Spots of Time

May 13, 2003

Do You Speaka My Language?

You have to love a country that actually defines "woop-woop" in the dictionary.

woop-woop /wup wup/ n. 1. a jocular name for a remote outback town or district. 2. an imaginary remote place.

Last week at work, while finalizing the edits to the company’s Web site, I happened across the definition for woop-woop. It was my last week in the office and I was frantically trying to finish everything on my "to do” list. I’d created a lot of extra work for myself by not setting the Word spell checker to Australian English when I initially created the Web site documents. At the time I didn’t realize that there were spelling difference between the two versions of the language. Oops.

While looking up some of the words, woop-woop caught my eye. In just a few days I was scheduled to leave Sydney for a six-week journey to Western and Southern Australia – traveling through places that would genuinely live up to the dictionary definition of “woop-woop.” Though I had heard the term before and knew generally what it meant, seeing it in black and white reminded me that all English was not my English. According to an American friend also living in Australia, many Australians don't even consider what they speak to be English - they call it Australian. To paraphrase a saying, "Australia and the United States are two countries separated by a common language."

Before I arrived in Australia, I'd already heard terms like "G'day" and "no worries." I also knew words like "shelia" (girl) and "bloke" (guy) - no biggie. But when people started saying things like "She'll be right" and "I've got a sticky beak" and "paddock" - or when one of my co-workers called me a "Sepo" I knew I better get up to speed on the "Australian" language.

Spelling is just one tiny part of the difference. Just as the British spell certain words differently (colour, theatre, honour, etc.) the Australian's also follow their own spelling patterns. Australian's don’t use the “z” or “zed” (as they call it) as much as in America. Words like “realize” and “minimize” and “customize” are actually spelled “realise” and “minimise” and “customise.”

A very Australian word is "mate" - a term that Aussies (pronounced "Ozzies") especially men, use to describe their friends. Its usage comes closest to the term "buddies" in the US. "Reckon" is a popular Australian word, as is "heaps" - I reckon I could think of heaps more, mate, but lets move on.

While many of Australia's phrases, such as the ones above, are truly Australia-unique, some have been adopted from the country's first European settlers. As most people know, the first Europeans to settle Australia were primarily convicts from the UK. Many of these convicts were London Cockney's - known for their rhyming slang. This rhyming slang stuck in some parts of the country is still used by many Australians. While I have not heard all of these used in practice, the following list gives a good sampling: "blood and blister" (sister), "ducks and geese" (police), "ham and eggs" (legs), "steak and kidney" (Sydney) and "optic nerve" (pervert).

Aussies are notorious for shortening words too - Christmas is Chrissy, breakfast is brekkie, sunglasses are sunnies, mosquitos are mossies and Tasmania is Tassie. Being agro means agressive, a dero is a derelict, and avo is afternoon. Then there are some words that don't have a logical history. For example, tucker is food, a billy is a can, and whinging is whining. "Back o' Burke" is similar to woop-woop - a remote area in Australia.

In Australia, you don't call someone - you ring them. If you have a "sticky beak" it means you are an inquisitive (sometimes prying) person. To "go walkabout" means to be missing. And, then there is my personal favorite - the ideal response to a question. Why didn't you meet me out last night? I couldn't be bothered. Why didn't you clean your room? I couldn't be bothered. Its not that I was tired, or didn't feel like it, or didn't want to - its just that I couldn't be bothered.

Below are a few of my other favorites - some of which threw me for a loop when I first arrived to Australia. Try your luck and see how many you can get right. The first response with the most correct answers wins a package of Tim Tams and a congratulatory mention in a future column. Special thanks to Lindsay who let me "borrow" much of her list, as well as the theme for this column Good luck everyone! :)

1. Fairy Floss
2. Capsicum
3. Kumara
4. Singlet
5. Flat White
6. Flat out
7. Dad 'n Dave
8. fairy bower
9. little vegemites
10. Septic tank or Sepo
11. paddock
12. Fairy Floss
13. Car Park
14. Rice Bubbles
15. Pashing
16. Pom
17. Doona
18. Sultana
19. Icy Pole
20. Technicolor yawn