Australian Words and Phrases Americans Just Don’t Get

August 1, 2019 by Steven M. Peters

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.

Click here to see Australian words and phrases Americans just don’t get.

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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Aggravation, or the state of being aggravated or upset.

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Afternoon. S’arvo means “this afternoon.”

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Banana bender

Someone from the state of Queensland in northeastern Australia. Bananas are a major crop in the tropical portions of the state, and the joke is that they grow straight on trees and have to be curved into their familiar form by hand.

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Swimwear, also known as togs or swimmers.

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A member of a motorcycle gang. Probably not something you’d want to call a Hell’s Angel in the U.S.

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Blind Freddy

Also Blind Freddie. Someone who just doesn’t get it; an oblivious person. Possibly a reference to a real-life character in early 20th-century Sydney.

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A lazy person or freeloader; someone who doesn’t contribute a fair share. The term was originally British slang for a pimp, and by extension someone who sits around while somebody else earns the money.

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A long-haired young man in the 1950s, part of a youth subculture group analogous to the Teddy Boys of England. Bodgies were often accompanied by widgies, the female equivalent to a bodgie. The term may be a blending of “bodgie” and “woman” or a reference to the short-cropped wedge-shaped hairstyle the women favored.

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Someone uninformed or unsophisticated, especially someone with a working-class background. Possibly a reference to the Bogan River in New South Wales, but this etymology is disputed. Bogan was originally considered a disparaging term but is now seen as a prideful reference to Australia’s disregard for convention.

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Also bottloe. A liquor store.

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Also brekkie. Breakfast.

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A typical Australian male. The usage is said to derive from a 1970 Monty Python sketch in which all the supposedly Australian characters share that name.

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Completely full. Possibly a shortening of chock-a-block.

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Chicken, probably derived from “chick.”

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Christmas, an occasion on which you might want to buy your friends and family prezzies.

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Vomit, as a verb or noun. It may derive from a character named Chunder Loo of Akim Foo in a series of early 20th-century shoe polish ads. Another theory is that it comes from a seafaring term, “Watch under!” cried out by sailors who were throwing up over the side to warn those on the lower decks.

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A friend, a buddy. Possibly from a Yiddish word, “khaver,” comrade, which would have reached Australia via immigrants from London.

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Come the raw prawn

Don’t try to fool me. The term apparently originated in the Australian armed forces during World War II, but the etymology is uncertain.

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An unfashionable or socially inept person; a nerd. Dags are also clumps of wool matted with dung around a sheep’s rear end.

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Also dacks. Trousers. Possibly rhyming slang for “slacks,” or a reference to the British menswear company Daks. Trackie- or tracky-daks is a tracksuit. To dak someone is to pull their pants down as a prank.

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Also defs. Definitely.

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Dogged it

Didn’t show up.

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An idiot or simpleton. Possibly a reference to an inept thoroughbred horse of the same name, in turn likely named for a bird called the speckled drongo.

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A portable cooler, named for a brand of ice chest called the Eskimo.

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Fair go

A fair chance or a square deal.

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Not a reclusive Swedish film star of an earlier era — a garbage collector.

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Good on ya

Well done; good going; good for you.

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The system of advance partial payment for merchandise that we call layaway.

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Mickey D’s — McDonald’s.

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Jinx or bad influence. Also to jinx. From the Hebrew “mazzal,” luck, probably brought to Australia by German Jewish immigrants.

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Also mossie. A mosquito.

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A stereotypical boorish Australian man; a bogan (see above). Possibly from a man named Oscar.

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“On you,” as in “Good onya” (see above).

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Also pomme, pommy, or pommie. Originally any immigrant from the British Isles; now applied to Brits (and especially the English) in general. The term might derive from “pomegranate,” inexact rhyming slang for “immigrant.”

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A position or place, as in a good possie to sit.

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Sneakers or running shoes.

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Sandwich. The earlier term was “sango,” but this form has been common since the 1960s.

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A service station or gas station — called petrol station in Australia.

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Shark biscuit

A novice surfer or a surfer in general (or his/her board).

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A woman or girl — the generic female equivalent of Bruce, though of 19th-century origin. It possibly referred originally to Irish immigrant women, among whom Sheila was a common name.

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Sneaky or underhanded. Perhaps originally from “shonk,” an anti-Semitic Cockney slur, though this meaning has been thoroughly lost.

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A sick day from work or school, especially one taken without a valid medical reason.

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A sausage, probably from a Scots dialect term (also “snag) meaning a morsel or light meal. Other Australian words for sausage include “snarler” and “snork.”

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A short, thick beer bottle, typically holding 375 ml. (Someone who’s a little on the dim side might be described as being “a stubby short of a sixpack.”)

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Stunned mullet

Someone who’s stupefied or out of it. A mullet (fish) that’s just been landed is typically goggle-eyed and open-mouthed.

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Sunglasses, for obvious reasons.

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Not underwear or part of a revealing bikini, but flip-flops.

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Wild or crazy; mentally deranged. It’s said that Australian troops in the Pacific during World War II used the phrase “to go troppo” to describe those whose sanity had been affected by the conditions in the tropics.

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Also yakker and yacker. Hard work. From “yaga,” a term for work in the indigenous Yagara language.