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Thongs is the Australian English word for flip-flops

Don’t be a dag! (Learn some real Aussie English)

When Kylie Minogue used the words dag and daggy in a TV interview last year, an explanation was required: “it’s just kind of like the opposite of cool, you know?”

What a perfect definition, and who better to define it than our national pop ambassador? Australian English is often mysterious when heard outside its native land: nothing is more confusing than the moment an Aussie talks about their love of thongs; an embarrassed British silence may follow, as listeners struggle to realise that we are talking quite innocently about ‘flip-flops’ (and you think our word sounds silly?)

The most familiar terms are the old Aussie cliches –  strewth, crikey and sheila – but while g’day is still in good health, many of these words are no longer widely used, except for in the outback. These days, mainstream Australian speech is all about avoiding too many syllables: we could meet up in the arvo for a convo about your recent compo; later on we’ll have a barbie with the rellies, but don’t forget your sunnies, and don’t let me find out you’ve been playing the pokies again. That’d be beaut.

Humorous and earthy topics are also fertile with Australianisms: cheap wine is goon or plonk, though beware or you might spend the next morning chundering into the dunny. A really daggy and uncultured person is a bogan, and the most scandalously daggy items of clothing are surely budgie smugglers – as worn by the losing candidate in our 2010 federal election.

Echoes of the past

Australia Day, January 26th, is now upon us, though not everyone thinks this is the right day to celebrate, with critics labelling it ‘Invasion Day’ as it marks the beginning of the European colonisation of Aboriginal lands. Australia has a rich heritage of some 250 Aboriginal languages, from which names have been derived for our most famous national icons, including kangaroos, koalas, and boomerangs. For the most part, the influence of Aboriginal languages on Australian English can be found in plants, animals, and Aboriginal cultural practices; but there are also some well-known general words, like yakka (for hard work), bung (for ruined or broken), and willy-willy (a sort of small tornado).

Many Australian place names are also derived from Aboriginal languages. Canberra (our national capital) means ‘meeting place’ in Ngunnawal, Ballarat means ‘resting place’ in Wathaurong, and Uluru, the Pitjantjatjara name for Ayers Rock, became officially recognised in 1993. (For bonus points, take note that possessive apostrophes are never used in Australian place names, like Ayers Rock!)

Tragically, many of the languages from which these words were borrowed are no longer being spoken, as the influence of English has spread across the land.

Aboriginal English

Many Aboriginal communities have now integrated English as their first or second language, and this has given rise to a specifically ‘Aboriginal’ form of English. This can vary somewhat from region to region, but there are plenty of special words and phrases that are used right across outback Australia: sorry business is the name used for funeral ceremonies, while sit-down money refers to the social-security payments that suddenly became available in the 1970s. Some older English words have made fascinating journeys through Aboriginal English – being picked up from settlers in the 19th century, given their own particular meanings, and now living on in Aboriginal speech even though they may have since declined in other English dialects. This is the case with humbugging (bothering someone or begging), motor car (same meaning, different century), mob (used for any group of people, but especially a family or clan group) and grog (used for any alcoholic drink).

Fellow now sounds pretty dated in most versions of English, but in Aboriginal English it is flourishing as the compoundable –fella. Blackfella and whitefella are often mistakenly thought to have racist connotations, but in fact these are the standard, neutral terms used in much of outback Australia. Gradually these words are becoming accepted in mainstream Australian usage; and on a recent trip to the desert, I was even introduced to someone as an Adelaide-fella.

Increasingly, many of these English forms are used not just by Aboriginal people, but by everybody living in the outback areas or northern and central Australia.

Closing the gap

Just as Kylie sometimes has to explain herself to her international audience, so we sometimes have to work on closing gaps of understanding within our island nation. Sensitivities don’t travel well. From the distant perspective of the coastal cities, it’s easy to be either over-cautious or totally ignorant about what matters to the Aboriginal communities of the Red Centre or the Top End. And as we chuck another shrimp on the barbie for Australia Day, it would never occur to most of us that January 26 may be a controversial day to celebrate.

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