A Glauss-ary: How to Talk in Australia

By Drew Snider

Buying bread from a man in Brussels,
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich
-- from “Down Under” by Men at Work

Yesterday, I bought a jar of Vegemite. My local drug store, like many drug stores these days, carries groceries, computer and camera equipment, cosmetics, books, small appliances and, if you hunt hard enough, you may find some drugs. (True story: I actually had to ask a clerk where I would find the Tylenol).

On the shelves, next to the peanut butter, I found Vegemite, and a yearning for a dose of Australian culture came over me. I got introduced to Vegemite during my month-long trip to Australia this past December, and while some North Americans might question its fitness for human consumption, I actually grew to like it -- spread thinly on toast for breakfast. That, along with Victoria Bitter, Bundaberg Ginger Beer and Dick Smith’s Bush Foods Cereal, made the list of Things I Wish We Had in Canada.

Part of the yearning was due to the Australian manner of speaking. I’m not talking about the accent, or saying things like “Strewth! That’s not a knife – this is a knife!” or “Too right, Blue! Throw another shreemp on the baaaahbie!”* Rather, there are unique Australian turns of phrase that I found intriguing, and I thought it would be of interest to pass along to other North Americans planning to go to the Land Down Under. Knowing these phrases won’t make you look like you’re Trying To Blend In – like you might if you said “Stay where yer at till I comes where you’s to” in Newfoundland or “How y’all are?” in Louisiana – but you’ll have a basic means of communication.

    Locals catching up along the Yarra River in Melbourne
  • Catching up - This is actually my personal favorite, because it embodies the general tenor of Australians’ attitudes towards people. Whether you’re grabbing a coffee with a friend you haven’t seen for a while or meeting someone for the first time, don’t be surprised if the other says, “It’s good to catch up.” It’s along the lines of Will Rogers’ observation that “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet.”
  • How’re you going? - A greeting, which could come from a friend, spouse or server in a restaurant. Do not drop the “g”, as an American might when saying “How you doin’?”
  • Cheers, mate - A multi-purpose remark, which can mean, “Thanks,” “You’re welcome,” “See you later,” or, as Russell Crowe responded to an interviewer who welcomed him to the show, “Thanks for having me – it’s good to be here.”
  • No worries - The Aussie equivalent to “no problem” or “you’re welcome”. In North America, people say it a lot, but coming from an Australian, it’s more sincere and natural – and more universal. It can be as casual as responding, “uh-huh” or as formal as “my pleasure”.
  • You right? - An alternative to “How’re you going?” It could be a greeting, an inquiry by a server in a restaurant, or to see if someone needs help. (See “I’m right”, below.)
  • I’m right - Not meaning “I win the argument”, but a remark of reassurance that you have everything under control. You might hear someone say it if they trip or appear to be struggling with something heavy and you ask if they need a hand.
  • Sorted - “Under control” or “figured out”. “Can I help you in the kitchen?” “No – I’m sorted.” Or, in more general terms, “Don’t worry, mate: we’ll get this sorted.”
  • I reckon - Used the way North Americans used it about a century ago and earlier. Australians use “reckon” the way we would say “figure” – and I don’t recall hearing an Aussie say “figure”: if you were to say “go figure” in Australia, they might not catch your meaning.
  • Chooks - Chickens – usually when in pre-cooked mode. A farmer raises chooks; you go to Woolworth’s to buy chooks for dinner; but you would eat a chicken dinner. Driving on a country road outside Adelaide, we saw a sign advertising “Chook poo” – chicken manure. Just telling it like it is, Mr Cosell.
  • Tomato Sauce - What we call ketchup, and it’s pronounced “to-MAH-to”. I couldn’t figure out if “ketchup” was a proprietary expression, like “feta” cheese (which Australians spell with an extra “T”, to distinguish it from genuine Greek Feta). In restaurants, tomato sauce often comes in an ingenious package with a breakable slit so you simply turn the package over and squeeze it. Much less potential for disaster than the foil packages you see in North American restaurants.
  • Rock Melon - Cantaloupe
  • Rocket - Arugula
  • Capsicum - Red bell peppers
  • Stubby - A bottle of beer – and not just the short, squat kind we hardly ever see in North America: even long-neck bottles are called “stubbies”
  • Crisps - Potato chips
  • Chips - French fries – something Australians do very well is cook chips: with few exceptions, they are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
  • Beetroot - Beets. Aussies eat beetroot a lot, and you’ll even see it on hamburgers. (NB: when you order a hamburger “with salad”, the salad comes on the burger, and it is a salad: not just a pale slice of tomato and a lettuce leaf, but lettuce, tomato, beetroot, carrot shavings, onion, etc.)
  • Thickshake (or Thick Shake) - A milk shake. If you ask for a “milk shake”, you will get a glass of flavored milk. A thickshake has the ice cream (like a “frapp” in New England).
  • Petrol - Gasoline
  • Blue -  A general nickname for someone with red hair – like calling a bald person “Curly” or a big guy “Tiny”.
  • Bogan - A redneck – only slightly more derisive. I would not advise calling anyone a bogan, but when you hear it in conversation (as in, “Only bogans drink Foster’s”), you’ll know what it means.
  • Bottleshop - Liquor store
  • Trading Hours - Opening times for a business
  • Ute - Short for “utility vehicle”, and can be applied to a small pickup truck, a combination passenger car/pickup (think of the old Ford Ranchero), or something I’ve never seen in North America: a small truck with a shallow box in the rear.
  • Combi or combi-van -  A camper-van – “combination van”. Think of the first line in the old pop tune, “Down Under” by Men At Work: “Travelling in a fried-out combi …”
It’s all about understanding one another, and while misunderstanding any of these phrases won’t lead to a fat lip, you’ll be prepared for what may be some conversational hiccups on your trip.

Maybe you’ve been to Australia, too, and come across some other local phrases. Feel free to let us know.

* I can do a pretty good (if I do say so, myself) Aussie accent, thanks largely to a children’s show I used to watch when I was little. But during my month-long visit to Australia, I only Did The Accent three times: once, joking to my son-in-law about the appearance of kangaroos on a hill near the chapel where he and my stepdaughter were married; another time, when someone asked for a rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”; and once when a tourist in Sydney asked me for directions and I actually knew the way, so for a fleeting, wondrous moment, I pretended to be a local. 

Drew Snider is a career communications professional with over 30 years in journalism and corporate communications. He created and hosted the travel show "Destinations" on CFAX Radio in Victoria, British Columbia, an outgrowth of his life-long passion for travel.

Photo by Drew Snider
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