As a Canadian who has never been to Australia, I think I’m a pretty typical North American in that I don’t know a whole lot about Australians or their country, so what better time to get to know my Commonwealth cousins than on their nation’s birthday? I’d like to share with you what little I already know enhanced with what I recently found out.
In researching this post, I found an awful lot of information so in an effort to save time and to get this post up before the 2012 celebrations, I just skimmed over the parts that sounded familiar. I’m sure that won’t pose a problem.
One thing that my many minutes of research did produce was a realization that Australia and Canada have a lot of things in common. I intend to point these out from time to time in an effort to not only help my fellow Canadians feel an instant kinship with our southern Commonwealth cousins, but to provide a “two fer” quick study guide for Americans and anyone else wanting to know more about our countries.
Canadians and Australians alike be forwarned that this approach, compounded by my dubious writing skills that consistently earned me an “F” in English Comp during my brief but storied hopscotch through several educational institutions, might cause some confusion for Americans who will be learning about two countries at the same time. Please be understanding if American tourists in Australia ask for a schooner of maple syrup or pancakes with peameal bacon and Vegemite while visiting you in Canada. The error might not be entirely their fault.
The Birth of a Nation
Today (January 26) is a holiday in Australia which commemorates that fateful day 224 years ago when aboriginals spied the First Fleet landing at Sydney Cove and muttered the immortal words, “There goes the neighbourhood”.
As the history books, or in the case of my rigorous research involving reading a fraction of the words actually displayed on websites hosted around the world, tell it, colonists were carefully selected from the cream of the crop of England’s prison inmates and sent to Australia because their teeth were deemed too straight for their owners to remain on the British Isles.
This was also true of the early Canadian pioneers, but here in The Great White North we also had a gaggle of misfits sent across the Atlantic because they were too friendly and fun-loving to remain in France. In a strange twist of fate, Canada also used to deport some of her own criminal types to Britain’s penal colonies, including Australia. Apparently, starving and freezing to death in The Canadas was seen as being too good for them so they were sent to Australia to starve and sunburn to death. They must have been really bad boys with really good teeth because the extra postage to send them to Australia after arriving in Canada must have cost The Crown a huge chunk of change. The Canadians slated for expulsion didn’t really mind the prospect of spending months on the high seas because they were told that, unlike in Canada, there would be women waiting for them in Australia. So they happily boarded the tall ships with their perfect teeth, a bouquet of daisies, and what appeared to be a front pocket full of something or other.
Anyways, after many months of slipping on the vomit-soaked decks, that first all-male shipment of settlers sent from England under the command of Arthur Phillip arrived at Port Jackson. The Indigenous Australians had heard through the grapevine about what European settlers had done to the Indigenous American and Canadian peoples and were not keen on the same type of treatment. They lined the shore and, upon the settlers’ landing, offered the Europeans toast slathered with Vegemite in an effort to drive them away to other more-cuisine-oriented lands, like the cannibal-infested islands between Australia and Asia. Unfortunately for the Indigenous Australians, the Vegemite’s flavour was perceived as being head and shoulders above that of the countless meals of spam kabobs and mushy peas in lime sauce the settlers had endured during the course of the voyage from England. The crew decided to stay for the Vegemite in spite of the fact that they had eaten their bouquets of daisies months before and had nothing to offer the local women.
Australians are known the world over as being a plucky, horny people — apparently they never found where the Indigenous Australians hid their women. They are also known as being a friendly, self-sufficient, hard-working yet laid-back and fun-loving, hardy folk who are the friends-for-life types. And they always bring a plate of something when you invite them over for dinner.
They are easy to spot in any crowd as they aways wear khaki safari wear, are never bothered by police even when they are walking down a Manhattan boulevard carrying a sixteen-inch hunting knife, and have one severely sunburnt ear. More about their fluky hats two sections down.
Getting Your Bearings in Australia
Because it is on the bottom of the world and on the other side of the International Date Line (the International Date Line is not the 900 number for finding girls in your area), everything is ass-backwards and it’s tomorrow already. For North Americans, this proves to be the most difficult aspect of visiting Australia. Fully 90% of the Australian population is left-handed, people are supposed to drive down the wrong side of the road, the steering wheel is installed where the glove compartment should be, books are printed upside-down, and you nail your Christmas trees to the ceiling so the ornaments hang right. Try not to spend your first three days in your Australian hotel room flushing the “thunderbox” trying to remember which way the water swirled down back home.
A quick googling will reveal a plethora of sources for Australian Orientation Glasses that flip whatever you see upside-down and left-to-right. Owners of old Hasselblad 500-series cameras can get the same effect without additional expense by looking through their cameras’ waist-level viewfinders.
Visitors to Sydney, Australia’s largest city, who feel acclimatized enough with the topsy-turvy perspective to attempt driving a rented a car are cautioned to avoid the Kings Cross area… apparently the traffic there is permanently gridlocked because all the lights are red.
Australia is perhaps best-known for its wildlife. Us Canucks have by far the most direct exposure to Australian animals in the form of lamb in supermarket sales flyers, but these animals are hardly typical of the weird creatures that roam around down there.
When life began evolving in Australia, it must have been during God’s Mr. Potato Head phase. The platypus is the best evidence for this. Australia seems to have been The Lord’s test bench where He tried out all kids of new designs, mixing and matching parts from different creatures to see how they’d go together. In His infinite wisdom He saw fit to export some of the resulting design features to models of animals presently found elsewhere on the planet while others were left exclusively on their home continent to serve as tourist attractions.
The iconic kangaroo seems perfect for its role of drumming up business for auto body specialists whereas its North American cousin, the rabbit, won’t even flatten your tires. The brown recluse spider seems as though it was designed specifically to be easily reproduced in rubber as April Fool’s Day gags, and the cuddly but morally corrupt koala seems to have been the template for the design of politicians and used car salesmen everywhere. If we look at Australia’s fauna we are forced to conclude that God is a practical joker. If you remain unconvinced, ask yourself why He thrusts male humans into their sexual peak at age eighteen while women (including sheilas) sashay into their sexual peak close to age forty [Don’t you wish you knew this when you were eighteen? I know I do!].
I just cannot bring myself to finishing off this section without mentioning the Tasmanian devil. We all saw them on Bugs Bunny cartoons as kids and came to love their volatile loveability. Unfortunately, real Tasmanian devils are having a tough time right now and are being killed off by some kind of communicable facial skin cancer. Things have gotten so bad that zoologists have isolated some as-yet-unaffected devils in the hopes of ensuring that the entire species will not go extinct. I hope that they’ll be OK.
Basically, anything that runs slower than an Australian hunter is fair game for the dinner table. Chances are if you ask for your meat stuffed over there, the stuffing will be in your entree’s pouch and not in the abdominal cavity like we do it here in the Americas. Don’t worry about the taste… there is sure to be copious quantities of drink to help wash away that aftertaste but whatever exotic fare you are served will probably taste like chicken anyway.
For reasons that still elude modern science, Australia seems to be under the influence of some kind of strange marsupialization vortex that in the 1990s spontaneously made the leap from mutating the continent’s fauna to modifying prepackaged frozen Italian food — the Pizza Pocket was born.
The Australian Currency & Economy
Prior to 1966, Australia used the English pound system as a model for her own currency. This system was originally devised by England so that when their ships arrived in a new-found country, they would engage the locals in trade and while explaining the relationship between the guineas, the sterlings, the pences, the shillings, the farthings, etc., the other members of the ship’s crew would take over the place while the natives scratched their heads in confusion.
In 1966, Australians finally put down their cans of Foster’s and decided that the decimal system was not only easier to figure out when under the influence, but that the Pound system was not necessary to confuse foreigners while claiming their land for the King or Queen of England because they just weren’t in the mood to take over any other countries. Not only did they have enough to contend with right at home, but their last sea voyage in 1788 was an absolute bitch so they had no intention of going anywhere else for a while. The Australian Dollar was here to stay!
Today Australian banknotes are made of polymer, just like the higher-end Canadian denominations (Canada will be replacing the rest of its maple pulp Beaver Bucks with polymer over the next few years). Both our currencies are updated from time to time to age the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, the constitutional monarch of both our great lands. Maybe one day the Koreans will figure out a way to embed a flexible electronic display into our plastic currencies so that the Royal Portrait can be updated remotely, perhaps via the Royal Webcam or by automatically synchronizing with Her Majesty’s Facebook profile picture.
But Australia’s banknotes were not always made of polymer. Centuries ago Australia decided to stop using English currency and mint their own money, the Australian Pound (made up of 455 Australian Grams). Unfortunately, cotton was not available for making paper so they used pulp from eucalypt trees instead. This proved to be a tragic mistake when, in the summer of 1893, there was a draught that killed off most of the eucalypt trees.
The effect the lack of paper stock for printing banknotes had on the nation’s economy was bad enough but koalas began feeling the hurt, too. In case you don’t know, koalas only eat eucalypt leaves and consistently walk away with the Marsupial with the Sweetest Breath Blue Ribbon at the PETA Award Ceremonies because their breath has an aroma a lot like Vicks VapoRub. Anyways, the koalas banded together and devised a plan to raid the mint for any eucalypt products that may be stored there. The koalas disguised themselves as raccoons in an effort to throw the Chief Game Warden (Steve Irwin’s great-grandfather) off track and proceeded to raid the mint. They ate not only the paper stockpiles but most of Australia’s cash reserves as well. This plunged Australia into a depression that spiralled downward for decades and from which the Australian economy has never fully recovered.
Interestingly, the economic hard times caused by those felonious koalas resulted in one of Australia’s most iconic symbols… the slouch hat. You may not recognize the name but surely you know what I’m talking about. The slouch hat is that weird lopsided wide-brimmed hat that everyone associates with Australia. After the koalas ate all the money, Australia was forced to table austerity measures (the word “Australia” means “the land of austerity measures”), one of which restricted the number of fancy brim-fastening hatpins to one per hat, so that is why well-to-do Australians always pin up one side of their hat if they can possible afford the heavy hat pin surtax. Slouch hats with one side pinned up also serve as a constant reminder to keep one eye peeled for those scheming, grey, eucalypt-eating buggers.
Currently there are high-level discussions examining the banning of all hat pins as the cost of laundering kookaburra poo from the shoulders of shirts on the side the shirt’s owner chooses to pin up his hat is crippling the country’s economic recovery.
Entertainment in Australia
There’s plenty to do in Australia, especially if you like swatting flies. Because the fly problem is omnipresent it kind of blends into the background as Aussies go about their daily routine, so let’s ignore it here too.
Australians are huge fans of Australian Rules Football, which is a lot like an all-out gladiator grudge match in ancient Rome, except without the armour. They also like rugby, tennis, and Australian Rules Cricket, the latter being much faster-paced and having more straight forward rules than the cricket that is played throughout the rest of the Commonwealth. In Australian Rules Cricket, unprotected men are pitted against giant seven-foot-tall marsupial crickets that have been bred to grow razor sharp barbs on their hind quarters. Australian Rules Cricket makes Australian Rules Football look like a pillow fight between giggling six-year-old girls.
But sporting events aside, Aussies have a talent for having fun no matter what they do, be it enjoying each others’ company, tossing seafood at children’s toys (more about this in the Australian English section), wrestling carnivorous reptiles, or siphoning fuel from moving oil tankers.
It’s hard to go on a world tour with giant snapping crocks in tow and siphoning flammable fluids from moving vehicles loses a lot of its excitement when staged and performed on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, so Australian recorded entertainment is usually what the rest of the world is familiar with in terms of Aussie popular culture.
Mad Max was a brilliant documentary that was Australia’s feature-length answer to the American TV series Cops and the Canadian law-enforcement-on-a-budget reality TV series To Serve and Protect (in which the viewer watches police officers in cash-strapped communities having to exist on day-old donuts). Americans buying the Mad Max DVD are treated to having the dialogue dubbed with an American accent, whereas we Canadians get to hear actual Australian voices (with an optional subtitle track provided for not-so-worldly Canucks).
Cop shows aside, the Australia entertainment industry’s best-known export is its music. One of my fondest childhood memories is of being shoehorned along with my six siblings and my parents into a large Oldsmobile, being driven to the chalet, and listening to what my parents thought of as good music. In the early 1960s Rolf Harris’ classic song Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport (i.e. the original unedited edition) was a huge hit up here and got a large chunk of Canadian airtime, including on stations Dad would force us to listen to in the car. Here’s a short sample of that song’s lyrics…
“Tie me kangaroo down, Sport
Tie me kangaroo down
Tie me kangaroo down, Sport
Tie me kangaroo down”
Having a global hit on their hands, Australia’s music industry chose not to sit back on its laurels and continued to redefine the art form and produce some of the world’s best-loved music.
In 1976, AC/DC (they were nicknamed Acca Dacca by Australian fans) released their groundbreaking hit Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. In youthful defiance to Australian tradition and common sense, their fans refused to wear their cork hats and attended concerts bareheaded. For those unfamiliar, a cork hat is a wide-brimmed hat that features whiskey bottle corks hanging from the brim on strings. The wearer’s head movements set the dangling corks ajiggling, scaring the clouds of buzzing flies and keeping them off the cork hat wearer’s head and neck. Unprotected by dangling corks, Acca Dacca fans had to keep the flies off somehow, so they violently nodded their heads to the tempo of the music. The headbanger movement was born.
Here is an excerpt from that groundbreaking and fly-thwarting song…
“Dirty deeds done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap”
Australians had a taste of success on the international music scene and demanded more of the same. The ’80s saw a worldwide boom in pop music and the Aussies were determined not to be left out. Beaming with national pride, Men At Work penned a piece called Down Under, which graced the North American airwaves in 1981. Here are a few verses to prod your memory in case you’ve forgotten…
“Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.
Living in a land down under
Where women glow and men plunder
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover!
Living in a land down under
Where women glow and men plunder
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover!”
Are you also beginning to see a pattern of repetitive lyrics in Australian music, or is it just me?
Unfortunately, the Australian music scene began to crumble just a few years ago when it was discovered that Men at Work’s lead singer Colin Hay was actually born in Scotland! There was an outcry from the Australian public protesting the temerity of a Scot singing as though he was an actual Aussie. Constitutional experts found no laws were broken so they trumped up some lawsuit alleging that the flute riff in Down Under was stolen from the musical version of the traditional Australian nursery rhyme Kookaburra. Many feel the lawsuit was unfounded and was brought about not only to punish Mr. Hay for being deceptive about his place of birth, but also to divert attention away from an investigation that might unearth the carefully covered-up fact that AC/DC’s brothers Malcolm, Angus, and George Young (the latter being the band’s producer) were also born in Scotland. The whole crisis was known locally as Kilt Gate.
One of the most difficult things for native North American English speakers to wrap their heads around is accents… we just seem to lack the capacity to differentiate between any but the most familiar and/or obvious.
Take my older brother for example. He used to do a pretty good Japanese accent as he’d pummel me in faux-karate fashion. Ever since I married a Korean woman, he doesn’t do it any more. You see, he cannot tell the difference between a Korean and a Japanese accent and thinks she’d take offense to him speaking that way. Oh, he still wails the crap out of me, but now he puts on some kind of American “Billy Bob” accent and beats me up in faux-professional wrestling fashion.
Even though North America is the largest predominantly English-speaking landmass on Earth with about a bazillion different regional accents, Americans can only perceive the New York, New England, Louisiana, Texas, California Surfer Boy (a.k.a. Valley Girl), and Received TV Anchorman accents.
Canadians fare a little better, being able to differentiate between several Canadian regional variations of the English language’s phonology, as well as the aforementioned US accents because Canucks watch a lot of American TV because Canadian TV sucks.
Part of the reason why Canadian TV is so crummy is that it’s hard to find actors up here who can stop their teeth from chattering long enough to spew the inane lines written by Canadian teleplay authors. There is such a shortage of Canadians who can voluntarily control the shivers that some actors are forced to do double duty. Bruno Gerussi not only played Nick Adonidas on the forgettable The Beachcombers but also appeared as a regular celebrity cook on the aptly-named and virtually unwatchable Celebrity Cooks (but, thankfully, hardly anyone tuned in to see him). Lois Maxwell, probably best known as Miss Moneypenny from the early James Bond movies, was born in Canada. After filming You Only Live Twice, there was a severe chatterless actor shortage up here and she was called back to Canada by the Prime Minister’s Office to star in a TV series, Adventures in Rainbow Country. It was only after filming was completed that her passport was returned to her and she was allowed to travel back to England to appear in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Unfortunately, Lois Maxwell lost her battle with cancer and died in Australia in 2007.
Both The Beachcombers and Adventures in Rainbow Country were instrumental in raising the average ’70s-era Canadian youngster’s school grades as both programs were used by Canadian parents to punish their children who refused to do their homework. Another Canadian who has appeared in two “big” Canadian shows that aired first-run at the almost the same time was Sitara Hewitt. She played a religious Muslim woman in Little Mosque on the Prairie and was a naughty-talking and luscious-looking gameshow co-host on You Bet Your Ass.
Anyways, back to accents (and eventually back to Australian accents two paragraphs down)… in addition to the main American accents, Canadians can also detect the Canadian ones — Newfoundlander (encompasses all of the Eastern Maritimes), Timmins Tuxedo Speak (e.g. Bob & Doug McKenzie, see video below), and French Canadian English (yes, Celine Dion is actually speaking English on The Letterman Show — that’s just an accent!). There are also several other Canadian accents but only North Americans with a certain recessive gene expressed can tell them apart from other more well known North American accents.
All North Americans can also detect The Other English Accents, which includes Australian but, frankly, we can’t all identify Australians by their accent alone. Some on-the-ball North Americans can resolve The Beatles’ Accent, High Class British, and Cockney (thanks to Michael Caine and The Geico Gecko). All other accents are generally just lumped together as “You, know… Monty Python’s accent”. I was thirty-five before I figured out that Sean Connery had a Scottish accent, and I have a pretty good ear by North American standards! Some of us can even recognize an Irish accent if we’ve seen Lucky Charms cerial commercials several thousand times.
The way you can spot the Australian accent is simple… it is kind of like a sunny, friendlier version of Cockney but it sounds as though one of the speaker’s TM joints is dislocated but causing him no pain. Also, you’ll find that you won’t experience a sudden inexplicable desire to check your wallet like you would if you were speaking with someone from London’s East End.
Whenever North Americans cross paths with native English speakers from elsewhere on the planet, we marvel at the new words and expressions. We also feel that native English speakers with non-North American accents are linguistically superior and that their lexicon is richer. While it is true that the meaning of many off-shore English-language idioms remain a mystery to me, I do not feel inferior to others because I figure that non-Canadians might not understand a lot of typical Canadian phrases, like “Hostie! Some hoser scarfed my pemmican so I’m off to the dep to score a double-double, a two-four, a Joe-Louis, a deck of smokes, and some timbits, eh?”
In this way, Australians are just like anybody else. They can speak in a way that is totally incomprehensible to the rest of the English-speaking world and, to make understanding them even more difficult, some of their words refer to things that are exclusively part of the Australian experience. Once you’ve become adept at macheteing your way through their accent, it’s only a matter of knowing the meaning of the individual words. So here is a short list of some common Australian words and phrases with definitions, explanations, and sometimes a little background to help North Americans not look like the total fish-out-of-water bozos that we generally are when overseas. Work some of the following terms, in their proper contexts, into conversations with your Australian “mates” — I’m sure they’ll reciprocate by teaching you one or two idioms that are not included in the following list.
Billabong – noun. a man’s ding-dong.
Canberra – noun. 1. a sweet and tart fruit known as “cranberry” elsewhere in the English-speaking world; a sauce made from cranberries; 2. any type of canned berries.
Didgeridoo – verb. to engage in the sexual act, as in the title of the adult film “Debbie Didgeridoos Adelaide”. A recent public service campaign aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy through the promotion of abstinence was centered around the simple slogan “Didgeridon’t!”.
Dingo – noun. excrement, feces. Brought to the attention of North American audiences by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character Elaine on Seinfeld, the Australian phrase “The dingo ate your baby” could be rendered into North American Standard English as “Your child soiled his diaper” or “Your baby’s diaper is really, really full!” [this phrase as used in the Seinfeld episode was meant to communicate that the woman’s fiance went upstairs to change the child’s diaper].
Down Under – noun. the area of the human anatomy between the waistband and the cuffs of short khaki pants, especially the tender “toilet areas”.
Jackaroo – noun. 1. a kangaroo driven to carjacking to support its kava habit; 2. a stockman trainee who spends way too much time engaged in autoerotic activities.
Jillaroo – noun. a female kangaroo.
Kava – noun. A plant used in the preparation of a tea with sedative and anaesthetic properties; the intoxicating drink thereof.
Kavé – noun. An upscale establishment that serves the intoxicating tea prepared from the kava plant.
Ocker – noun. a rocker, i.e. a musician who plays, or anyone who enjoys, rock music. Because Australian English is non-rhotic, Aussies have a lot of trouble with their Rs so the Australians reason “We’re not using them, why keep them around?”, and rightly so. Therefore, Angus Young is an ocker but Yo-yo Ma is not.
Outback – noun. the buttocks, the bum-bum, or any anatomical structure having to do with the posterior excretory orifice.
Outback and Down Under – noun. the same as “outback” above but with a naughtier, more sexually suggestive connotation.
Right Side Up Cake – noun. up side down cake.
Roo Bar – noun. an establishment where kangaroos over the age of majority can purchase alcoholic and kava-based refreshments.
Sheila – noun. a woman.
Shrimp – noun. 1. a diminutive person; 2. a child’s doll.
Skippy – proper pronoun. Lassie.
Slouch – noun. 1. a lazy good-for-nothing person who refuses to work and thinks nothing of stealing from others; 2. koalas (they are lazy good-for-nothing bears that refuse to work and often steal from others disguised as raccoons).
Slouch Hat – noun. The famous Australian hat that is named for koalas.
Swagman – noun. a man who travels town-to-town distributing promotional items.
Throw Another Shrimp on the Barbie – phrase. Actually, this phrase is an americanized version of an actual Australian phrase. Aussies use the word “prawn” when North Americans use “shrimp” and in Australia a “shrimp” is a small person or a doll. The actual phrase as spoken by a true Australian is “throw another prawn on the shrimp”. Tossing crustaceans so they land on a doll’s head is a hugely popular game of skill in Australian pubs and is roughly equivalent to the game of darts in England, with heavy off-track betting and championships at the state and national levels.
Wallaby – noun. a small kangaroo-like creature that is sun dried, tanned, and hollowed out for use as footwear.
Waltzing Matilda – noun. 1. a prostitute. Think of this as being roughly the equivalent of combining a dance reference euphemism for the sexual act (as, “the horizontal mambo”) with a proper pronoun synonym for street walker (as, “sidewalk Sally”); 2. someone with whom a swagman spends the night.
Wrapping It Up
So, now we know all about Australia and armed with this information I hope that you’ve gained an appreciation for this great country in spite of the fact that this post was mostly BS.
On a personal note, for many years I have wanted to take a vacation in Australia… it just sounds like a “no worries” place that’s a lot like my homeland of Canada, except with an exotic decor and warm weather all year round somewhere within its borders. If you have ever gone there, please let us all know what you think it!
Notice to Australians: I hope you didn’t mind me playing on a few stereotypes and that everything’s still apples between us, Cobbers.
Notice to The British: Sorry about mentioning the crooked teeth stereotype. I have known quite a few Brits and many of them have perfectly parallel dentition.
Notice to Anyone Else I May Have Insulted and/or Offended: Lighten up. Didn’t you notice the “Humour Tag”? That means that you shouldn’t take the post seriously.
P.S. If you would like your very own cork hat, regardless of whether you like heavy metal, you can get one here.
- Vegemite renames itself ‘Australia’ in build up to Australia Day (mumbrella.com.au)
- Australia (bizgovsociii.wordpress.com)
- Australia Day – which white asshole do you want to be … (erinaree.com)
- Changes for Australian permanent residents applying for Resident Return Visas (teddyoshea.wordpress.com)
- Aborigines’ complex role in Australia (cnn.com)
- Aboriginal Anger on Australia Day (filipinofestival.wordpress.com)
- Open forum: when should we celebrate Australia Day? (cafewhispers.wordpress.com)