Australia on your Pat Malone? Read up to be Prepared
The combined influences of Australia's aboriginal, outback and convict histories have created a veritable linguistic laboratory in the Southern Hemisphere. Australians shorten everything, and their slang is rich with creative word play and a dry, irreverent sense of humor.
Any visitor should be prepared!
Because slang is best considered in its cultural context, let's start with three pillars of the Australian lifestyle: sports, food and drink. Depending on where you are in the country, football or “footy” can mean rugby (league or union) or Australian rules football. At the footy you might hear someone say, “chuck us a tinny.” With a little thought, you could probably conclude that the person is asking for a can of beer. But what would you think if you heard a crowd yell, “Chewy on your boot!”? (Translation: a player is about to kick, and hecklers are trying to distract him by suggesting he has gum on his shoe and will make a mess of the kick.)
If you spend any time in the lucky country, locals will ask which team you “support.” Choosing a team is an important sign that you care, so be sure to have an answer. But don't you dare say that you “root” for such and such team, for to “root” is actually a crass term for what could also be described as the horizontal tango. Instead, say which team you “barrack” for. (It's also worth noting that to be utterly exhausted is to be “rooted,” or maybe your car won't start because the battery is rooted.)
On food: you won't escape hearing about Anzac biscuits, smoko, bush tucker, lamingtons and sausage sizzles. Briefly and in order, these are: oat cookies with a nearly indefinite shelf life; a short break during the workday, usually taken outdoors, that can, but does not have to, include cigarettes; food from native plants and animals such as kangaroo, crocodile, emu or witchetty grubs; squares of sponge cake covered in icing and dessicated coconut; and a national custom of barbequed sausages and fried onion on white bread.
Australian slang also includes colorful – and sometimes nonsensical – comparisons. To be “flat out like a lizard drinking” means you're working at great speed. Someone who's “a stubby short of a six-pack” is not the sharpest tool in the shed, and a highly inept person “can't punch his way out of a paper bag.”
And then there are the diminutives. The beloved Australian rock band AC/DC is colloquially called Acca Dacca. If your name is Sharon, you will definitely be called Shaz or Shazza, and if you're a Darren, you can expect to be called Dazza. Musicians, journalists and ambulance drivers are, respectively, musos, journos and ambos. It's an adolescent rite of passage to work at Maccas.
For the advanced student of Australiana, there's Australian rhyming slang. Derived from Cockney rhyming slang, a common word (e.g., suit) is replaced with a rhyming phrase (in this example, bag of fruit). “What's the dress code?” “Wear your best bag of fruit.” “Eau de cologne” is a (tele)phone, and “drinking on your Pat Malone” means to drink alone.
Think that's easy enough? It can get mind-bending. Recall from the opening story that our hero went for an optic. In taking a lap to assess his options, he was “going for a perve” (intended with nothing but humor and good fun) or, in rhyming slang, an “optic nerve.” Given the Australian propensity to shorten everything, you're likely to hear “going for an optic.”
Any American visitor to Australia needs to know the slang for Americans: seppo.
Say what? Easy.
An American is a yank (sorry, Southerners, you get painted with the same brush); yank rhymes with septic tank (no prejudice here); and because the lips have to move quite a lot to say “septic tank,” it's easier to just say seppo. Diminutive + rhyming slang = fair dinkum Aussie slanguage.
If this is overwhelming, fear not. Australians are aware that their slang is unique and sometimes impenetrable, so they'll usually moderate when speaking to a foreigner. To prepare for a trip, take a squiz at a few newspapers online to get a feel for the distinctive Australian voice. If you're already well-versed and want a challenge, watch Austen Tayshus' enduringly popular comedy sketch “Australiana.” (In the great Australian tradition of word play, Austen Tayshus is actually a stage name derived from “ostentatious.”)
Of course no amount of preparation is fail-safe, so patience and a sense of humor are as important as your passport. And there are plenty of examples of Australian English going awry overseas. Take the former Australian Prime Minister and Rhodes Scholar Bob Hawke, known as much for his beer-drinking skills as for the economic reforms he instituted while PM. He once attempted to reassure the Japanese Parliament that Australian trade unions would not stymy imports to Japan with an emphatic, “I'm not playing funny buggers with you.” His advisors, concerned about the curious looks and muffled giggles, asked the interpreters how it was translated. The outcome? “We're not playing laughing homosexuals with you.”