Challenges of learning Australian slang

Last Updated On: June 19, 2017

inTranslation Tips

Australian slangGrowing up in Germany and having had English as a foreign language in school for eight years, I felt well prepared for studying in Australia. Well, I found out that learning to write essays in school is different from speaking in groups (with background noise), and listening to lecturers (who finish their sentence already having forgotten how they started it); but the trickiest thing was to make sense of Australia’s unique accents, dialect – and slang! It was a fun learning process with lots of obstacles, and some unforgettable situations.

Where is the dot?

One of my oldest memories was a discussion about a meeting. The lecturer said that we would meet on the dot. While this makes sense for a person with English as their mother language, for me it sounded like it referred to a place, and so I asked which dot, and where it was…


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    This wasn’t the only language issue I had in this class. The lecturer went on to discuss that we had to cook our own lunch, but “Brekkie, morning tea and Barbie” was provided. At this time, I didn’t yet have my secret slang dictionary (which I have since used extensively) and couldn’t find out that brekkie means breakfast, barbie refers to a barbecue, and morning tea is coffee and biscuits. For me, Brekkies was a brand of German cat food, nothing more.

    The shorter the better

    Australians love to shorten words. A hubby bringing a prezzie is a husband bringing a present. A cuppa is a cup of tea, and a chewie is a chewing gum. While abbreviations are not used by everyone, there seems to be a trend that the further away you are from one of the five major cities, the more likely it is to be exposed to them. I studied in Toowoomba and worked as Environmental Field Officer in the gas fields around Chinchilla, a small country town, and therefore had to learn to understand a lot of the slang.

    Bluey and Ranga

    Colours are part of Australian slang. It took me forever to figure out why people called me “Ranga”. It’s short for orang-utan (pronounced “u-ranga-tan”), and I had red hair at this time. But it’s trickier than that. Sometimes the opposite colour (or the colour Australians assumed to be opposite) was used. Therefore, some Australian friends (or should I say “mates”) called me “Bluey”.

    Using the opposite to describe something was also true in other subjects. When I worked on the gas fields, I learnt that a very heavy co-worker had the nickname “Tiny”; and another co-worker known for taking his time was called “Speedy”. Although these nicknames seemed to be derogatory to me, my co-workers didn’t seem to mind.

    Buying groceries in country towns – a major challenge!

    While the larger urban supermarkets use common English language, it’s a different story once you leave the big town. Handwritten signs praise their cheap “avos” (avocadoes), “mandys” (mandarins), and fisho (fish); and while some terms are more obvious than others, it may take a while to figure out what some of them mean.

    …my English sucks.

    I never had a natural talent for language, but I learnt quickly. While the academic language was easy to learn due to my everyday exposure to it, it took me forever to learn all the little everyday words. When nearly at the end of my studies, I asked (in front of a full lecture hall) why the bird was called “Rufous whistler”… well, how should I know that rufous is a colour? And when I had to do a TOEFL test to prove my English skills, I was asked to write an essay; the question was something like “describe the challenges of travelling abroad”. Well, I had no clue what “abroad” meant, and I could swear we never learnt that in school. It sounded to me like it meant travelling off-road, or next to a road (whatever that could be!). Anyway, imagine what my essay looked like…. I still received very high points in the essay, and I am writing this anecdote to build up some confidence for others who feel the same confusion.

    A six pack short of a carton

    Australians have a very unique humour (they have lots of it); and they love to show it though their slang. There is a popular Australian song that summarises it well: A person who is seen as weird, crazy or not quite there, is described in this song as “Just a brick short of a load, a lettuce leaf short of a salad, six short of a carton, a few balloons short of a party, three pots short of a shout, a couple snags [sausages] short of a barbie”.

    I now work as Senior Project Manager for Aussie Translations – a translation agency dealing with all languages worldwide – for more than five years, but still the Australian slang surprises me once in a while. And I love it! For me it’s part of the Australian culture and heritage, and well worth a smile or two.

    About the Author: Maren Dammann is from Germany and studied Environmental Management in Hamburg and Brisbane. She moved to Australia permanently in 2006 and works as Senior Project Manager for Aussie Translations.

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