Our language changes so slowly and incrementally that most of us don’t even notice American vernacular replacing Aussie lingo – but author and journalist Hugh Lunn does. Here are some of the most egregious examples.
Recentlymy young nephew, a botanist, rang my front door bell in Brisbane.
He’d arrived to help me sort three-rooms-full of writings, notes, photos, clippings and manuscripts into some semblance of order.
After more than 60 years sweating over a keyboard I needed Richard’s meticulous skills — honed by a decade of classifying and categorizing weeds, fungi and plants both in Australia and at the famous Kew Gardens in London.
Plus, being a lifesaver, he had the physical attributes required to man-handle the collection of old tin trunks containing my over-flowing archive.
Only recently back from years abroad, and now with a substantial red beard, Richard took off his aviator sunglasses, revealing just how much he looked like Prince Harry. Half-expecting some news of the Royal Family, I asked if he had developed any special interests while in London.
“Yes, smut,” he replied, “you can look it up on the internet.”
“Oh no, the youth of today!” I thought, until he explained that smut is a group of fungi of great interest to boffins like himself.
After such a bad start I sought some common ground.
“So. How’s tricks, Richo?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
So I explained that this was what Aussies used to ask people they hadn’t seen for a fair while… er… “Which means a long time”, I hastily added.
Our conversation reminded me of the adventurer who took a group of school children on a bush walk in the mountains behind the Gold Coast several years ago. After a few hours in the heat they reached the middle of a high, dark piece of rainforest full of twisted, gnarled, contorted centuries-old trees which allowed little light through.
It was cool, they’d been hiking since breakfast, so he asked the boys, “Would you like a spell?”
The kids hopped for joy, threw down their packs and squealed “Yes” only to be disappointed when it turned out the adventurer didn’t plan to do something magical and Harry Potterish.
Which took me back to the confusion a journalist colleague of mine created recently. He wanted to do a big profile story on a rising sports star. But her agent was being extremely protective; not sure if it would be in her best interests. The journalist pleaded: “But we’ll do her proud!”
“What do you mean?” the agent replied.
Like the young man who a physiotherapist I’ve known for 50 years was treating for a bad back. After examining him carefully, the physio stroked his chin and said, “Look, I don’t want to put the mockers on you…” only to be interrupted by the young man: “I don’t mind. Put the mockers on me. I’ll try anything if it fixes my bloody back!”
The main reason our language has disappeared is because it has been replaced by American TV language.
One night two years ago my wife and I – with nothing interesting for us on TV these days – sat down to watch an American spy thriller, Berlin Station. In a dramatic moment, one of the characters swung around and said “We’ll have to double down.”
Helen and I – journalists and editors for many decades – looked at each other. “What did he say?” “What the Hell does it mean?”
Since that day we’ve noticed “double down” everywhere: the two words have become a big part of our Australian language – in newspaper stories and headlines and among our politicians and commentators. I’m still not sure what it means, but if it means what I think then once upon a time we would have said “we’d better double up”.
As most people who read my books know, my most popular character is a Russian migrant who arrived here aged 10 and sat next to me in my Convent class. His name was Dimitri Egoroff, but we called him “Jim”.
English was Jim’s second language – so he had his own unique way of talking.
We would say “It’s raining cats and dogs today”, but Jim said “It’s raining dingoes!” He always asked me, “Lunn, how have you been going these couple of last days?” and – when expressing surprise that I kept writing about him — he would say “I know you have to keep the wolf at the door”. Of course we would say “from the door”.
To capture his lingo I kept notes whenever he visited.
Eventually Jim moved to San Francisco to care for his elderly mother, and would turn up once a year “like a bad penny”, as we used to say. On one trip in the early 1990s he kept using a word I hadn’t come across before: “whatever”.
Thinking it was his, I wrote it down and had him say it in one of my books.
Three decades later, desperate to watch something on our TV screen, we started watching Seinfeld. That’s when I found out where Jim got “whatever” – the characters use it almost as much as they use the word “bathroom” – which has now also taken over in Australia.
In the 1950s we went to the dunny or the lavatory. In the 1970s we went to the toilet. In the 1980s we went to the ‘loo. And now everyone goes to “the bathroom”. In Grand Slam tennis matches they now have “a bathroom break”.
In cricket we have “batters” and “fielders”, the reserve bench is “the dugout” and dressing sheds have become “locker rooms”. If you “blow off” it doesn’t mean you passed wind any more – it means you didn’t turn up for an appointment. At the Byron Bay Chemist the sign outside says: “Please don’t talk on your cellular phone while waiting to be served”.
We now universally talk “with” people and not “to” them and add “of” or “for” or “with” willy-nilly to sentences:
She suffers with asthma
I’m fed up of being mucked around
Police have warned parents of leaving children in cars
The apartments comprise of…
I’d love for him to pick up the phone
I’m real close with him
He was convicted for murder
And, worst of all, we are now starting to use the U.S. special “off of” in sentences.
We no longer have problems; in our media we only have “issues”.
Qantas flights turn around “because of issues”. We have power issues and pitch issues and knee issues and capacity issues – even, just the other day, NSW Health workers had “coronavirus issues”.
A jackass has become a fool in a bar instead of a kookaburra; a 4-wheel drive has become an SUV; “pissed off” has become “pissed’ and “passed away” has become “passed”.
Anthony Albanese insists on saying “nootral” while some newsreaders now say “nooclear” instead of “nuclear” and “nood” instead of “nude”.
Faced with all this, as my nephew Richard left, I unthinkingly said “Tah-tah.” He half-turned to come back but instead left with a smile on his dial.
I assumed he was thinking about smut.
Smut is a group of pathogenic fungi that produce grey or black spores on plants. Hugh Lunn has written two books on Australia’s lost language for ABC Books, Lost for Words and Words Fail Me.