It was early on in our Sydney residence when my husband, Kevin, had an altercation with a bus driver. Kevin was holding up the line trying to stuff a bent paper bus pass into a ticket machine, and the driver lost his cool. “You gotta keep it in good nick, mate,” he snapped. Kevin turned to me in confusion. All I could do was shrug; I had no clue what the driver had just yelled. But then the man unleashed his pointer finger like an arrow from a quiver, and we read loud and clear the universal signal for “get the fuck out.”
In good nick gnawed at us for a few weeks until it appeared again while shopping for household items on Gumtree, the Australian equivalent of Craigslist. Amid the doonas and wardrobes, we found a tall boy (tall dresser) that said “Only a few years old. In good nick.” In this context the meaning was obvious: good nick means good condition.
In a country with so many parallels to the United States, the daily language puzzles are a rich source of amusement and cultural comparison. From the odd-at-first greeting “How y’going?" to the “too easy,” “no dramas” or “ta” you get after you pay the bill—not to mention all the differences in stress, accent and inflection—this creative new lexicon and all its subtleties could be a life-long adventure, even for a native English speaker.
Aussies don’t take a shower or a sick day; they have a shower and chuck a sickie. Though like Brits, they do take the piss (joke around). At Australian grocery stores, bell peppers become capsicums; arugula is rocket; cilantro transforms into coriander and cookies are biscuits—bikkies for short.
Take a scroll through the slideshow to learn some Aussie slang, and download the Macquarie Aussie Slang Dictionary App for more.
Illustration by A. Salamandra
Illustration by A. Salamandra
The act of shortening words and adding the suffix -ie or -y is one of Australia’s greatest talents. Aussies—correctly pronounced with a “z” sound, like Ozzie Osbourne—eat brekkie before flying to Brissie for Chrissie despite the mozzies (eat breakfast before flying to Brisbane for Christmas despite the mosquitoes). Sometimes the suffix is an -o, especially for male names such as Tomo and Jono as well as professions including muso, garbo, and journo (musician, garbage collector, journalist). And then there are the -ers words such as preggers, chockers (chock-full) and Maccas (short for McDonalds and spelled like it’s pronounced). “It is with home-grown slang that Australia has really excelled,” says Dr. James Lambert, who has studied Australian slang for the past 25 years and edited multiple dictionaries on the subject. “It rivals the slang lexis of both Britain and America despite the inordinate gap in population sizes.”
Interestingly, the -ie ending doesn’t signify a “diminutive” as one might expect, Lambert says. “A brickie is merely a brick-layer, not a small brick-layer, a surfie a surfer…A postie is an ordinarily-sized postman or postwoman, and a derro is an ordinarily-sized derelict.”
“And there is a distinct difference between a sicko (a pervert) and a sickie (a day of sick leave, whether genuine or feigned),” he adds. “With other terms, a certain latitude is allowed, thus the afternoon can be the arvo [more common] or the aftie. Aussies know when and how to apply these suffixes, which essentially revolve around unwritten rules of euphony.”
Arvo is a tough one for many blow-ins (recent arrivals) since the “af” becomes “av” and the “r” is added to denote the long “a” sound but isn’t pronounced. “I never would have been able to figure that one out,” says Alan Libert, an American linguistics professor based in Newcastle, Australia.
There are a few other terms Americans in particular should know to avoid humiliation. Thongs are flip-flop sandals, not female underwear; fanny means vagina—read: avoid the term “fanny pack”—and to root means to have sex. Libert learned the last one the hard way when he told a friend applying for a job that he and his Kiwi girlfriend were “rooting for him.”
For Pam Peters, professor emeritus of linguistics at Macquarie University in Sydney, who originally hails from the UK, the ad hocery of Australian speech is what captivated her most. “Part of the fun about informal Australian English is that you can make things up,” Peters says. “You can talk about sausies [sausages] and ciggies [cigarettes] and lammies for lamingtons [a traditional Australian dessert]. It’s about not putting too fine a point on expressing words properly and instead saying to the other person ‘we’re on the same level.’”
Peters was particularly taken by idioms of British descent that have been readapted to a new culture and landscape. Here “a few tiles short of a roof” (meaning stupid) was remixed into “a chop short of a barbecue.” “Poor as a bandicoot” is a play on “poor as a church mouse,” but featuring a rat-like marsupial. “Mad as a cut snake” is an outback rendition of “mad as a hatter.” “There’s a kind of script where you can slot in what you want,” Peters says.
While many words and phrases were initially imported from the Motherland, today the flow is more two-directional thanks to TV, movies and the internet. “No worries is now common all over the world,” Lambert says, “and the ubiquitous selfie began life in Australia.”
It took three years, but now Kevin and I have the perfect response to the bus driver’s temper tantrum. We should have said: “Don’t spit the dummy, mate” (literally don’t spit out your pacifier). It’s good as gold.