A lifetime ago I worked for a Japanese carmaker that imported cars as well as manufacturing them here. One of the most interesting jobs in the company was that of a mate who had to interpret Japanese attempts at English and rewrite the instruction manual so the average Australian owner could understand it. It was good work, interesting and, at times, thoroughly comical. Mind you, it would have been different had we attempted a translation of English into Japanese!
My mate worked in a ‘foreign’ language known as Japlish (or Japanese English), which wasn’t his term because it had been in common use for many years. In time it was adapted to become, among others, Chinglish (Chinese English) and Yanklish (American English) both of which can be problematic — especially, perhaps, the latter.
We all know how tricky it can be on seeing notices such as this outside a Beijing business while under renovation: “Please forgive to be incontinent when in decoration”. Or, perhaps, that old clanger made by a visiting American: “Jeez, buddy, I’d root for her,” which would more politely be expressed, “Friggin hell, mate, I’d barrack for her.” (Or simply drop the conjunction ‘for’ from the Yank’s comment!)
Australians speak English, after a fashion but, to be fair, should a term Auslish (or Ockerish) be struck? We must admit to a form of speech (or, at least, a variance) that can be difficult for others to understand. Just a few Australianisms include the selection below:
- All over him like a rash. (Crowding him, being in his space.)
- She’ll be right [or She’ll be apples, if you’re Tasmanian]. (No worries, mate.)
- Dooverlacky. (Something the name of which is forgotten.)
- Who opened their lunch? (Who farted?)
- Aerial ping-pong (A strange Queensland term for footie, mate.)
- Have a go, ya mug! (Get your finger out!)
- It’s the duck’s nuts. (It’s the best available, mate.)
- A friggin’ big ’un! (A large example!)
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Of course on it goes. I’ll go back further, to a time when we were truly inventive in our speech and some of the expressions that made our language truly unique. The sayings of our forefathers were truly expressive and even, at times, lyrical:
- He knows how many beans make five. (You won’t fool him.)
- As popular as a bell on a nightcart. (Disliked. The horsedrawn cart that picked up the sewage cans before we had flush toilets always bore a bell that dinged on its way around town.)
- As busy as Bourke Street on a Friday night. (From the days of Friday night shopping in one of central Melbourne’s major thoroughfares.)
- Struth! (An abbreviation of it’s God’s truth, or absolutely honest!)
- Bloody oath! ( Much as above and once one of the most common of all Australianisms.)
- Right as rain. (As good as it gets. This is of particular interest. Trove reports it in The Gundagai Times of 25 August 1876. A farmer said his oats crop looked as ‘right as rain’ due to steeping and manuring the seed to allow a head start on weed growth. Interestingly, the Poms reckon they coined the saying. In 1894! Have we got news for them.)
- A wigwam for a goose’s bridle. (A nonsense expression that means ‘mind your business’ if someone asks what you’ve got or what you’re making.)
- Not worth a zac! (Effectively worthless! It comes from the days of pounds, shillings and pence. In brief, the basic coins were a penny [a copper], threepence [trey], sixpence [zac], shilling [deener], and two shillings [two bob].
- A rum ’un. ( A strange person. Predominantly Tasmanian in more recent years, it arose in the early days of New South Wales when people were paid in what was frequently the only available currency, rum. Once paid, they’d hit the drink hard, become inebriated and, thus, a bit strange in their actions.)
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This is an incompleat anthology. I use it to show the inventiveness used by our forefathers in development of colloquial language, something that happens in all languages, not only English and not merely across borders.
As an example, there are at least 30 acknowledged dialects in England itself — Cockney, Brummie, Geordie, West Country, East Anglian, and so on — so is it any wonder we developed our own, especially with the rough language spoken by a great many of our first white settlers? They provided an interesting legacy.
Do you have favourite examples of early idiom, old Aussie lingo? Is there a phrase unique to your native language? Share them with the us.
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