Americans speak English. Australians speak English. Therefore, you’d think we could understand each other perfectly. Such is not the case.
In 1892, German linguist Karl Lentzner wrote:
The English language has of late years incorporated a vast store of words and phrases generally known as ‘Slang,’ which, with marvellous rapidity, have taken root in all sections of the community. America especially has proved a fertile soil for colloquialisms of this kind; and so has Australia.
Lentzer published a number of works pertaining to Australian English vocabulary in the late 19th century including the first dictionary of colonial Australian with slang and words introduced from Aboriginal languages and pidgin. Mental Floss has a short list with some slang terms collected by Lentzer. You’re not likely to hear any of these words as you travel through Australia (or at least, through Melbourne), but here are a few others commonly used words and phrases that are distinctly and colorfully Australian.
The first thing to know is that Australians abbreviate a lot of words. Mosquito become mozzies, a chicken becomes a chook, McDonald’s is called Maccas, the Salvation Army stores (and adherents) are called Salvos, registration (as in a vehicle’s) becomes rego, and so forth.
Bathers: Bathers and swimmers refer to swimwear, which Americans generally call bathing suits. Budgie smugglers are the men’s tight-fitting Speedo-style swim briefs.
Bikies: Bikies refers to both motorcycle enthusiasts and, more commonly, outlaw motorcycle gangs. You’ll hear this word pretty often in the news.
Biscuit: A biscuit in Australia is a cracker or a cookie. I actually have no idea what Australians call what we Americans refer to as biscuits.
Bogan: You’ll hear this complicated word a lot as well as some debate about what it means exactly. The word bogan may be used pejoratively, in a self-deprecating manner, or even in a somewhat affectionate and proud way. Much like the way white trash, hick, and redneck are used in the USA, 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.
Bush: 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 refers to far more remote places. Additionally, Australians refer to wildfires as bushfires.
Bushranger: You might think a bushranger is like a park ranger, but it’s quite the opposite. Originally, it referred to runaway convicts in the early years of the British settlement of Australia who had the survival skills necessary to use the Australian bush to hide from the authorities. They’re outlaws and usually got through their short lives by robbing people, small-town banks, and coaches. Think American Old West. Unlike their American counterparts, however, bushrangers seem to attract public sympathy and are sometimes represented as political rebels. Australia’s most (in)famous bushranger is Ned Kelly. Both loved and hated, he best exemplifies the Australian ambivalence towards the bushranger.
BYO: Bring your own. This refers to food and drink both at private social gatherings (like a family barbecue) and public spaces, such as an unlicensed restaurant where you can bring your own alcohol.
Digger: A digger is an Australian soldier. The term was applied during the First World War to Australian and New Zealand soldiers because so much of their time was spent digging trenches. You’ll hear this word quite a bit because Australia still has personnel deployed in the middle east. You’ll also hear it on special occasions that honor servicemen and women such as Anzac Day.
Dunny: Traditionally, a dunny is a non-flushing toilet in an outhouse, but it has evolved to refer to the toilet in general – either the room or the fixture itself. Australians will understand you if you ask where the bathroom is, but toilet is more widely used.
Esky: Esky is an Australian brand of coolers. Just as Americans sometimes use the brand-name Kleenex to refer to facial tissue in general, Aussies say esky to refer to coolers.
Fairy Floss: Ok, you won’t hear this one that often, but I include because I like it. It’s cotton candy. And fairy bread is sliced white bread with butter and colorful sprinkles. It’s served at children’s parties (because getting tiny party-goers high on sugar is always a good idea).
Flake: Flake is shark meat. You’ll see this in every fish and chips shop.
Footy: Short for football, footy is Australian rules football. North American football is generally referred to as gridiron.
Icy pole: A popsicle.
Lollies: Lollies include all candies, not just lollipops, but not chocolates.
Milk bar: The milk bar is a small local store where you can pick up some basic staples such as milk, bread, eggs, and soda. It’s full of nostalgia, the kind of place where a child first goes alone with a short list of groceries for mom, or rounds the corner to buy an ice cream on a hot summer day. In reality, they tend to be dark and dingy and overpriced compared to the local markets and supermarkets, which are slowly driving them out of business.
Muesli: Muesli is oats with seeds and fruit. It can be served hot or cold, like porridge or a cold cereal, and in the form of bars. So, if you’re an American looking for something like a granola bar or Quaker Oats, head to the muesli aisle of the supermarket. And if you want Rice Krispies, look for Rice Bubbles. You’ll find a lot of American foods may have different names, but are the same product. Hungry Jacks, for example, is Burger King.
Op shop: Short for opportunity shop, op shops are charity shops, thrift stores run by a charitable organizations such as the Salvos (Salvation Army).
Petrol: In North America, we call it gasoline or gas. That is, the fuel for your car.
Pissed: In the USA, to be pissed is usually to be angry, but in Australia, it means to be drunk.
Pokies: I was surprised to discover just how widespread gambling is in Melbourne. Pokies refer to gaming machines such as poker and slot machines, and also to places that have them (as in, “She goes to the pokies.”). Although casinos have them, Australians don’t refer to all places with pokies as a casino. Pokies are found in pubs and clubs such as the RSL, the Returned and Services League of Australia, a support organisation for men and women who have served or are serving in the Australian Defence Force, Australia’s military. Another related word you’ll see often is TAB (Totalisator Agency Board), for racing and sports betting.
Pram: A pram is a baby carriage or stroller.
Prawns: Australians know the word shrimp, but rarely use it. The Outback Steakhouse is lying with all those “shrimp on the barbie” ads.
Root: Every time my partner Theo hears an American say something like, “We’re rooting the for the team!”, he giggles like a 12-year-old boy. That’s because in Australia, root is a synonym for fuck and a root rat is someone who is always looking for sex.
Rubbish: Even though we don’t use this one in the USA, many Americans will recognize it. Rubbish is garbage, but it also means to criticize or reject (as in, rubbishing an idea) and can also refer to something useless (as in, a rubbish manager).
Shout: This means you’re buying. For example, “Let’s go out for drinks, my shout.”
Slab: A slab is a carton of 24 tinnies (cans) or 375-ml bottles of beer, which are called stubbies because they are stubby compared to “traditional” 750 ml bottles. Oh, and by the way, although Foster’s is an internationally distributed Australian brand of lager, nobody here actually drinks it. It’s definitely not “Australian for beer.”
Swag: Aussies aren’t referring to personal style when they someone has swag. In fact, what they actually said was that someone has a swag, a sort of bedroll for camping. It’s not quite a tent, but it’s more than a sleeping bag. Some are bigger and more sophisticated than others.
Ta: It just means thank you. Theo says nobody ever says this to him, but I get it all the time, usually from sales ladies when I’m shopping.
Tall poppy syndrome: You don’t hear this one too often, but it comes up from time to time, and it’s a good one to be aware of especially if joining the Australian workforce. Tall poppy syndrome is a pejorative term to describe the phenomenon in which merit and success, and the people that have such qualities, are criticized or resented because their achievements distinguish them from their peers. Australia has something of an underdog culture.
Whinge: To whinge is to complain.
Wog: A wog is a pejorative word to describe a person of Mediterranean origin – Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, etc. It’s an ugly word; don’t use it.
Woop Woop: It’s the middle of nowhere, as in “They live out in Woop Woop.”
These are just some words you’ll hear on a regular basis. There’s a lot more to Australian slang than this short list and I still find myself asking my partner what a word means. There are also many slang words that are dying out as the world gets smaller and Australian youth become more globally influenced.
The following video is a humorous look at Australian slang. Don’t take it too seriously though, and I warn you, it’s full of profanities.