From Bondi to Bells, Noosa to Cable, Australia is renowned for its beautiful beaches. Less well known is the way beach culture has influenced Australian English. If you were told to ‘put on your cossies and thongs’, ‘grab the esky’ and ‘watch out for any Noahs’, you would be forgiven for bewilderment.
Australia’s mainland coastline spans more than 30,000km (47,000 if you include coastal islands) and has 10,685 beaches, according to the Coastal Studies Unit of Sydney University. Eighty-five per cent of the population live within 50km of the coast, which is home to seven of Australia’s eight capital cities. It’s not surprising then, that many Australians love the beach lifestyle.
Mark Gwynn, researcher and editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra, has studied the lingo surrounding Australian beach culture, which he believes includes about 100 terms.
Eighty-five per cent of the Australian population lives within 50km of the coast (Credit: Jill Schneider/Getty Images)
“Because we have wonderful beaches and reasonable temperatures in the water for most of the year, there is a set vocabulary of terms associated with the surf life-saving club, with surfing culture and with the fashion that goes along with the beach,” he said.
There is a set vocabulary of terms associated with with surfing culture and with the fashion that goes along with the beach
One of the most infamous Australian idiosyncrasies is the word for flip flop: the ‘thong’. Not to be confused with the buttock-cleaving variety, the Aussie version comprises a rubber sole held to the foot by two straps that meet between the first and second toes. Although the term’s origin is Old English, meaning a strip of leather or hide, with its first known use being before the 12th Century, Australians apparently have the upper-hand in using the term to describe footwear – in 1965, according to Dictionary.com, with its use for underwear not recorded until 1990.
Words for swimwear also developed along with beach culture. Australians use a variety of terms to describe their bathing attire, including ‘cossies’ (a shortened version of ‘costumes’) and ‘togs’, which Gwynn explains is an abbreviation of the 16th-Century word ‘togeman’, meaning coat. The term ‘togs’ was first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1708, and was considered part of the language of the criminal underworld. By the late 1700s, it had become slang for clothes, and many travelling to Australia on the First Fleet, which brought the first white settlers to Australia in 1788, would have used the word this way. However, its first recorded use in relation to swimming attire was in a 1918 magazine of the Australian and New Zealand armed forces. By 1930, in Australia the term had lost its meaning of clothes, and was used exclusively for swimwear.
‘Budgie smugglers’ have become synonymous with speedo-style swimwear (Credit: Stuart Westmorland/Getty Images)
Since the late 1990s, the term ‘budgie smugglers’ has become synonymous with men’s anatomy-hugging, Speedo-style swimwear, which are a common fixture on Australian beaches. Gwynn said the earliest evidence for this term comes from The Games, a mockumentary series released before the 2000 Sydney Olympics in which the character played by satirist John Clarke used the term to describe men’s swimmers. The phrase became even more notorious when former Australian prime minister Tony Abbot was photographed sporting a pair in 2009, and it was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2016.
While you're at the beach, be sure to watch the ‘nippers’ training on the beach. These are the kids involved in one of the 313 Surf Life Saving clubs dotted around the Australian coast – the largest volunteer movement of its kind in the world. Gwynn explained that ‘nippers’ started as an early colonial term describing children who were employed to do odd jobs in labouring gangs. It later morphed into a term for kids in sporting clubs, and specifically the surf clubs. Nippers may also be grommets (shortened to ‘grommies’ or ‘groms’) – a gently derogatory term for young surfers. This term arose in the early 1980s, and was likely derived from the US terms, ‘gremlins’ or ‘gremmies’, with the same meaning.
‘Bogey holes’ are natural inlets named after the Aboriginal word ‘bogey’, which means ‘to swim’ (Credit: Oliver Strewe/Getty Images)
You might find grommets in a ‘bogey hole’, one of Gwynn’s favourite terms that means a protected inlet used for swimming. During his childhood in Wollongong on the New South Wales coast, he thought the term had been invented by local kids. But while working at the National Dictionary Centre, he discovered it was documented in 1788, stemming from the word ‘bogey’ from the Aboriginal Dharug language, meaning to swim. By the mid-19th Century, ‘bogey holes’ had become places where you could swim.
In the surf, look out for ‘tea bags’, ‘esky-lidders’ or ‘shark bait’
Bogey holes could also be home to ‘bogans’, a term Gwynn says was first documented in a 1985 edition of a surf magazine called Tracks. Surfers used it for people from the less affluent western suburbs who didn’t ‘belong’ on the beach. It is now used more generally to describe unsophisticated individuals.
Back in the surf, look out for ‘tea bags’ (swimmers who bob around and get in the road of surfers); and body boarders, variously known as ‘esky-lidders’ (an esky is a portable insulated cooler box) or ‘shark bait’/‘shark biscuits’ (for their perceived potential as shark fodder). Sharks themselves have been dubbed ‘Noah’s arks’, in an example of Australian rhyming slang (another import from our British origins), sometimes abbreviated to ‘Noahs’.
A great surfer is said to ‘rip’, while swimmers who get in their way are known as ‘tea bags’ (Credit: Mike Riley/Getty Images)
‘Real’ surfers (those who stand up on their boards) are fluent in the lingo. Chris Bryant, a 41-year-old physiotherapist, lives on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. If he arrives at the beach and hears ‘There’s heaps of kooks out there’, he’ll look out for bad surfers. A great surfer is said to ‘rip’. When the surf is good and he’s on the board inside a clear, sun-pierced wave, he’s said to be ‘in the green room’. And the sprays of frothy water that spill down through these waves are known as ‘chandeliers’.
Belinda Kerslake, a 47-year-old marketing consultant and writer from Sydney’s northern beaches, describes the green room as “the ultimate ride – that’s what you’re aiming for. That’s when you’re inside the tube.” Kerslake is a ‘goofy-footer’ – she surfs with her left foot at the back of the board – the surfing equivalent of being left handed. This means she prefers to surf a left-handed break (where the surfer has to turn left to get on the wave). She says some of these breaks “can get a bit ‘tribal’,” meaning that the local surfers can be possessive of their break and get ‘aggro’ towards ‘outsiders’.
‘Togs’, ‘cossies’ and ‘thongs’ are words for swimwear that developed with the beach culture (Credit: Tajana Jankovic/Getty Images)
In addition to avoiding aggression in the surf, it’s wise to stay safe. Australian waters can be dangerous and unpredictable, and you should read the Beachsafe Surf Safety page for vital information about the meanings of flags, reading the surf and first aid.
Next time you’re headed down under, don’t be a bogan. Pack your togs, thongs and esky lid, and save any tea bags for a mug of hot water.
Lost in Translation is a BBC Travel series exploring encounters with languages and how they are reflected in a place, people and culture.
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