Lost in Translation: Australian slang

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When I visited Australia for the first time in June as a Queensland Blogger Correspondent, I figured I knew enough Australian slang to fit in. After all, I’d watched Crocodile Dundee. Twice, in fact.

“G’day” and “mate” (sounds like “g’die” and “mite”) are part of the local vernacular. I could pull that off without sounding like an idiot, right? And I understood that if someone called me “sheila,” it wasn’t that they didn’t know my name was Kara – it meant “woman.” And “shrimp on the barbie”? That could roll off my tongue as smoothly as if Nicole Kidman said it. (Not that I think the Australian-born movie star is grilling her own seafood on a barbecue all that often.)

Australians speak English, not a foreign language. Or do they?

Turns out, the number of phrases, abbreviated words and downright bizarre phrases that Australians use in everyday conversation make it sound as if they speak a totally different language than English.

We do speak English. Sort of. (Photo: Morrolicious)

Take, for example, the Australian propensity to shorten nouns and add the sound “ee” to the end of them. (Hmmm. Are they lazy… or creative and clever?) Some of these abbreviations are easy to figure out and some… not so much.

For example, on the street in Queensland, you might just overhear, “I’m bringing some prezzies to my rellies for Chrissy while wearing trackie dacs and sunnies, but I’ve been bitten by mozzies and nearly stepped on a cockie.”

What the heck?

It means, “I’m bringing some presents to my relatives for Christmas while wearing athletic pants and sunglasses, but I’ve been bitten by mosquitos and nearly stepped on a cockroach.”

It’s also not unusual to add an “o” syllable to the end of words. For example, a “bottlo” is a liquor store, and a “servo” is a service station or gas station. Er, rather a petrol station.

Of course, some American English words are totally different in Australian English, and they have abbreviations, too. For example, an American “cookie” is an Australian “biscuit” or “bikkie.” Americans typically use the word “mailman.” But in Australia, he’s a “postman” or “postie.” A “sandwich” is a “sanga” or “sannie.” A “lollie” isn’t a lollipop, but any sweet candy.

The array of words for “bathing costumes” is entertaining. In Australia, you might say “cozzies” (short for “costumes”), but when you jump the ocean, you might also be wearing “togs” or “bathers” or “swimmers.” Then there are “boardies” (board shorts). But my all time favorite is a term for a men’s Speedo: “budgie smuggler.”

Indeed, if you are planning a trip to Queensland, you’d best start studying now. The language and colloquialisms are that different.

I knew I’d mastered at least one common phrase when on one of my last days in Queensland a hotel manager greeted us in the lobby with a “G’day.” I replied, with just a touch of Australian twang, “G’day. How are you going?” And he didn’t blink an eye.


  • After a month in the States I have never been more aware of my natural affinity to say ‘how are you going?’! The confused stares were all the answer I needed. haha thanks for the great post, Kara.

  • Food Strategy

    I reckon you’ve nailed it Kara. She’ll be right mate. You’ll also notice we like a ‘white tea (with real milk) & a decent latte or espresso. Both as rare as hen’s teeth in USA. What you call ‘biscuits & gravy’ we call ‘scones & cheese sauce’ but would never eat that combination – at any time! I’m home now & savored my first snack – Vegemite on toast with lashings of butter. Just for the record I bet my bottom dollar every Aussie would agree that our chips are better than your fries. From an Aussie who’s just spent 2 weeks hopping across USA for business. 🙂

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  • Lesley

    I’ve lived outside Oz for forty years now and those expressions are just the words I use. I do sometimes get puzzled looks but most people do get it. Funny thing is, when I’m back in Queensland for a holiday, people keep asking me where I’m from. 🙂

    • Keith Morton

      I get the same thing I was born in Alice Springs and lived there until I was 13. Then when my Mum and Dad split up she brought me back to England. I’m 53 now and still trying to work out that when I’m in England they think that I’m an Aussie and when I’m in Australia to see my Dad they think that I’m a Pom. But when I was in the USA I got “where you from” all the time so I told them that I was an Aussie that lives in Pomland they did not get it.

      • Debbie

        Ha, ha, that made me laugh, you make some very good comments Keith -and don’t look 53, unless, that’s an old pic of you or unless, its the glass of whisky I have had!!?

  • Aussie Davo

    She’llberight! Noworriessheila!

  • cas

    That was a pretty good little story lovey, I reckon we don’t really sound too weird but you might have hit the nail on the head. I suppose you can give up the day job. Thanks for a bit of fun

  • Leah

    Australians never say “shrimp on the barbie”. We call them prawns, not shrimps. And we don’t barbeque them. I don’t know what idiot in the tourism department came up with that one.

    • CherieL.

      yeah that was the first saying my aussie mates debunked.

  • Chris

    My first 2 months in Boston were spent wondering how I reply to “What’s up?”. What IS up? I never really figured it out. The sky? The high people? My mood? Is there any answer to this question?

    • CherieL

      Naw the worst is have Aussie mates, start using Aussie slang when speaking to them (even picking up the accent) they don’t mind, but then you are talking to your American friends and by to look on their faces you notice that you are speaking “Aussie” Say “How are you going?” people look at you like you are mad.

  • Aussie bloke

    This was a good read though I must say, no one, anywhere downunder says or puts a ‘shrimp on the barbie’. We never even say shrimp. It’s prawn to us. We also chuck either a snag on the barbie, a steak, pork or lamb etc.

  • John

    Incorrect translation of ‘Cocky’ ma’am. I believe that is referring to cockatoo…

  • Hebjamn

    And despite their formerly extensive advertising in the US, Foster’s is not looked upon as some kind of gourmet beer. Just say to yourself “Foster’s. It’s Australian for Old Milwaukee.”

  • Matt

    yeh but nah john cockie can mean cockroach or cockatoo…or even a farmer

  • Michael Ellem

    gday just ad a captian cook at wat ya put here just one thing luve it aint “how are you going” it’s “how ya goin” w edont ave milk down ere we ave cow and a cocky is all so the owner of a station or farm, an i don’t mean a flamin fuel station ether i believe you lot call em ranches which rely is like our farms cause ya can put 2-4 ranches in a station but ha ya did ok and next time ya in town ya gunna ave to come fore a barbie just dont for get ya dead orse. well i gotta hit the frog and toad to get to the booza so i can get me grog caus im runnin on mtee. so ave a good one an well catch ya lata. 🙂

  • Monya Clayton

    No Aussie leaves these shores for any length of time without Vegemite, Tim-Tams and Milo.

  • Caty Malo

    After two years I almost understood all of that sentence except for the cockie part. I had never heard that one up until today. Canadians and Americans speak almost the same language. I guess it comes to a point where you forget that you used to call a rubbish bin a garbage can, and that chips use to come in a bag half filled with air. Tomato sauce was to cook spaghetti sauce, not to chuck on your sizzle, that I used to call a sausage..