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Is Australian slang on the way out?

On June 16, 2014

By Jessica Leafe
In a recent update to The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, editor Tony Thorne reports that new Australian slang is dying out, having recorded a drop in additions to the nation’s vernacular. Thorne pairs this with a change in reasons for overseas travel, saying that where Aussies used to work internationally as bartenders or in other “fun” jobs that spread the use of national slang, we are more commonly now working in the corporate world and are very keenly engaging in professional jargon.

Australia has had a nearly century-long reputation for a multitude of slang words, and the late 20th century brought about an increase, especially in the spread of these via film and television to Britain and America. Figures like Paul Hogan and Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna and Bazza McKenzie not only promoted the exaggeratedly ocker Australianisms to their overseas audiences, but also depended upon it for international popularity. A large number of Australian films (and especially the successful ones) were centred upon establishing a modern Australian identity that was a sellable product to international viewers, the result being a popularised image of the ocker Aussie, supported by Tourism Australia’s famous call to “throw another shrimp on the barbie” –a catchphrase specifically written for appeal to American audiences.

Although politicians enjoy bringing out phrases like “Fair suck of the sauce bottle” (Kevin Rudd) in an attempt to establish a genuine and true-blue image, it is perhaps this exaggerated and overdone figure of the cardboard cut-out Aussie that has led to a cringe away from using this kind of language.

But just because Australians have shifted away from speaking like the sold image of Crocodile Dundee, it is certainly questionable whether our slang use has slackened off. Simply that Aussies are now apparently assimilating to professional jargon when making business overseas does not indicate a formal change from the vernacular back home.

A quick search of Australian slang on the web will give you a heap of phrases that, if used casually in the presence of others, will land you a few bemused smiles - “as dry as a dead dingo’s donga”. Other dictionaries are confused as to the meaning of a word. The Australian Dictionary defines a ‘lad’ as being ‘a cheerful fellow’, whereas common knowledge in Sydney will tell you that a ‘lad’ is a young gang member associated with dressing in polo t-shirts, track-pants or Adidas shorts, who participates in petty vandalism rather than heavyweight crimes. Differing views as these show that Australian slang is neither unanimously accepted nation-wide nor the same as its foreign image.

Australia is certainly going through somewhat of an identity crisis, and this is reflected in its language. Anxious to remain separate from the United States in culture, yet undeniably affected by being an increasing audience of American media.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more Australians claim ancestry from the United Kingdom than any other country, but attitudes to Australia’s place within the British monarchy differ greatly. And although many names for our flora and fauna come from indigenous languages, there are very few Aboriginal words in daily use as part of Australian English. Compared to countries in Latin America like Ecuador and Bolivia, where the strong presence of indigenous heritage has brought words from Quichua and Quechua into everyday Latin American Spanish (like the words “chuchaqui” meaning hungover and “ñaño” meaning brother), Australia’s historical relationship between its indigenous people and European settlers is reflected in our predominantly English vocabulary.

Australia’s language has shifted in parts away from the image of the overblown Aussie blokes and sheilas that you would see printed on a souvenir tea-towel, and our slang has changed in form and direction and perhaps regressed from the international market, but has not begun to die.

Interestingly, Thorne, who is a British linguist and lexicographer, has recorded only three new slang words in Australian usage. These are “ort” (meaning buttocks), “tockley” (an introduction by two teenagers in Newcastle meaning penis) and “unit” (apparently a new word for bogan).

Having personally never come across any of these terms either in spoken word or online, their meaning and widespread use is unknown to me, but it is clear that Australian slang is not as simple or universal as its previous image from decades past.

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