The rise and fall of Australian slang

From left: mosquito on skin, man wearing small swimming trunks, man holding sunglasses, prawns/shrimps on a barbecue, hand opening tin of beer

Australians have long been famed for their rich and varied vocabulary of slang expressions, but experts say a new generation of Australians is coining fewer of them and borrowing more from abroad.

Australians have always had a way with words.

The underlying principle of speaking the lingo down under seems to be: if in doubt, shorten it.

"Afternoon" to "arvo". "Journalist" to "journo". "Swimming trunks" to "swimmers". "Sunglasses" to "sunnies". "Postman" to "postie". "Mosquito" to "mozzie". The list is endless.

Aussies can also have a charming turn of phrase. The recent Australian budget was recently branded "as popular as a Polly Waffle in a public pool".

A Polly Waffle was a marshmallow chocolate bar on sale in Australia until 2009 - but because it was brown and cylindrical the term also came to refer, with lavatorial humour, to something else. A Polly Waffle in a pool is not popular at all.

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A taste of strine (Aussie slang)
Plate of sandwiches
  • Don't come the raw prawn with me - don't try and put one over on me
  • Go off like a bucket of prawns in the sun - cause a commotion
  • His blood's worth bottling - he's an excellent, helpful person
  • It cost big bikkies - it was expensive (bikkies = biscuits)
  • Let's have a Captain Cook - let's have a look
  • Dry as a pommie's bathmat - thirsty
  • Flat out like a lizard drinking - flat out, busy
  • Mad as a cut snake - very angry
  • Rapt as a dunny roll - very happy
  • Budgie smugglers - tight-fitting skimpy swimming trunks
  • Doovalacky - thingummyjig, whatsit
  • Dunny - toilet
  • Sangers - sandwiches
  • Snag - sausage
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There can be few languages, or dialects, with a stronger history of slang than Australian English.

"Australian slang really seems to have built up a head of steam in the late 19th Century," says Tony Thorne, linguist at Kings College London and author of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.

This was partly down to the fact that the kind of people who went to Australia, tended to come from places with rich local linguistic traditions like Scotland, Ireland and the East End of London, he says.

"Those people weren't hampered by the upper-class cultures of the UK. They were much more free to play with language, creating nicknames for local things, in a way that the buttoned-up Brits in those days weren't able to do."

There is also, of course, the link with convicts and the British policy of setting up penal colonies in Australia.

"At least in the early decades there was a connection with the lower classes. Slang and jargon, that sort of playful language was very common among those social classes," says John Hajek, professor of language and linguistics at the University of Melbourne.

But the glory days of Australian slang really arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.

"That was the time when Australianisms stopped being something local and started to spread outside of Australia itself," says Thorne.

Television played a big part in that, in his view, and in particular one man - Barry Humphries.

Barry Humphries dressed as Dame Edna Everage

"Hello possums!" was screeched out on TV screens around the world from the mauve-rinsed, horn-rimmed-spectacled Dame Edna Everage, Humphries' most famous character.

It was another Humphries creation though, Bazza McKenzie, who ticked all the linguistic boxes of the Australian stereotype.

Barrington Bradman Bing McKenzie, to give him his full name, was the hard-drinking, straight-talking Aussie Abroad, first introduced in comic-strip form in the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, and later the star of films The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.

How many Sheilas can fail to have been seduced when serenaded by McKenzie with his classic ditties One-Eyed Trouser Snake and Chunder in the Old Pacific Sea. Apparently "chunder" originated with the first immigrants to Australia, who suffered from seasickness during the voyage. They'd shout "Watch out under!" before heaving over the sides on to the decks below. That was shortened to "chunder".

"Chunder, liquid laugh, technicolour yawn were all Barry McKenzieisms," says Tony Thorne (and all of them alternatives for "vomit").

Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan

Bazza McKenzie was played on screen by the actor and singer Barry Crocker, who of course has another claim to fame. He belted out what was to become the teatime soundtrack to living rooms around the world - the theme tune to the Australian soap Neighbours.

"There was certainly a huge shift in the attitude towards Australian English in the UK as a result of Neighbours," says Hajek.

"It exposed the British to a much wider variety of Australian accents and terminology. 'Rack off' [Get lost]. 'Daggy' [naff/uncool]. Good old Kylie Minogue certainly exaggerated her Australian accent as Charlene, which is partly what made her so popular."

Those were the heady days of Australian lingo. Now, though, it seems Aussie slang is on the slide.

In the latest edition of Tony Thorne's Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, for the first time, there are a just a handful of new Australianisms and some of those are just old words that have come back into common usage.

"Ort" meaning "buttocks" and "tockley" meaning "penis" are two reintroduced words. Essential for any self-respecting linguist.

Australian slang, says Thorne, is just not what it used to be.

"The kind of Australian culture, very macho, very classless, that kind of 'ocker' [uncultured/laddish] culture based around drinking, is just out of date," he says.

Not so long ago, by contrast, Australian drinkers were big exporters of slang.

Friends toasting with beer bottles

"'Tinnies' [beer cans], 'stubbies' [short beer bottles], 'sculling' [downing a drink in one], 'necking' [drinking/swallowing] all came from the Australian drinking culture and were picked up by bar habitues in the UK, the United States and South Africa," Thorne says.

("I'm as dry as pommie's bathmat!" used when in need of liquid refreshment, is one of my own personal favourites - the joke being that pommies rarely wash.)

But as Australians themselves have changed, Thorne says, their linguistic habits have too.

The Magazine down under

Australia is known for its hard-drinking men and women rarely seen without a "tinny" of beer in hand, but something is changing. In some circles, ordering lemonade instead of lager is no longer seen as "soft" - it's fashionable, says Madeleine Morris.

Familiar images spring to mind when one thinks of Australia, but how many of them accurately reflect what the country is like, asks Nick Bryant.

Once moving to the UK was a well-worn path for many young Australians. Now the numbers are falling. Kris Griffiths asks why.

"Australia has become a powerhouse in the financial and service sectors. Australians now when they go abroad, they're not barmen and backpackers. They're working in the corporate sector.

"The language of the corporate sector is business-speak, jargon and buzzwords. Australians have embraced that. 'Utilise' 'corporatise' 'maximise.' The old language is past its sell-by date."

Others blame the septic tanks - rhyming slang for "Yanks" (people from the US).

"We're much more Americanised," says Hajek.

"If you look at all our television these days, there's lot more American programmes than you find in the UK for example."

Thorne agrees that among young people Americanisms have swept away a lot of the "traditional Australian language".

Many Australians single out a famous TV commercial done by Paul Hogan in the 1980s as part of a campaign to get American tourists to visit as the moment Americanisms began to get the better of the Aussie lingo.

"Come and say 'g'day.' I'll slip another shrimp on the Barbie for you," the Australian actor urged.

He was lambasted at home for selling out. A real Australian would never say "shrimp". In these parts they eat "prawns".

These days Australians also seem to love acronyms.

I can't have been the only expat to arrive here and look blank faced at the mention of the G.F.C. Is there anywhere else where people refer to the Global Financial Crisis in this way?

So slang might be on the way out. But politicians here are often guilty of falling behind the linguistic curve.

Kevin Rudd in 2013

I lost track of the number of times the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd used the expression "fair shake of the sauce bottle" meaning 'fair chance' during last year's election campaign.

It seemed to be an attempt to portray himself as one of the lads.

Find out more

sauce bottle

Jon Donnison's radio report was featured on the Today programme on Radio 4 - you can also catch up on the BBC iPlayer

But Rudd is about as un-blokey as you can get. It came across as false - as if he was trying a little too hard.

For most, he seriously overdid it on the sauce and was given an awkward moment when one TV presenter asked suggestively how many times he shook the sauce bottle each day.

The current Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been just as guilty.

"We had this hilarious phenomenon when Tony Abbott was in opposition ridiculing Kevin Rudd for using these old fashioned phrases like 'fair shake of the sauce bottle' and 'fair suck of the pineapple'," says Tony Thorne.

"Now Abbott's in power he's using terms like 'fair dinkum' ["genuine/honest"], which is just as bad."

In other words, when politicians are speaking the language, you know it really is no longer cool.

It just makes you want to chunder.

Australian author Kathy Lette: "Australian vernacular will survive"

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jon donnison Article written by Jon Donnison Jon Donnison Sydney correspondent

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