Migrants and Aussie Slang

Jan 09, 2014

Happy New Year to everyone. I kicked off the year talking to a Probus Club about the history of Australian slang. Always good fun for everyone. One of the members asked if I had noticed a story about how we should expunge slang from our English to be polite to migrants. I said that I had looked at it briefly and that the idea was such a linguistic improbability – no, more than that, impossibility  ̶  that I hadn’t given it much thought.

I have now looked into the matter and realised that the media story was a bit exaggerated. [No, really?] The advice comes from a government-funded website instructing employers on how to deal with a workforce of mixed ethnic origin. [According the website I should not use ‘ethnic’. I should refer to a CALD workforce, CALD meaning ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’. No comment.]

I have said myself, using a different scenario as example, that there is no point, if you are attempting to communicate with people, in using expressions that you know they are not going to understand. Outside Australia we tend to cut back on our Australianisms because they are incomprehensible to non-Australians. A phrase like ‘shoot through like a Bondi tram’ would be meaningless. Good etiquette often has a basis in practical benefits for all and it is good language etiquette to be mindful of your audience in choosing how you express yourself.

I think this is what the website was trying to convey but they perhaps overstated it. They also ignored the difficulty that this may present to some employers. We all tend to make our language style decisions in adolescence, at the same time that we choose our basic hairstyle and the kind of clothes we are going to wear. Our fashion statement, once determined, tends to stick with us. Some people are verbally flexible and can adjust their language choices to meet the need of the audience. Others stick to the same pair of shorts and the same shirt with the sleeves ripped out that they love to wear on every occasion, figuratively speaking.

From the listener’s point of view, the advice handed out by the Immigration Department seems somewhat patronising. Migrants to the community do need some help to understand Australian English which they get in a variety of ways and, these days, from a variety of sources. A good Learners Dictionary has some special features. For example, it includes all the major taboo words, this being something that migrants need to understand quickly. Even a Prime Minister can get into trouble using an expression like ‘silly old bugger’. 

The examples given in this document range from the stereotypically quaint  - ‘bring a plate’ to phrases more likely to be used by fellow workers rather than the boss – ‘this machine is cactus’ and ‘he really spat the dummy that time’.  It is quite unrealistic to expect workers to say ‘this machine is broken’ and ‘he was very, very angry that time’. It is not how language works and how social bonds are forged. Usually everyone finds a way to suss out what these things mean. It is harder to take the next step and produce these expressions with authenticity, but it is possible to be able to comprehend with a bit of effort and goodwill on all sides. The result of that kind of exchange is so much better than some kind of language hothouse environment, if for a moment we believed that such a thing was possible.

I think it is likely that the Harmony Guide will pass harmlessly over the heads of the people at whom it was directed. 

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Sue - Sept. 17, 2018, 9:45 p.m.

What's the derivation of cactus= buggered?

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Candace - Sept. 19, 2018, 11:12 a.m.

Dear Sue, thank you for your question. In our Slang Dictionary, to be 'in the cactus' refers to someone being in trouble. Undoubtedly this was due to the dreaded prickly pear which once covered so much of the country, at least before being eaten by the wondorous cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum), introduced as a biological control. We hope this helps! - Macquarie Dictionary

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