A History of Australian Slang

A History of Australian Slang

Dinky-di cobbers won’t come a guster, or even blue about the fact the Dictionary of ‘Strayn is as broad as the sunburned country.

Even Dr Rob Pensalfini believes Australian slang is as motley as Australia itself, and he’s as cunning as a dunny rat. “There’s heaps of diversity, but if you look at Australian English, it’s got heaps of diverse input,” he said. “It’s changing all the time.”

A Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and Drama at the University of Queensland, Rob explains that the basis of Australian English lays in Cockney and Irish. “What we had in Britain was  essentially class war, and so whoever was being shipped out were the poor South Londoners and restless Irish,” said Rob. “They give us our basic pronunciation and a lot of the terms we use now.”

Thus, many of the phrases we think of as typically Australian are in fact common British phrases that have fallen out of use. ‘Crikey,’ for instance, is a euphemism for ‘Christ,’  ‘Tucker’ is typically Irish, while ‘Struth’ is an abbreviated Elizabethan oath first recorded by Shakespeare. It didn’t take long, however, for Australian English to mutate into something original.

Rob traces the development of a uniquely Australian idiom back to some of our first popular literature. “If you go back and look at early bush poetry, you can see there was a certain way of expressing yourself that was not Irish, was not English,” he said. “There was a voice there that was distinct.”

Poetry remains a place where Australian language is recorded - and explored. Kent MacCarter, author of  three collections, In the Hungry Middle of Here, Ribosome Spreadsheet and Sputnik’s Cousin, and the editor of Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home, regularly collects new slang for his work.

An American expat of 11 years, Kent believes the Australian idiom has changed him forever. “I’m definitely attuned to it, and I use it in my work, for sure,” he said. “I do find myself saying these things without planning it, so they’ve certainly infiltrated. If I were to leave Australia and never come back, it’s definitely there for good.”

He wasn’t always as attuned to Australianisms, however. On his third day in the country, Kent was calling potential flatmates trying to find a house. “I was talking to a young guy, and trying to arrange a time, and he just kept telling me to ‘come by this arvo mate,’” he recalled. “I didn’t want to sound like a complete moron, so I tried to re-couch the question: this evening? In a couple of hours? He just kept saying ‘this arvo, mate.’ I just had no clue as to what this meant.”

So, unable to translate arvo, he decided to wing it, and waited 90 minutes before just rocking up. “By that time, it was about one or two pm, so it was officially arvo,” he laughed.

Immigrants like Kent provide some of the most fertile ground for creative Australian language to grow. One of the most interesting developments in our nation’s idiom is ‘New Australian English,’ or as it’s more lovingly known by linguists, ‘Wogspeak.’ “Wogspeak is something that emerged in the 60’s and 70’s in urban Sydney and Melbourne, particularly among first generation people of a Mediterranean background - people like me,” he explained. “You get this particular way of talking, and it has its own cadence, and it has its own words - like the way you say ‘mate.’ It’s this classically Aussie term, which is pronounced in an Italian accent: ‘MOITE’ ”

What interests Rob about New Australian English is that it’s not strictly confined to its cultural group, instead, it has begun to enter the culture at large. He gives the example of New Australian English, which has been enthusiastically adopted by the local hip-hop community. “If you listen to a lot of hip hop, the lyrics sound a bit woggy,” he said. “Or, if you want to put that more technically, it has the prosody and the sound of New Australian English.”

Nor is it only new Australians that influence contemporary language: the first Australians’ traditional dialects are influencing Australian English. Indigenous slang like ‘deadly’ or ‘yumob’ are now commonly heard phrases all around the country. Rob believes that some of the most interesting changes are in new varieties of English creoles. “In parts of the world where people are colonised by English speakers, but they’re not given this full education, they develop their own variety of English - as they’ve done in Jamaica, or in the Northern part of Australia,” said Rob. “They’re not ‘bad english,’ they have their own rules and structures. They’re based on English, but they’re enormously influenced by the traditional languages of the area.”

So, quite contrary to claims that ‘Australian’ is dying, it seems the language is in rude good health. It has even convinced some Americans to change their ways. “I’ve thrown out ‘faucet’ for ‘tap,’ for example,” said Kent. “It’s weird what falls away and what sticks.”

this article was first published for coca-cola journey