Aussie English for the Beginner

Australian English for the Beginner

And now for the post on Australian English!

Thanks to Australian friends and the internet, I had learned some Australian English words before arriving so I wasn’t lost when reading about diggers in the news or picturing the wrong thing when hearing the word thongs. Being a linguistics nerd, I am endlessly fascinated by the mixture of British and American terms used here, plus the words borrowed from the languages of the Aborigines. This cute website from the National Museum of Australia gives a nice overview of Aussie English and Australia Network has several video podcasts mostly designed for ESL students but still useful for native speakers of English who want to learn about Australia and the variety of English spoken here.

Some words are the same as in British English (zed for Z, holiday for vacation, fringe for bangs, boot for trunk, porridge for oatmeal, car park for parking lot, mobile phone for cell phone, torch for flashlight, trolley for cart, hire for rent, etc.) as well as the spellings (tyre, colour, socialise, etc.) Oddly enough though, the Australian Labor Party does not use the u in their official name because they kept the spelling that was preferred in Australia in the early 1900’s. In other cases, there are similarities with American English, such as eggplant and creek, though I am still a little confused as to the series/season distinction when referring to television shows. (Any help here, Aussies? Brits say series where Americans say seasons to refer to the year, as in Everyone loved season one of Heroes, but man, season two sucked.)

Most Americans are familiar with outback, bush, g’day, no worries mate, crikey, and that’s not a knife; that’s a knife, but the phrase that still catches me off guard is How are you going? I’m expecting to hear How are you doing? or How is it going? and so I always hesitate for a second before replying to make sure I don’t say something weird like I’m going good.

Other Australian words that I have actually heard in the past few weeks include:

tucker (food)
take a burl (take a whirl)
bung (broken)
sanger (sandwich)
salads (vegetables)
ute (truck)
capsicum (bell pepper)
light globe (light bulb)
anti-clockwise (counter-clockwise)
serviettes (napkins)
bathers / swimmers / togs (swimsuit in most areas / New South Wales / Queensland)
paddock (field)
oval (field for Australian Rules Football WHICH I DO NOT UNDERSTAND AT ALL)
bogan (lower-class person)
flat white (espresso with steamed milk; I don’t think you can find this drink often outside of Australia/New Zealand)
short black (espresso)
long black (espresso with water; similar to regular American coffee)
bottle shop (liquor store)
fair dinkum / dinky-di (true, genuine)
dunny (toilet, though usually outdoors)
Macca’s (McDonald’s)
pom (Englishman/woman)
snag (sausage)
ta (thanks)
good on ya (well done)

Bastard is a term of endearment, while root/rooting has a very vulgar meaning so Americans should never say they’re rooting for someone… Numbers and letters are often said as double or triple instead of saying each one individually. My name is J, E, double N, I, E. On most forms, you have to fill in the name of your suburb, and not your city.

Abbreviations and shortening of words is very common, especially with the addition of -y / -ie or -o:

bikkie (biscuit / cookie)
brekky (breakfast)
barbie (barbecue)
mozzie (mosquito)
sunnies (sunglasses)
pressie (present)
arvo (afternoon)
garbo (garbage)

Here in South Australia, stobie pole is used for electricity pole while heaps is a common intensifier (instead of very). And back to the beginning, a digger is a soldier and thongs are flip-flops (though I’m sure older Americans still remember when they were called thongs in the US too, but to us young’ins, it now refers to G-string underwear.) Even though Paul Hogan did say “I’ll slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you” in a tourism video aimed at Americans, Australians actually use the word prawn. Oh, and Foster’s is NOT Australian for beer because no Australian would ever drink that stuff.

I have now been in Australia for one whole month! More cultural observations and comparisons (for America and France) to come!

  • your post is a ripper! I’m going to send it to all of my non-Australian friends for future reference!

    Based on my intuitions and the evidence in my email archive I use both season and series interchangeably for TV, as do many of my friends – so it’s no wonder you got confused on that one!

    • Thanks Lauren! I’ve been noticing that on TV, they say season to mean year, but then on Wikipedia for Australian shows, it says series, so I am constantly confused.

    • Thanks Lauren! I’ve been noticing that on TV, they say season to mean year, but then on Wikipedia for Australian shows, it says series, so I am constantly confused.

  • “Series” refers to the show collectively (The X-Files is a TV series). “Season” refers to a year – season 4 of the X-Files.

    • Ok thanks, that’s definitely like the US rather than the UK.

  • Also, bogan isn’t a lower class person – it’s a much more specific stereotype than that. See (yes, really!).

  • I’m turning 30 this year (boo!) so I”m not OLD but I always grew up saying “thongs” and only switched in college when there were people from all over the country who didn’t understand me… interesting fact, Hawaiians say “slippers” for “flip-flops/thongs”!

  • MK

    Actually, we also have flat whites, etc., here in the UK, although things are becoming so Americanized that I’m not sure how frequently you see them on menus anymore. Capsicum is also used throughout other Commonwealth countries (India and Pakistan, for example), and a number of the items you listed are, in fact, derived from British English (anti-clockwise, paddock, serviette [though this is considered ‘common’], ta, etc.), so it’s interesting to see how far the long arm of the Commonwealth remains. Do Australians really call women sheilas?

    • Samantha

      As an Melbourne Aussie (since I think slang usage can depend on where you live in Oz) ‘sheila’ is not really common – it’s pretty rare actually – something older people might use more, and especially young city people are more likely to use more American terms like ‘chick’. ‘Bloke’ for a guy, is a lot more common 🙂

      • Yeah I haven’t heard sheila yet, but people definitely use bloke.  Outback Steakhouse in the US needs to update their bathroom signs!

  • For example I would say.. ‘I love Season 4 of X TV show but X1 is my favourite series of all time’.

  • Emma Gilchrist

    I agree, us ‘poms’ use a lot of these words.  I’d even go to say that ‘ta’ is of Welsh origine.  I guess you know that Australians have mainly British ancestors?  Interesting post all the same!  I don’t understand the thing with series/season.  What do Americans use?

    Ps, how do I get my surnae off this post? Merci Jennie!

    • I think ta is so cute. I was surprised that people actually use it and thought it would just be one of those things you find in books, but the lady at the post office said it last week.  I know Australians have mainly British origins, but these were the words that I heard here that I never heard among British colleagues in Europe and that seemed more Australian than British to me.

      Americans use the word season to refer to a particular year of a TV show, whereas the word series refers to the TV show in general. Buffy is a TV series which had 7 seasons. Brits use series to refer to the years, which gets really confusing to Americans who don’t know they use different words. A season finale and series finale are very different things.

      I think your surname got attached to the comment because you used your gmail address and perhaps in your gmail preferences, you entered your first and last names. You can change it in your settings for your e-mail.

  • Mil

    Very cool, even though I doubt I’ll ever go to Australia (due to budget and the huge flight!).  I knew a few of those.  My Australian colleague used the “how are you going?” on me and it was weird.  amazing how just one word difference can really throw you off.  And who’s to say what is right and what is wrong?  The evolution of language is truly fascinating.  Enjoy the world down under.  

    • It is fascinating! I don’t think of anything in language as right or wrong, just simply variations of a language.

  • Philip Weinstein

    Strewth, bloody good yakka mate!
    Off your own bat this is real bonza.

    Anonymous Strine Admirer.

  • Anonymous Strine Admirer

    Geez, what a whacka.  Guess that was not a spiffy tee-up.

  • Zhu

    POM really made me laugh when I learned what it meant!

    I loved the language there. We took a bunch of Greyhound buses and the drivers were usually very talkative and very Aussie so I got most of my vocabulary from them. By the way, did you notice the license plate for Greyhound buses always include the word “DOG”? It’s cute.

    Even McDonalds calls their breakfast the “brekkie”.

    I know clothes names really confused me at first in the stores!

    • I haven’t seen any Greyhound buses yet, but I will look at their license plates when I do! how cute!

  • Pamela

    Personal question: are you still PACSed to your boyfriend back in France?  Are you planning to go back there once your studies are complete?

  • Jess B

    Some of the Aussie vocab is quite socio-economically related too. I’d never use ‘tucker’ unless in jest, same for ‘sanger’.
    Oh and another thing with ‘oval’ – most schools have one regardless of what sport they use it for.

    • I just saw that on a sign at a primary school while walking by last week. 🙂  I should have taken a picture for my realia collection!

  • deidre

    I’ve been living in Australia for nearly four years and there are still some phrases and words that I hear that just crack me up.  Like “not within Cooee” you’re a long way from somewhere.

    They’re just silly. 

  • Wagnerka48

    I remember wearing thongs (flip flops) on my feet in the late 50’s or early 60″s.

    • That’s cause you’re not a young’in anymore, mom.

  • Samantha

    A lot of Americans forget that ‘bastard’ can also be an insult, as well as a term of endearment. It all depends on the context – like if I could say ‘jeez – what a bastard!’ and it’s an insult. I could also say for example find someone getting away with something a bit cheeky and say ‘ haha you lucky bastard’ – that’s when it becomes an endearing term. I think you should make that note in your post – we don’t want tourists going around calling everyone bastards lol 

    • I think people use both meanings in the US too, though the insult is probably more common. I can say “you lucky bastard” to an American friend and it would be the same thing as in Australia.

  • Haha what a great site! I wasn’t sure how to “translate” bogan into American English. We have rednecks and hicks and country bumpkins, but it’s just not the same.

  • Have you come across ‘dodgy’?

    Re “On most forms, you have to fill in the name of your suburb, and not your city. ”

    That’s because unless you live in the central business district (CBD) you can’t say that you live in (city name), even though you live in the wider metropolitan region of that city. However, if you live in the CBD that IS your suburb. It’s not just for forms but for sending mail as well. If you write (suburb) (city) (postcode)  it confuses the system.

  • Jay sterling

    Coming from the east end of London most of these words(@80%) I knew before going to Oz aged 12 for a couple of months. 
    When I meet Ozzies (whom I confuse with my accent – I say their accent derives from mine!)   I can can use more ‘dialect’ words than when I talk with Americans, which is when I have to use american words for things otherwise communication is stalled sometimes.