Expat Life

My Australian English

How’s my Australian English shaping up?

I can’t shorten words and phrases the way Aussies do. I still say sunglasses, breakfast, and chicken instead of sunnies, brekkie, and chook. Speaking in abbreviations feels forced and unnatural for me, like text speak. I can’t do that either. I text mostly in complete, properly punctuated sentences. It’s not because I’m a snob (I am a little bit of a snob). It’s because I have to concentrate more and it takes me longer to type something such as, “My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.”

Translation: “My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It’s a great place.” That’s an actual text message from a 13-year-old girl.

Australian English is not as cryptic as a teenager’s text message, but it just sounds wrong coming out of my American mouth with its Miami accent. Part of the Aussie charm is the accent and some words depend on it to sound right. I said “g’day” once by accident and I was horrified. My partner Theo makes fun of me for (allegedly) being unable to pronounce his best friend’s name, Graeme. It is like gram, gray-em, gray-um. Gray or grey? Apparently, these are pronounced differently.

I have adopted some Australian English words. It happened naturally with words and expressions used here that are not widely used back in the US. Other words require more thought, but I like to use them for convenience as well as for adaptation. Here are some of the local words I’ve adopted.

Biscuit: A biscuit in Australia is a cracker or a cookie. This is one of the words I have to think about. I’m still often inclined to say crackers and cookies. It’s not like Aussies don’t know what I mean, but I always get corrected so I might as well go with biscuit.

Bogan: This one has a complicated meaning. The word bogan may be used pejoratively, in a self-deprecating manner, or even in an affectionate and proud way. Much like the way white trash, hick, and redneck are used in the US, bogan generally refers to someone who may come from an unsophisticated background, who lacks manners, or education. The stereotype includes flannel shirts, beer guts, missing teeth, and mullet haircuts, but the word is sometimes embraced to mean a sort of quintessential rugged Australian. I feel uncomfortable using this word. I don’t like it, but if I use it, the listener knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Bush: This is one of the words that I’ve adopted easily. As in “the bush”, it refers to lands outside urban areas. Sometimes you’ll hear it used interchangeably with “the outback”, but generally the outback (another word I’m comfortable using) refers to more remote places. I’m also comfortable saying bushfires instead of wildfires.

Footy: Short for football, footy is Australian rules football. Saying “football” is confusing as it may refer to footy, soccer, or North American football, which is sometimes called gridiron.

Pram: A pram is a baby carriage or stroller.

Prawns: Australians know the word shrimp, but don’t much use it. The Outback Steakhouse is lying with all those “shrimp on the barbie” ads. This is one of those words that I pronounce wrong (allegedly)

Rubbish: Rubbish is garbage, but it also means to criticise or reject (e.g. rubbishing an idea) and can also refer to something useless (e.g. a rubbish manager). Australians are exposed to enough American entertainment to understand our English, but it’s like when I say cookie instead of biscuit. They act confused, speak slowly, and enquire further, “Oh, you mean…rubbish?”

I confuse pharmacy, chemist, and drugstore. When I was in London years ago, I asked my B&B’s owner where the nearest drugstore was. She did that I’m-confused-so-let-me-speak-slowly thing and asked, “By drugstore, you mean…the chemist?” So I always remember that the English use chemist (because this one woman represents all of England) and since I tend to think of Aussies as being pretty British (they would disagree), I’m inclined to think they say chemist too. I just say whatever comes out of my mouth.

Another thing I can’t adopt is the Australian love of using a vulgar word for female genitalia to describe anything or anyone they don’t like. I like my girlie bits. If I’m going to use them as a descriptor for something else, it better be awesome. It’s like when someone says, “That’s gay.” I presume they are talking about something awesome because that’s what all my gay friends are.



  • Ben

    I’ve pretty much warmed up to a lot of words but still get pretty protective of the word biscuit. I actually hate to hear people say that because my brain automatically goes “Mmm… white gravy” kinda what just happened RIGHT THIS SECOND.

    I don’t even like to hear the C word either. I usually respond by “Don’t say that.”

    …I’m also pretty bad at calling stuff gay, oddly enough. It’s usually said when, well, things are pretty… gay.

    I will probably never call McDonald’s “Maccas” or when I do say it, I say it like my true American self so that it rhymes with quackers. It rubs people the wrong way – you should try it. LOL

    • Cosette Paneque

      Yeah, I can’t call McDonald’s Maccas. It’s wrong and it sounds even more wrong coming out of my mouth lol. I hear you on the biscuits.

  • I had to smile reading this, because I experienced the opposite problem when I lived in Florida. I learnt/learned to speak the complete word, and give up on my abbreviations. Aussies really do abbreviate a lot of words.

    Like you, I found trash, shrimp, and stroller to be the easy words to conquer, but how can you call those things like scones, biscuits? 😀

    To be fair to the English person who you thought didn’t understand what you meant by drugstore, I have to admit that until I went to the US, I had no idea what the word meant. I can remember being puzzled because I couldn’t find any chemists. If I went back today, I’d probably still struggle to dredge the word up if I needed a chemist.

    I don’t recall being pulled up over using the word, bushfire, but maybe there wasn’t a reason to discuss such things in the five and a half years I was there.

    As you say, words like cookies and crackers are now a part of our language because of American TV programs, but I was amazed with how Americans couldn’t grasp my abbreviations, and the way I used some words.

    I see no use for derogatory terms at all.

    Most Australians are of British descent, so I don’t understand why some would reject that. I like that we’ve hung onto aspects of our UK heritage, especially the spelling, grammar, and the way we use a knife and fork. I loved how living in the US made me think deeply about those differences between us. American history provides a lot of the answers, as does Australian history explain much about our strange use of words.

    I imagine those Australians who complain about you using the incorrect language, have no concept of what it is like to live in another country for a few years,

    • Cosette Paneque

      Biscuits, scones, and biscuits. This is funny and confusing and has come up in my blog comments before. I actually don’t know what the Aussie equivalent of American biscuits are, but they’re not scones. I may have to dedicate a blog entry to this phenomenon lol.

  • emiLy

    I also had to smile when I read this because I went through the same thing with those words. Last year I lived in Melbourne for 6 months for my job. At the time, I didn’t think I had adopted too many Aussie words, but when I got back to Seattle, hardly anyone could understand what I was saying! I had already adopted sunnies, mozzies, brekkie, and Macca’s from my previous trips to Australia. Abbreviating words was second nature to me. In fact, my fellow American in-pats and I would make up our own abbreviations for things (like “the Vic” for Victoria Park Markets or “B-Dub” for Big W). These are some of the other Aussie words/phrases I now say without thinking (and all my American friends like to correct me on), and other words I make a point to avoid:

    -BBQ vs Grilling: grilling = the American equivalent of broiling something and BBQ = the barbie. My Aussie co-workers would giggle every time I’d say ‘grill’ and finally one of them corrected me told me to say ‘BBQ’. Since then, in my mind, BBQ and grilling are not interchangeable.
    -Rooting = to have sex. Basically I learned to never say “I’m rooting for [insert team name here]”. I never use this word anymore but it makes me laugh when other people use it. And especially when I hear the song “Take me Out to the Ballgame”.
    -How you going = how are you. Took me a few weeks to get into it but I’ve been saying it ever since.
    -Sales person in the store asks “Are you okay?” – it’s their way of asking ‘can i help you’, not actually asking how you are doing.
    -Fringe = bangs
    -Arvo = afternoon

    Maybe the biggest thing I had to get use to was the lack of pronunciation of the letter “R” in Aussie English. I inadvertently picked both those up. It took me a couple months back in the US before I got my R’s back but I slip right back into it from time to time. Also the way they pronounced a lot of words, like Melbourne (mel-bin vs. mel-born) and awesome (ow-some vs. ah-some), I still say them Aussie style.

    • Cosette Paneque

      Those are all good ones, Emily. I still “confuse” BBQ and grilling.

  • Some of these are similar to British English. In fact, Australian English and British English have a lot more in common than maybe they are willing to admit. I already knew about pram, biscuit, and rubbish (thanks Harry Potter!) and I was familiar with bogan and bush because I had learned this from Australians I’d talked to. But that’s so weird about the abbreviating thing. I was aware of it but I wasn’t sure if it was a younger generation thing or if all Australians did it.

    You have to admit drugstore is a weird word! We tend to use the word drugs casually but I think in other countries it may only refer to illegal substances. You say I’m going to the drugstore, to non-Americans we probably sound like we’re off to buy weed or cocaine. Chemist is strange too, it just makes me think of a chem lab. I think pharmacy is probably the universal word everybody understands? Though American pharmacies include a bit of everything (thank God for CVS, why can’t you be an international brand?) and not just pharmacies.

    • Cosette Paneque

      I totally agree that the Aussies have more in common with the English than they are willing to admit. Funny enough, ‘drugstore’ is a word I adopted as an adult. In Spanish we say ‘farmacia’ so I grew up saying pharmacy, which goes over pretty well here in Melbourne.

  • I’m British and it still gets confused for me and others! “I reckon” is something my partner says a lot and now I also say it a lot! I also had a very long debate with him about what chips are once and sometimes manage to ask for chips in the correct context!

    I told a work colleague I had bought a duvet yesterday (I live in Darwin where in theory its hot all year round) and got a blank stare until I confirmed it is a “doonah”. I also asked the same colleague for some sellotape instead of sticky tape which caused much confusion as did asking a friend for some tip ex rather than white out!

    • Cosette Paneque

      Yes! All good ones. “Reckon” is a word that has made its way into my vocabulary as well. I didn’t know the word doonah until I came to Oz and I tend to say Scotch tape instead of sticky tape, haha.