Anyone who has visited Australia will agree that the way we use language is a little bit weird. For starters, we shorten just about every noun by adding a vowel after the first syllable. This applies to the names of people (“Jonathan” becomes “Jono”), places (“Tasmania” becomes “Tassie,”) companies (“McDonald’s” becomes “Maccas,”) and sports (“football” becomes “footy”).
Historically, we also have the habit of speaking in odd metaphors (e.g. he was as mad as a cut snake means he was very angry) and rhyming slang (e.g. trouble and strife means wife). Although younger generations appear to be moving away from this bizarre use of language, the result is a heavily coded “‘Strayan” lexicon, which even native English speakers struggle to wrap their heads around. I mean, if I were to say to an American person that “Dazza spat the dummy at the barbie and wound up in the back of a Divvy van” would they have any idea what I was talking about? Nope. That’s Australian slang for you.
The majority of the adjustments we Australians have made to the English language are completely harmless. However, like all language, the slang we use rests on a set of underlying assumptions which at times sets up a highly derogatory dynamic. When we apply colloquial labels to people and cultural groups, there is an obvious tension between cultural humor, political correctness, and downright prejudice. For instance, the term “ranga,” a word that has been widely used since the early 2000’s to describe people with red hair. The nickname itself is an abbreviation of “orangutan,” which infers a relationship between people with red hair and monkeys. This seems pretty harsh, given that in schools around the world redheads are already seen as easy targets for bullying, illustrated most famously by the 2008 “Kick a Ginger” group on Facebook, started by a Canadian schoolboy who wanted to start a “National Kick A Ginger Day.” Horrible. More recently however, many redheads are reclaiming the label with pride and adapting the anti-bullying slogan “it gets better” to their own slogan: “It Gets Redder.” Love it.
Then we have the term “twelvie.” In Australia, twelvie describes a younger teenager, technically a 12 year-old, who tries to act and dress older than their age. The word is usually applied specifically to girls, and acts as a synonym for any of the following: slut, try hard, skank, or cakeface (slang for caked on make-up). It can also depict a person who gives the impression of being sexually available even though they are not, or possibly should not (?) be at their age. The message this sends is highly problematic: you’re supposed to act like an adult even though you’re a kid and you must be convincing. We live in a consumer landscape that pressures teenage girls to perform adult behaviors before they are ready while at the same time applying labels that criticize girls for acting older than their age. Let’s just say that being twelve years old has never been so confusing.
But by far the most nauseating example that springs to my mind is the use of the label “boat people.” This entered Oz-speak during the 70’s when boats started to arrive in Australian shores carrying people who had evacuated their homes in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Currently, the term boat people is used to describe any displaced person arriving on a boat without formal documentation. Firstly, keep in mind that people needing sanctuary from global conflict is a basic human rights issue: refugees and asylum seekers are by definition coming from traumatic circumstances and simply need a safe place to exist. It is already dehumanizing that this issue is so heavily politicized by various governments—the use of the term “boat people” is actually next level degrading. But considering Australian history, there is a whole other level of hypocrisy at work. In 1770, Captain James Cook himself arrived in a boat and claimed Australia for Great Britain, despite the fact that this continent had already been inhabited by our indigenous people for thousands of years. It is nothing short of bizarre that descendants of people who invaded one of the oldest civilizations in the world (by boat!) are so stingy about sharing our abundant land with others who genuinely have no safe place to go. Ridiculous!
Yes, Aussie culture is built on a social architecture of laid-back egalitarianism—“having a laugh” at yourself as well as others. However, at times our language also projects prejudicial views that we do not necessarily subscribe to. It’s about time we stopped hiding behind the banner of “what are those bloody Aussies even talking about?” Lets consider the meaning behind what we say so that we can finally start to say what we really mean without insulting others.