When I send an email to my non-Australian friends, sometimes I think I should include a glossary of terms. It’s common for me to receive a reply with “please explain” asterisks dotted throughout the document. I certainly know what “proper English” is. After all, I’m qualified to teach English as a second language. But when it comes to casual letters or conversations, I let my Aussieness show through and that’s when the fun begins.
In fact, it reminds me of when native Spanish speakers taught me their language and had a ball messing with my head. They’d teach me all sorts of loopy phrases that I innocently learnt and then tried out on their parents. The raised eyebrows and dropped jaws made me realise I’d just made a clanger. Mind you, my friends would be on the floor, rolling around in fits of laughter.
I do get the chance to turn the tables every now and again and yeah, I can see why my Spanish speaking friends found it so much fun. But when it comes to the serious stuff, like my writing, I need to really think about what I want to write and how I need to write it.
My main characters in my novels are Australian. I like putting an Aussie on the world stage as I find their personalities and lyrical way of speaking interesting and fun to play with. But there are some hazards. The last thing I want to do is have my characters sound like Crocodile Dundee. I love that movie and it did do a lot for Australian tourism, but seriously, we don’t speak like that. Nor do we go for a walkabout in the desert. Well, some people do, but it’s not a regular occurrence. I could go on and on about stereotypes, but that’s not this week’s topic so I better move on!
Because I want to dominate the world and have my books available in every country... actually, scrap that. I want to have them available in every galaxy (yes, sarcasm is a major part of being an Aussie), I have to make sure people can actually understand what I’m writing. If I fill the pages with Australian phrases and terms, no one will understand what I’m writing about. But if I don’t add the odd Aussie saying in, then people think my character is English or American. It’s a fine balance and that’s why I’m so thankful for my wonderful critique partners. They read my work with a non-Australian slant, and they’re smart enough to get what the slang means. But every now and then I put in a curly one that leaves them scratching their heads. It’s a constant balancing act and one I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on—now.
A lot of Australian slang derives from England, and of course there are many phrases and terms we use that are North American. As you know, Australia is a multi-cultural country, so we also have a lot of words that have been adapted from a myriad of nations. We enjoy adopting foreign words and turning them into our own. I do, however, feel for people who grace our shores for the first time, especially those who have English as a second language. Lina wrote a wonderful post about her adventure in learning English and how difficult it was. Throw some Aussie slang and a thick accent in, and you have a recipe for disaster. But rest assured, Aussies are a friendly bunch who are accustomed getting blank looks after we speak, so we’ll find another way to get the message across, even if it means getting out a piece of paper and crayons.
And of course, I couldn’t finish the post without sharing some of my favourite words and sayings. But be aware, some of these haven’t been used for decades. Go on, give them a whirl!
Cactus: something that is dead, e.g. the bloody TV is cactus
Cleanskin: A bottle of wine bought without the label on it. Usually bought from companies that have an abundance of a certain vintage of wine.
Coathanger: Sydney Harbour Bridge
Mad as a cut snake: very angry
Dag: technically the yucky bit that hangs off a sheep’s bum, but in Australia a dag is a funny person
Furphy: false or untrue e.g. she’s told the biggest furphy
Mystery bag: a sausage (also called a snag)
Nuff-nuff: not very intelligent
Rack off: go away (not that polite)
Root rat: someone constantly looking for sex
Screamer: someone who gets drunk easily e.g. “She’s a two pot screamer” refers to someone who gets drunk on two glasses of beer
Show pony: someone who dresses to impress
Tall poppies: successful people
Tall poppy syndrome: someone who talks badly about those successful people
Woop Woop: invented name for a small, unimportant town e.g. he lives out near Woop Woop
*Oh my, I am very busy