Australians through America's eyes in the 1940s!


I had tears of laughter running down my cheeks this afternoon, reading a 1942 American publication. A booklet written by the US War and Navy Departments in Washington, it was issued to American personnel serving here during the Pacific Campaign in the Second World War.

Although well meant, I don’t think the booklet would have given the average Joe much insight into us as a nation or as a people. One section draws comparisons. Personally, I always find them odious but at least there are a few interesting observations, especially when looked at from seventy years on. In terms of per capita annual consumption, for example:

TEA: ½ lb (US); 7½ lb (Aus)
COFFEE: 13 lbs (US); ½ lb (Aus)
BEEF: 63 lbs (US); 112 lbs (Aus)
LAMB: 7 lbs (US); 81 lbs (Aus)
ICECREAM: 19½ quarts (US); 4 quarts (Aus)

It explains that, although Australia grows some of the best fruit and vegies anywhere, the average Australian is a “meat and potatoes” person. Once making this statement, it continues with “…a libellous story… when you order a meal of lamb and three vegetables, the vegetables you get are mashed, fried and baked potatoes. That probably isn’t true…”

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Further inaccuracies include the blasphemy, “Meat pies are the Australian version of the hot dog,” and a further travesty, “…in Melbourne, the substitute for a hamburger is a dim sin (sic)”.

The booklet includes a map of the world showing the International Date Line running down the middle of the page. It explains, “On most maps, Australia is shown down the left corner by itself… most Americans think it’s a long way from nowhere”. Love the grammar! It continues, “When it is TODAY on the left-hand page, it is YESTERDAY for all the places on the right-hand page”.

I was disappointed at that point when it didn’t continue with the hoary old chestnut about the need for two different calendars!

A potted history and geography lesson continues with a few interesting details. A brief example:

– There are 120 million sheep in Australia, 40 for every square mile, or 17 for every Aussie.
– Australia has a Poll Tax; it costs $6 NOT to vote!
– The Northern Territory is covered with white ant (termite) nests.
– Dinkum oil does not come out of the ground, it is Australian for ‘the real truth’.
– In the First World War, Australia had 226,000 casualties, almost the same as the American A.E.F.

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None, other than dinkum, would have had much relevance, you’d think. Still, it allows me to segue into the best bit of the book, the Yanks’ understanding of Australian slang! Many interpretations, although quaint, are accurate enough but there are some bloody rippers among them, too…!

drogo (sic) – an idiot
sheila – a babe
yakka – hard work
zack (sic) – sixpence
shout – buy drinks for the house (I wouldn’t take that too literally, Yank!)
fair cow – it stinks
a louse bonzer – great
ding dong – swell
gee-gees – horses
whack – Dutch treat bob
deener – shilling
snake’s – urination
sarvo (sic) – afternoon
trouble and strife – wife
rubbededub – saloon
shanty – bush house lean-to
Buckley’s – a long shot
Collins Street Squatter – pretty much a drugstore cowboy
Pommies – Englishmen
Joe Blakes – the DTs; the blues
bushman – a backwoodsman
stockman – cowboy
jackaroo – a tenderfoot on a cow ranch
cow cocky – dairy farmer
bastard – term of affection (I’d treat that one with a lot of caution, Yank!)
bush – any part of Australia not a city
stone the crows – oh my
humdinger – swell
John Hop – cop
woodenit – a popular term for any form of complaint, frequently followed by ‘root you.’ (Reckon you got that one pretty right, Yank!)
barrack – root
root – sexual activity
(Whoah, the mind boggles at some of the possible connotations here!)

I was helpless there for a while, especially considering something like root (I reckon there’d be more than the odd footie supporter who’d like to ‘barrack’ the umpires!)

Imagine in 1940s Biloela calling your sheila ‘babe’!

Stone the (expletive deleted) crows! ‘Oh my’, indeed!

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I hope you got a laugh from it. You will have an anecdote, perhaps – and of course this can all work in reverse, where we get caught out by others’ slang.


What is your favourite Australian slang terms? What do you think of this 1940s American publication? Did they get anything right?