Mind the language gap


Aussie English differs from British English in all sorts of wonderful ways.

There’s an adage that the UK and the US are two countries separated by a common language and there’s many an example to illustrate the point.

I’d expected certain differences between British and Australian English too, and there are plenty. Most are readily decipherable, thanks to the absolute literalism of many, such as the wonderful phrase ‘sticky beaks’ for nosy people, or ‘footy’, for any sport that involves a large ball (except, in fact, football).

There are a fair few terms which baffle newcomers too. A rort is a swindle or fiddle, to spruik something is to promote it. My favourite Aussie phrase is ‘She’ll be right’, which is an inherent belief that everything will turn out fine in the end and is a kind of insight into to Australian spirit in general.

Another favourite of mine is the delightful ‘kangaroos loose in the top paddock’, which is used to suggest that someone may not be entirely sane (or, as my Nan used to say, ‘thruppence short of a shilling’).

It’s little surprise that a couple of hundred years of linguistic mutation has seen Aussie English branch away from its source language, but still, every now and then some of the variations catch me by surprise. In particular, I have been quite amazed by the sheer versatility of the verb ‘to go’ in Australian vernacular.

Here’s a run down of the various (clean) uses I’ve encountered so far:

Who do you go for? Meaning: Which sports team do you support?

Giving someone a fair go. Meaning: Giving someone a sporting chance.

Do you want to go? (with the final word stressed) Meaning: Do you want to fight me?

I could go a meal. Meaning: I could really eat something right now.

How are you going? Meaning: How are you?

As we educate ourselves, our expressions of incomprehension are starting to be seen fewer and farther between. On occasions, we can even be heard sprinkling a few of our newly learnt phrases into conversation, although perhaps a little uncertainly. But what can you expect when we’re poms rather than fair dinkum Aussies?


10 thoughts on “Mind the language gap

  1. Haha Mark. We found it fascinating living in the US, discovering all the different usages. But the thing that has surprised me most – and this has come more via internet book groups I was on for a long time than our postings – was how much slang/colloquialism I use. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty formal speaker but time and again an American would respond with blankness to something I’d written in an email, and I’d have to explain. Of course, can I think of an example now? No. Some I had no idea were particularly Australian.

    One occasion I remember in the US was going to a department store to buy a pen – I wanted to buy my husband a very nice one (this was the 1980s) – and they sent me to the haberdashery section. It was the accent, and they thought I’d said “pin”. But, it probably would have helped if I’d used the right word, that is, if I’d ask where I could buy a “ballpoint”! I had studiously avoided “biro” which I knew they didn’t use but still go it wrong.

    I love your “go” examples.


    • That’s priceless. Actually, it reminds me of how long it took me to realise that what you call ‘Manchester’ is actually linens, so called because in the 18th and 19th century, they nearly always came from Manchester. For months I had no idea what that aisle in the supermarket was for.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow, that’s interesting. I had no idea that was an Aussie term! Still I think manchester is a better term since linens are rarely linens these days, though I suppose very little manchester comes from Manchester either!!


      • I’ve always loved the Manchester one. Can you imagine a poor Aussie a long way from home trying to get anyone to understand why he wants to put Manchester on his bed!

        In reading your post I found myself wondering if some weren’t also used in England. But then I’ve been her a long time now and it all blurs into one. Maybe the ‘I’m going to ‘go you” example comes for saying some one (or a dog?) ‘went’ for someone’. It would be very Australian to just change the tense!

        On another note, great to see that Mini enjoyed the Raiders camp. We couldn’t get there this year as they seemed to be late with their notices and we had already committed to another holiday program, but agree it is a really well run day. And I’m sure the atmosphere with their recent wins would have been great. And btw, If you are looking for another holiday program (as we all do at these times!), look up SWISH Canberra.


      • Thanks for that tip. We’ve tried the AIS, riding school and tennis club holiday programmes but I’ll take a look at SWISH as it’s always good to vary things a little, no matter how much fun they are. The Raiders masterclass was fantastic and I’m so impressed with how much time the players devote to community involvement. And they don’t make it look like a chore either. Linguistic mutation is an interesting one. I once met a linguistic archaeologist who would probably be able to explain all the variations. She told be that you can actually conduct archaeology through the study of language. A case in point: prior to the Norman invasion of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon language was largely derived from Germanic. When the Normans arrived, they suppressed the Anglo-Saxons and overlaid their language with their own, which was closer to modern French. As a result, when we look at the English language today, we see that the word for an animal when it’s in the field (being tended by the Anglo-Saxons) usually comes from the German — sheep/schief, cow/kuh, swine/schwein — but when it reaches the Norman banqueting table, the word more often comes from French — mutton/mouton, beef/boeuf, pork/porc. There are probably similar stories to explain the differences between English, Aussie English and US English.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark Dando says:

    I can’t find an email address on your blog but I thought you might be interested so will post this here.

    Some time ago on your ‘Snakes, spiders and sharks’ I commented that:
    ‘I believe there is only one venomous spider in the Canberra region that is likely to be a danger to humans – the redback – and as as far as I know this species has never been implicated in a human fatality.’

    Just read on the Guardian Australia site http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/12/sydney-man-dies-after-redback-spider-bite?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+AUS+v1+-+AUS+morning+mail+callout&utm_term=166565&subid=10957118&CMP=ema_632
    that a man has died possibly due to a redback bite and that the last recorded death from a redback spider bite was in 1955, a year before the antivenom was developed.

    Cheers. Mark



    • Hey Mark, Yes, I remember that. I actually heard this story on the news. It just goes to show that you can’t be too careful. Awful for the person involved but a salutary warning for the rest of us. Thanks for coming back with this update. Best wishes to you, Mark


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