealand. It is a direct translation of such classic European greetings as “Bonjour”, “Guten Tag”, “Buenos Dias” and “Buon Giorno”.
“Dodgy”: Dodgy can refer to an item of equipment (car, computer, TV, microwave, …) that doesn’t work well, and which really was faulty from the moment it came off the production line. It can also refer to food which has spoiled. It can also refer to a businessperson or public official who is either incompetent, corrupt, or (more likely) both. If something (or someone) is dodgy, he/she/it is irreparably and irredeemably faulty.
“Wowser”: This is an Australian term for a killjoy, for a person who is overly critical of the lifestyles of others, particularly involving alcohol or sex. Some people say that “wowser” is actually an acronym for “We Only Want Social Evils Reformed”, but the word was already in broad use in Australia well before the acronym was developed.
“Not the sharpest knife in the drawer / sharpest tool in the shed / brightest crayon in the box” … and … a “few sandwiches short of a picnic / few sausages short of a barbeque”: If you wanted to describe a person as being not exactly stupid but lacking in logic, common sense, or social sophistication, a classic Australian way to describe this person’s situation would be to say that he’s “not the sharpest knife in the drawer” (or the sharpest tool in the shed) or that she’s “not the brightest crayon in the box”. A related expression is that the person is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, or a few sausages short of a barbeque. The usefulness of this expression lies in the fact that you can create your own variations on these themes. Some of my own favourites are “not the spiciest curry on the menu”, “not the driest wine in the cellar”, “a few tenors short of a choir” (admittedly a common dilemma faced by most choirs I’ve known), and “a few salamis short of a deli”.
A “legend / legend in his own lunchtime”: To call someone a legend means they’re very, very good at what they do and everybody knows it. Sometimes, legend is used ironically, such as when you call someone “a legend in his own lunchtime”, with the implication being that he boasts about his accomplishments at length, but that you don’t share his high opinion of himself. In the speech of some younger people, “You’re a legend!” can merely mean “Thank you.”
“Legless”: Legless means drunk. If a person is legless, he/she is far more inebriated than if merely “pissed”.
A “license to print money” … and … to “charge like a wounded bull”: If you’re in an occupation where you have the ability to set your own prices and the public is mostly willing to pay your price for the service you offer, you’re said to have “a license to print money”. If you’re in such an occupation, and you have a reputation for charging much more than your competitors, you’ll have a reputation of “charging like a wounded bull”.
A “tragic”: A fan (in the areas of sport, entertainment, the arts, …) whose enthusiasm becomes excessive, to the point of being a bit obsessive, is called a tragic. Their knowledge of the game (or the art form) is impressive, even if they are regarded as a bit of a bore by their friends if you get them holding forth on their pet area. Such a fan is called a cricket tragic, a tennis tragic, an opera tragic, …, etc.
A “colourful identity”: Whenever a journalist needs to imply that a public figure is suspected of having links with organized crime, rather than saying so outright (in the interests of avoiding either a lawsuit or a “hit”), the public figure is often described as a “colourful Melbourne sporting identity”, a “colourful Sydney racing identity”, a “colourful Gold Coast business identity”, etc. In recent years, the phrase “colourful identity”, without the additional descriptions, has occasionally been used.
To “take the mickey / take the piss”: I’ve mentioned these related phrases a few times already. To take either the mickey or the piss means to engage in lampoon, parody, or satire, particularly when the extraction of either the urine or of the Michael is so low-key or subtle that the person being lampooned is not initially aware of the satire. These phrases are originally of British origin.
There are numerous other important Australian words and phrases, many of which I’ll mention in later chapters, particularly in the chapter on swearing and insults and in the chapter on food.