Hilarious Australian-English expressions you need to know

The Australians have understandably bristled at centuries of British disregard, and the British, in turn, have enjoyed joking about the Australians

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 1 Sep 2022, 9:20 PM

In the course of this column’s life we have examined at various times the influence of English of a startling variety of other languages, from French to Japanese. Of other English-speaking countries, we have explored the impact of America and Ireland. But what about the original British colony, the place where for decades convicted criminals were deported with no hope of return — Australia?

The Australians have understandably bristled at centuries of British disregard, and the British, in turn, have enjoyed joking about the Australians. A favourite topic is their accent, which is pretty distinctive. “What is a bison?” one riddle runs. Before you reply that it’s a bovine animal, kin to buffalo, often featured in stories about the American Wild West, the answer comes: “It’s what an Australian washes his face in.” For indeed, most Australians pronounce “basin” as “bison”, with the “ay” sound commonly rendered as “eye”. Another common joke is about the tourist injured in a bad accident who wakes up from a coma and melodramatically asks the Australian nurse, “Have I come here to die?” to which she replies cheerfully, “No, you came here yester-die.”

But pronunciations apart, Australia has a rich variety of distinctive expressions, some 7,000 of which — both words and idioms — are currently being considered for the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary. As a fascinating recent article in the New York Times describes it, Australian English is full of colourful terms that other varieties of English don’t use. “Few bricks short of a pallet”, for instance, refers to someone not quite alright in the head. An angry friend is said to be “mad as a cut snake”. A pug-ugly person might be described as having a “face like a bucket of smashed crabs”. Someone else, perhaps a person with a sour and drooping countenance, might have a “face like a half-sucked mango”. (Another variant: “face like a twisted sand shoe”, assuming you know what a sand shoe is – it’s a light canvas shoe with a rubber sole). All of these reflect the unique culture of a country very different from the “Mother Country” in which its language was born.

Those are delightful idioms, but Australian English also has a number of uniquely Australian expressions that, though not as colourful, belong exclusively to their country. Thus hard work, to an Australian, is “hard yakka” in the local language. The country’s criminal antecedents show up in expressions like “never dob in your mates” (for “never betray your friends by informing on them”) or “don’t rort the system” (don’t cheat or engage in fraud). Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison described his rival (and now successor) Anthony Albanese as a “loose unit”, a term uniquely Australian to describe someone as unreliable, uncouth, unpredictable (or all three). Another word for an uncouth person is “bogan”, though a bogan is now seen as an authentic Australian and a “fogan”, or “faux bogan”, is a bigger insult, while finding your “inner bogan” is an honourable objective. The indigenous aboriginal languages of the country have also given rise to words like “boomerang” and “kangaroo”, as well as the less widely known “billabong” (an Australian name for a stagnant pool or a dead-end water channel), “dingo” (a local species of wild dog) or “yabby” (an undefinable edible item). In turn, immigration into Australia has also impacted the language, as new communities of Australians have required new vocabularies to describe them— like “ABC” for Australian-born Chinese.

The Times tells us that the first edition of the Australian National Dictionary — a partnership between the Oxford English Dictionary and the Australian National University — came out in 1988, including only words and phrases that originated in Australia, or have a greater currency or special significance there. The first edition of the dictionary had 10,000 entries. That went up to 16,000 in the second, and now they are working on the third, which will have much to add. Might it include “selfie”, which the Oxford English Dictionary says first appeared in an Australian newsgroup online? There’s a debate raging: given how widespread the term has become, can it truly be considered uniquely Australian? We’ll have to wait for the new edition of the Dictionary to find out.


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