Until its restrictive immigration laws were eased in the mid-20th century, Australia’s culture, apart from that of the indigenous Aboriginal peoples, was predominantly British and Irish, and English has been the lingua franca of the country since British colonization began in 1788.
Because Australia is so far from the British Isles, though, and is so vast — meaning that inhabitants in various corners of the country had little contact with each other, at least until the advent of airports and modern communications — it’s not surprising that unique words and phrases came into use, unknown elsewhere in the English-speaking world. There’s a similar situation in Canada — these are Canadian slang and phrases Americans just don’t get.
Many of the most commonly used Australian terms are simply abbreviations of familiar words. We all know that throwing shrimp on the barbie means putting it on the barbecue — though it may be less immediately obvious that “defo” means definitely and a “servo” is a gas station.
To be fair, though, we’re often confused ourselves by terms in our own American English — here are 50 words people get wrong all the time.
Many of the terms in the present story, not surprisingly, came to Australia from England, Scotland, and Ireland, just as the ancestors of many of the country’s citizens did. According to the collection of meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms published on the Australian National University’s School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics website, there are also words from Yiddish and Hebrew, and from languages spoken before any Europeans got to Australia.
It’s always a little dangerous to write about slang terms and phrases from other countries, because people who are actually from those places often look at what we’ve written and laugh. “Nobody but maybe my great-grandfather has ever said that,” they might observe. It would be as if an Australian (say) were writing about American slang and included “the bee’s knees” and “hell’s bells.”
So are all of the 50 words and phrases in this list things you’ll actually hear an Australian say today? Probably not. But many of them are, and the rest have time-honored histories in the country. Some may also bring a smile to your face.
To find a representative selection of Australian terms and their definitions, with etymologies where possible, 24/7 Tempo used a variety of online sources, including the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s Ozwords website; the website of the Australian National University’s School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics; the New South Wales government’s Australia Day website; and several other sites, including All Down Under, The Slang Dictionary (Australia), and The Outback Dictionary.
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