Word Wizards of Oz by Keith Hall, in ‘Vocabula Review,’ December 2004
Having an Australian accent is a mixed blessing. It sounds reassuringly normal in Australia, but can be a liability in the rest of the world. Some people love it, most people hate it, but few are unmoved by it. It always seems that no one knows what to do with Australian English. Australians often appear to be embarrassed by it; the English think it sounds like South African; South Africans think it sounds like New Zealandish; New Zealanders hate it; Americans are baffled by it; and Asians refuse to believe that it is English at all.
For a version of English that tries to take itself seriously, Australian English is often surprisingly funny and inventive. I was recently struck by an Australian T-shirt worn by an Asian girl in Singapore. Under the heading "Aussie English," it gave a list of useful Australianisms, starting with ‘barbie’(meal cooked outdoors), ‘bikkie’ (biscuit), and ‘brekkie’(first meal of the day). This walking dictionary highlighted one immediately noticeable characteristic of Australian English, its tendency to truncate words and add an ‘-ie’ ending.
You might expect these ‘-ie’ words to be used in casual speech only. No way. They find their way into newspaper headlines like "Prevaricating pollies fiddle while taxes burn us," "Staffer chucked a sickie," and "Anzac biccie does its bit." In partial explanation of these mysterious headlines, ‘pollies’ are politicians, a ‘sickie’ is a day taken off work under the pretense of being sick, and ‘biccies’ (also spelled ‘bikkies,’ as on the Aussie English T-shirt) are biscuits — or cookies if you happen to be American. In the same way, football is ‘footie,’ Christmas is ‘Chrissie,’ a swimsuit is a cossie (from swimming costume), relatives are ‘rellies,’ and sunglasses are ‘sunnies.’
But these '-ie' words are only one aspect of Australian English. There is also a family of '-o' words. These show up in headlines like "Compo case rejected," where the term ‘Compo’ means compensation for work-related injuries. Other common '-o' words include ‘arvo’ for afternoon, ‘alco’ for an alcoholic, and ‘ambo’ for ambulance. Place names get the same treatment, with Fremantle becoming ‘Freo,’ and Rottnest Island becoming ‘Rotto.’
Interestingly, the name John gets "shortened" to ‘Johnno.’ So these ‘-ie’ and ‘-o’ words are not just lazy shortenings, they have a deliberately amusing and affectionate overtone. But there is a big mystery here. Who decides whether these words will take an ‘-ie’ or ‘-o’ ending? All Australians know that a can of beer is a ‘tinnie,’ while a member of the Salvation Army is a ‘Salvo.’ No one would think of referring to a ‘tinno’ or ‘Salvie.’ But don't bother asking who decided the ending, or what rule is used to choose the ending. At best, you will be entertained by speculation about secret government departments who surreptitiously control the Australian language. At worst, you will be viewed with pity or suspicion.
As you may have guessed by now, we Australians have a manic-depressive relationship with our language. We are simultaneously proud of its distinctiveness and worried that it isn't quite proper English. The Australian dialect is known by a variety of names. Academics call it Australian English; baby boomers call it ‘Strine’; people from generations X and Y refer to it as ‘Ocker.’ With the Australian tendency to swallow leading vowels, it is universally described as 'Stralian.’ And the country and the language are often reduced to the convenient abbreviation ‘Oz.’ Apparently Dorothy's journey over the rainbow took her to the Southern Hemisphere.
Australia has many inherently amusing place names. Where else could you find towns with names like Woy Woy, Wagga Wagga, Woolongong, Gingin, Indooroopilly, Wooloomooloo, and Maloolaba? With so many names beginning with 'W' and having doubled sounds, it is no surprise that Australians have invented the mythical place name ‘Woop Woop’ to describe unspecified but remote locations. This name has also been adapted into the eye-catching ‘Wwwoopwoop’ for a holiday information website.
‘Johnno’ isn't the only Australianized personal name. Barry becomes ‘Bazza,’ Garry becomes ‘Gazza,’ and Sharon becomes ‘Shazza.’ Don't ask why these ‘-ar-‘ words undergo such an unlikely transformation into ‘-azza’ words. No one knows; it's another Australian mystery. If your family name is Kelly, you will probably find that people call you Ned. That one is no mystery; Ned Kelly was a legendary outlaw in nineteenth-century Australia. In a typically Australian reversal of social convention, he is considered to be more of a good guy than the police were. The same perversity leads to people with red hair being traditionally called ‘Blue’ or ‘Bluey,’ tall people being called ‘Shorty,’ and people with very straight hair — or no hair at all — being called ‘Curley.’
Australians also excel at inventing funny names for groups of people. Residents of the tropical state of Queensland are called ‘banana benders,’ people from sandy Perth are ‘sand gropers,’ South Australians are ‘crow eaters,’ and New Zealanders are ‘Kiwis.’ English people are ‘Poms’ or ‘Pommies,’ which may come from "Prisoner of Her Majesty," reflecting Australia's origins as a penal settlement. Americans are ‘Seppos,’ which is another one of those ‘-o’ words. It comes from the rhyming slang term ‘septic tank,’ meaning Yank. Of course all these terms can be acceptingly inclusive or aggressively insulting, depending on the tone and context in which they are used.
Use of rhyming slang is traditionally considered to be an English Cockney characteristic, but it has found a new home in Australia. In a pub or lunch bar, you may hear someone ask for "dog's eye and dead horse." Don't faint, this is not an exotic Middle Eastern dish. It is rhyming slang for "meat pie and tomato sauce." Likewise, a ‘blood blister’ is a sister, ‘billy lids’ are kids, to be on your ‘Pat Malone’ is to be alone, a ‘rubbity-dub’ is a pub (public hotel/bar), and to be ‘Adrian Quist’ is to be inebriated. For some unimaginable reason, Australian English is also very rich in terms relating to alcohol and drunkenness. Wine is ‘plonk;’ chardonnay is ‘shardie’ or ‘sharders;’ cabernet sauvignon is ‘cab sav’ or ‘savvy’; and an alcoholic is an ‘alco,’ ‘alkie,’ ‘wino, ‘ 'plonko,’ or ‘derro’ (short for derelict). And vomiting from too much food or drink is variously described as ‘spewing,’ ‘ chundering,’ ‘ yodelling,’ ‘ chucking up,’ or ‘having a technicolour yawn.’
One further aspect of Australian English that confuses visitors is the tendency to shorten sentences by ignoring the gaps between words. So "have a good weekend" becomes ‘avagoodweegend’; "good on you" (a term of encouragement shouted to sportsmen) is ‘goo donya’; "good day, how are you?" is “g'day owarya.” In much the same way, the cities Melbourne and Sydney are always pronounced as “Melb’n” and ‘Sinny’ — and the Sydney suburbs of Seven Hills and Pendle Hills are ‘Sever Nills’ and ‘Pender Lills.’ Since Sydney is Australia's most fun-loving, in your face, and bohemian city, ‘Sinny’ is viewed by non-Sydneysiders as an amusingly apt name.
For a country that prides itself on its rugged individualism, Australia has produced some striking expressions to describe groups of people or other items. At sale time, it is common to describe the crowds of shoppers in the stores as ‘heaps of people,’ ‘ stacks of shoppers,’ ‘ loads of customers,’ or ‘tons of people.’ You can even stress the accuracy of your description by insisting that there were ‘literally heaps of people.’ Or further exaggerate by saying that ‘the whole population of Sydney must have been there.’ No one will challenge you. The more you exaggerate the better.
So if you are heading Down Under sometime, remember to take your ‘cossie’ and ‘sunnies.’ Don't be surprised if there are ‘literally heaps’ of people at the beach. Plan to have a ‘barbie’ with a ‘tinnie’ or plenty of ‘savvy’ while you are there. But aim to avoid becoming ‘Adrian Quist’ and ‘chundering.’ And you certainly won't want to become a ‘plonko.’ ‘Avagoodoliday!’
Ken G – December 27, 2004