The Great Aussie Dialect – History & humour in action (Part 2)

Note: This is Part 2 of my post about the contemporary Australian dialect (‘Strine’) – one of the world’s most advanced English dialects! Make sure you read Part 1 first – here.

The long & short of it

To make up for adding extra words with all of the similes and rhyming slang, Australians like to economise on overall length by abbreviating other words and (usually) adding a vowel sound to the end.(5)

IMG_9392For example:

  • ‘arvo’ – afternoon
  • ‘rego’ – vehicle registration
  • ‘uee’ – u-turn (as in chuck-a-uee)
  • ‘brekky’ – breakfast
  • ‘vegies’ or ‘veggies’ – vegetables
  • ‘barbie’ – barbecue
  • ‘smoko’ – work break (even if no-one smokes)
  • ‘cuppa’ – hot beverage (but surely everyone says this – not just Aussies?)
  • ‘pokies’ – poker (slot) machines
  • ‘bottle-o’ – a liquor store/bottle shop
  • ‘stubbies’ – 375ml bottles of beer (as compared to 750ml ‘long necks’. Hence, insulated ‘stubby holders’ that keep your beer cold while you drink it – like these little rippers inspired by bushranger Ned Kelly and his homemade suit of armour)
  • ‘pressie’ – gift/present
  • ‘rellie’ or ‘relo’ – family relative
  • ‘brolly’ – umbrella
  • ‘sunnies’ – sunglasses
  • ‘lippie’ – lipstick
  • ‘trackie dacks’ – tracksuit pants
  • ‘jocks’ – men’s briefs (generally with a Y-front i.e. not a jockstrap)
  • ‘cossie’ – swimming costume (or ‘togs’ or ‘bathers’ depending on which state you live in)
  • ‘muso’ – musician
  • ‘pollie’ – politician
  • ‘ambo’ and ‘firie’ –  ambulance driver/paramedic and firefighter respectively
  • ‘thingo’ – thingamebob (a general term for something that you either don’t know what its called or can’t remember).

IMG_0019We do the same with names for people, places, organisations and other proper nouns. For example:

  • ‘Thommo’ – blokes with the surname Thomson or Thompson (similarly Jacko/Jackson)
  • ‘Shazza’ – sheilas called Sharon (similarly Bazza/Barry & Dazza/Darren or Daryl)
  • ‘Macca’ – anyone with a surname starting with Mc or Mac (hence Macca’s/McDonalds Restaurants)
  • ‘Barnsey’ – Jimmy Barnes (lead singer of Cold Chisel)
  • ‘Warnie’ – Shane Warne (cricket legend)
  • ‘Freo’ – Fremantle (in Western Australia)
  • ‘Tassie’ – Tasmania (island south of the mainland)
  • ‘Rabbitohs’ – South Sydney rugby league football team
  • ‘Salvo’s’ & ‘Vinnie’s’ – secondhand/thrift stores run by the Salvation Army & St Vincent de Paul respectively.

IMG_0376A country of larrikins, ratbags & lazy bastards

While Strine relies on a degree of local knowledge to make sense of it, it’s easier if outsiders learn a bit about Australian history and a lot about our sense of humour (as well as develop an appreciation of our sport and rock bands).

Convicts, soldiers and other Aussies, for example, often had good reason to obscure their real meaning as they were likely to be punished if they complained or were rude to those in authority.

Joking about their circumstances also helped to cope with adversity.

As a result, Australians learnt to say the opposite of what they meant. Very basic examples included calling tall people ‘Shorty’ and redheads ‘Bluey’, while more complex language resulted in a sort of secret code.(6) & (7)

Aussies also began to use words such as ‘bastard’ and ‘ratbag’ as terms of endearment.

(During World War 2, Aussie troops fighting in Libya were not concerned at all when German propagandists labelled them ‘desert rats’ because they were living in dugouts. In fact, they turned it into a badge of honour and their memorial in Canberra salutes these ‘Rats of Tobruk’. 

Aussie soldiers were also happy to be called ‘diggers’ – a literal reference to the trenches they dug in the First World War and an indirect reference to the deep holes that they and their forebears had dug in search of gold not long before.)

IMG_9790Aussies are masters of word association and take great pride in playing with words that have multiple meanings and spellings.

Consider, for example, (Sir) Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop AC, CMG, OBE who was given his nickname at school because of his surname (i.e. Dunlop tyre/tired/weary). Although Weary did not live up to or deserve this epithet, it was used with affection and respect by all who knew him throughout his long life.(8)

There are many examples of Australians being irreverent and making light of tragedies, such as the mysterious disappearance of our Prime Minister, Harold Holt CH, at a beach on the south coast in 1967. I’ve never known whether the expression ‘to do a Harold Holt’ is rhyming slang (i.e. bolt/leave quickly) or if it refers to the event itself (i.e. buggar off without a trace).(9)

IMG_7009One of my favourite Australian phrases (idioms or colloquialisms?) comes from the name of a department store in Melbourne that no longer exists. I remember going to Buckley & Nunn years ago to be kitted out for school – but students would have Buckley’s chance (i.e. Nunn/none/no chance) of purchasing their uniforms there nowadays.

Funnily enough, the term ‘Buckley’s’ is used by many Aussies who have never heard of the store. In fact, it is quite common for Australians to use terms without knowing where they come from or even realising that they are peculiarly Australian terms.

IMG_3408For example, there are lots of furphies (rumours; improbable stories) about the origin of the term ‘furphy’. Some websites suggest connections with the Irish but most agree that it is associated with Furphy water tanks that were manufactured in Shepparton, Victoria from the 1880s.

Despite numerous theories, the authors of a book I read believe it was because Furphy tanks were located near the latrines at the Broadmeadows Army Barracks where Victorian troops trained before heading overseas in WW1. However, I’m still not sure if it was because the troops would gather at the tank and share what they had heard or if the tank water was used for cleaning out the latrines.(10)

Please speak more clearly 

Afferbeck Lauder (i.e. ‘alphabetical order’ if you say it quickly and run the words together) published a series of books about ‘Strine’ in the 1960s that illustrated how Aussies with broad accents and a nasal twang pronounce common words and phrases.

IMG_3513Some of my favourites are:

  • ‘aorta’ – they ought to
  • ‘bran’ – brown
  • ‘egg nishner’ – air conditioner
  • ‘baked necks’ – bacon & eggs
  • ‘Money’ – the day following ‘Sunny’
  • ‘semmitch’ – sandwich
  • ‘Sinny’ – Sydney
  • ‘yeggowan’ – are you going?

and the all-important consumer question

  • ‘Emma Chisit?’ – How much is it? (that inspired Alistair Morrison to invent ‘Strine’ in the first place. See here for details.)

When travelling overseas, I generally try to enunciate each syllable as clearly as I can, but admit to being far more lazy on home turf. It’s not that we don’t know how to talk proper, we just choose not to in most cases.

[I reckon many Australians could give Eliza Doolittle a run for her money in ‘My Fair Lady’ but we would probably rename her ‘Eliza the Bludger’ first. (A ‘bludger’ is a layabout who avoids work or responsibility and/or takes advantage of others.)]

An example of when we might want to speak ‘the King’s English’ is when we’re taking the piss out of (i.e. making fun of) someone, such as a stuck up pom who has tickets on himself (i.e. believes he is superior).

[Taking the piss (or mickey) does not have anything to do with urination (or drugs) – unlike taking a leak or a slash. And ‘pissed’ means drunk – not angry or upset.]

I still haven’t worked out why we have such atypical intonation and tend to go up at the end of every sentence (making statements sound like questions) – but it may have something to do with the influence of Chinese immigrants or we might just be very insecure.

And I can understand that it might drive others mad (crazy) when we ask questions that don’t need answering, such as “How good was the footy last night?”.

IMG_352120th Century immigrants add extra flavour

Whereas indigenous Australians and immigrants from Great Britain had the greatest impact on the local lingo early on, this changed by the mid 1900s. However, remnants of the original influences remain with rhyming slang (mentioned in Part 1) and grammatical exceptions such as ‘We love youse all’ (i.e. you plural from Irish English. Variant ‘yez’).

A wide range of sub-dialects have come from speaking Strine with a Greek or Italian or other European accent. This is clearly illustrated in the poetry of Melbourne’s π.O. (whose work provides a real insight into migrant culture when you read it aloud).(11)

These variations also feature in Con the Fruiterer’s song ‘Cuppla days’ in the late 80s (here), comedy shows such as ‘Acropolis Now’ (here), and Joe Dolce’s classic ‘Shaddap you face’ (here)’.

Some of the subtle differences include the use of expressions such as ‘duzen metta’ (doesn’t matter) – whereas other Aussies might say ‘no worries’ instead.

Some European immigrants even apply gender to nouns when they speak their version of Strine. For example, in Acropolis Now the lead character proclaims that Greece is under threat and ‘we are going to save him!’ Con the Fruiterer says something similar in his song when he refers to his ‘beeewdiful fruit’ as ‘him’.

(Despite what I wrote earlier about not attributing genders to nouns in English (here), some native-English speaking Aussies may do this for certain inanimate objects as a sign of affection. For example, a bloke who is particularly proud of his car, new lawnmower or other piece of machinery might say ‘She’s a little bewdy! Wanna take her for a spin?’)

And just as the Saxons took on French words when the Normans invaded England in 1066 (e.g. cow and cattle became beef/boeuf; lamb became mutton/mouton; pig became pork/porc; pudding and sweets became dessert; and drinks became beverages – ‘bevvies’ in Strine), Aussies assimilated food words when the Italians and Greeks invaded our shores in the 1950s and 60s. However, we Strinised them to create our own words, such as ‘spaggers’ (spaghetti. Variant ‘spag bol’) and ‘souva’ for souvlaki.

Versatility & linguistic evolution

Despite our verbal dexterity, Australians tend to be fairly conservative in our writing – so I was surprised when I saw the word ‘Straya’ in print this week in an Australia Day sale advertisement and a proposed new national anthem (here). (Is this a positive sign that English as a written language is constantly evolving – or a regression brought about by texting?)

When expressions become irrelevant or too obscure (e.g. if they refer to long-forgotten sports stars and politicians), new terms emerge based on contemporary local and international personalities and events.

For example, younger Australians may use ‘ranga’ (like orangutans) for redheads nowadays and may not even know what ‘Bluey’ means.

We have also apparently adopted Britney Spears (beers) into our current lexicon (but I have yet to hear it actually being used).

Another recent addition is to ‘Do a Bradbury’. (This term emerged after the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, when Steven Bradbury was way behind in a speed skating race but ended up winning the gold medal after all of the other competitors crashed.)(12)

(Aussies definitely appreciate a battler who wins against the odds through sheer persistence and a spot of good luck!)

karen aust dayThrow some Strine on the barbie

Whether you’re eating prawns, snags (sausages) or cold roast chook (chicken) and downing stubbies, tinnies, wine or champers (sorry – sparkling wine) from an esky this Australia Day, listen out for smatterings of Strine.

Or perhaps throw some into the conversation yourself.

We should pay homage to this great local dialect every day (not just today) as it epitomises the Aussie spirit of larrikinism, celebrates our unique and colourful heritage, and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

And stay tuned for Part 3 – Does it matter if we talk Strine? (here)



Congratulations for making it through this very long post! You are now ready to try the Australian Citizenship Test again – here.

If you need a cheat sheet, this one’s quite good (here) as there is so much more to Strine than I could possibly hope to cover in a few posts. Or try the ANU’s more detailed glossary with meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms (here).

[PS. Why don’t we have a public holiday dedicated to Ned Kelly?]



(5) When Aussies invent words, we carry on the great English tradition of irregular and non-phonetic spelling. Although there seems to be little rhyme or reason to which vowel sound is added, sometimes the choice is straightforward (e.g. ‘journo’ for journalists avoids confusion with ‘journey’). One brave woman tried to analyse our use of ‘intervocalic fricatives in embellished clippings’ in ‘Tassie rhymes with snazzy‘ and noted that we continue to break the rules (e.g. pronouncing the ‘ss’ in words like Tassie, pressie and cossie as ‘zz’). To complicate matters further, some words can be spelt with either ‘-y’ or ‘-ie’ e.g. ‘cocky’ or ‘cockie’ (multiple meanings – grazier or native bird as a noun or stuck up as an adjective).

(6) Similar dialects are used by people in other countries, such as Argentinian ‘Lunfardo’ (often heard in latin music) and ‘Vesre’ (reverse) and French Verlan. They typically developed over time amongst prisoners, criminals and shonky market stall holders who did not want to be understood by others. They usually feature lots of words for money, sex, and body parts (and tend not to be politically correct).

(7) It is unclear if ‘Blue’ and ‘Bluey’ were intended to be ironic or if the term was due to the early redheads who were of Irish origin and had a reputation for getting into fights (blues). Hence the phrase ‘There goes a blue’ when a potential fight (redhead) walked past. ‘Bluey’ might even have a completely different origin if you trust the ANU glossary mentioned above. Regardless of its origin, this Strinism apparently amused Richard Branson so much that when Virgin Australia was launched in 2000 it was called Virgin Blue – even though the planes were bright red like the rest of the fleet! 

(8) Weary (1907 – 1993) is known for having worked ‘tirelessly’ to save numerous lives during the Second World War as a doctor in Middle Eastern and Pacific campaigns, in brutal prisoner of war camps, and on the infamous Thai-Burma railway – where he kept the troops’ spirits high, constantly defied his captors, and tried valiantly to provide medical treatment for the injured and sick. He also continued to advocate for returned prisoners of war in peacetime and tried to mend relations with countries that we had fought against.

(9) Holt probably drowned but some speculate that he was whisked away by the Russians in a submarine as his body was never found. Either way, I can’t believe that his electorate named a memorial swimming pool after him! (here)

(10) For more about Furphy water tanks, try listening to this (long) radio story about this rural icon, the novel ‘Such is Life’, and the term ‘furphy’ – here. If you only want to know about the word, fast forward to Chapter 5 at 45 mins.

(11) See here for more about the poet, Peter Oustabasides. Writing about Pi-O’s ‘Fitzroy Poems’, Komninos Zervos says: The use of the dialect to capture events, conversations, disagreements, the action of Fitzroy interspersed with sketches of the characters – pictorial and verbal – makes this a complete and satisfying volume. The reader enters the language of the landscape, the dialect of Australian English as spoken by the gamblers, coffee drinkers and employees of the coffee shops and cafes,”

(12) It was Bradbury’s fourth Winter Olympics representing Australia. He won his heat but only made it through to the final due to the disqualification of another competitor in the quarter final and a crash in the semi-final. While Bradbury acknowledges that he was not the fastest skater in the race, he has come to accept the medal as a reward for 12 tough years of speed skating, including two life-threatening accidents. I recommend watching the short video of the race and interview with Bradbury (here).


Photo credits: Pip Marks. [Note: I don’t really love the Salvos until they change their stance on homosexuality.]

Poem: ‘No-wun hev roolz in da g-emb-o-li;’ by Pi-O. Published in Fitzroy Poems (Collective Effort Press, Australia 1989). 

Categories: Australiana

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. Now I am truly “speechless” ! Great post, but I feel so … ordinary.


  1. The Great Aussie Dialect (Part 3) – Does it matter if we talk Strine? | Sustainability soapbox

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