What Not to Say in Australia

I didn’t mean to wait two weeks to send this post, but my time was consumed by meetings back in the US for the last 10 days.  Most of my time was spent in meeting rooms, although I did have a short time on the beach during the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) conference in Honolulu.

I’m now back in Australia and trying again to use the correct terminology — and look the right way when crossing the street.  You don’t ask for a napkin in Australia unless you want a sanitary napkin or a diaper.  Serviette is the correct item to request.  Of course, the same would be true in the United Kingdom, as many of the terms used in Australia are a result of the country being a member of the British Commonwealth.  So your car doesn’t have a hood and trunk, but a bonnet and boot.  You don’t “get in line” for tickets, you “queue up”.  Food to go isn’t “take out” but “take away.”  Automobiles don’t “yield” to other vehicles.  They “Give Way”. 

More specific to Australia is you don’t say “you’re welcome” when someone says “thank you.”  The typical response is “no worries”.   “No worries” is also the response you get if you bump into someone accidentally and say “pardon me.”  If the exchange is between two men, then the response is “no worries, mate.”  Mate can be added to almost any exchange between two men:

Can I help you, mate?  What’s new, mate?  Thanks, mate.  Time to go, mate.

If you’re talking about a third person, then the term “mate” becomes “bloke.”

I once knew this bloke.  That bloke over there just . . . .  Any bloke can do that!

Australians are known for their efficient use of speech, which means that many words get shortened — thus the well-known G ‘day.   Thank you is shortened by many to “ta.”  The first weekend I arrived, I attended EKKA, a 10-day event that is the equivalent of the Puyallup Fair in Washington State and like many state fairs around the US.  Horse riding competitions were a regular occurence and you felt comfortable in the traditional wide-brimmed Australian hats worn extensively in outback Queensland.

The show extolled the value of eating lamb and beef.

The quilt competition was spectacular.


                                                                                                                                                                I was delighted to see it had a Science Pavilion where many of the universities and other research organizations offered education outreach experiences — even opportunities to search for fossils.

I pondered for a long time, what acronym could produce EKKA.  I finally asked someone who said that the official name of the event is the Royal Queensland Show and Exhibition — a name way too long for Aussies.  It got shortened to the way Australians pronounce the first syllable of the word “exhibition.” 

You shouldn’t expect an Australian to say “yes” when they agree with you.  It is much more efficient to just say “mm.”  It took me a long time when I lived here 41 years ago to get use to this characteristic.  I often stopped in the middle of a conversation waiting for agreement when my colleagues were wondering why I didn’t continue because they had already said “mm.”

To talk about an isolated spot in the US, we say it’s in the “hinterlands” or in the “boonies”.   Of course the best known Aussie term is “in the outback.”  But there’s also “it’s beyond the black stump.”

The black stump historically was a real location.  When government surveyors finished surveying the most distant point before turning back, they burned the stump of a tree to indicate this was the point where surveying of the land ended.  The town of Blackall (961 km west of Brisbane with a population of 1,456) has memorialized the black stump.  Unfortunately the real black stump was destroyed in a fire and an indestructible replica is in its place.

My most unexpected encounter with how Australian’s interpret words came during one of my Portal to the Public presentations when I talked about how Pacific Science Center is sustaining this program that brings scientists into the Science Center to interact face-to-face with our visitors.  I noted that the University of Washington paid Pacific Science Center to host a University of Washington Research weekend, which we call Husky Weekend after the university’s mascot.  I then said we were trying to do the same with Washington State University – making it a Cougar Weekend.  The room erupted in laughter and one person suggested we might think of a different name.  Cougarville is clearly a popular television show in Australia, so the image that came to mind for the Aussies was not a big cat, but a weekend of older women seeking the attention of younger men – that would make for an interesting weekend at the Science Center.  In Washington State we’ve talked for the past few years about hosting a Cougar weekend and have never had this response.  I wonder if people from the east coast in the US would have the same reaction as the Aussies.

And then there is the coffee culture in Australia that includes the familiar cappuccino and latte, but also flat whites, long blacks, short blacks and long pours.  More about ordering coffee in Australia in a future blog.

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3 Responses to What Not to Say in Australia

  1. Leslie Herrenkohl says:

    Hi Dennis,

    Great to see you at ASTC. I love the Courgar weekend comments! I would have never thought that Aussie’s would think that was funny. Thinking about it from their point-of-view made me laugh too (it doesn’t hurt that I’m a Husky fan too!). My kids favorite Aussie-isms were lolly (for candy), icy pole (for popsicle), biscuit (for cookie), jumper (for sweater/sweatshirt), and “ampi” (short for amphitheater) for the covered outdoor theater where all-school assemblies were held on Monday mornings. The coffee situation – yikes – I’m not sure I ever got it straight! Looking forward to that post soon.



  2. Troy says:

    Wonderful blog Dennis. Very interesting and entertaining. I look forward to more! Cheers.

  3. Jan Hustler says:

    Hi Dennis,
    Thanks for sharing your adventures with us. Your notes bring back so many terrific memories that Jim and I have of our stay in Australia – a grand and wonderful journey thanks in part to some very helpful suggestions from you. One of my favorite language “barriers” was in a restaurant. I was puzzled and asked the waitress what a “rockets” salad was. Her response was, “Oh, I think you people call them arugula.”

    I look forward to your next entry.


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