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Coping with Australian English

No matter what non-Australian variety of English you speak, you’ll have the occasional problem understanding what Australian are saying. The three main problems are Australian accents (yes, there are several), the words used, and references to people and events that you know nothing about.

Accents just take getting used to. You’ll understand them soon enough. Words are a bit more of a problem, especially when a few people will get great delight in using the most obscure slang terms they know, just to confuse you. Memorising one of those “Aussie slang” books might help you understand what someone’s saying—but don’t make the mistake of using those phrases yourself. About half of them aren’t in common use, and the others take practice to get right. Delivered in a distinctly non-Aussie (or fake Aussie) accent, most slang terms will mark you as just another silly tourist (rather than a smart tourist).

As for references to people and events (including sports) that you aren’t familiar with—we suggest you ask for an explanation. You can learn a lot of really fascinating information that way—but don’t believe everything people tell you! Some otherwise well-meaning people just love to spin a few tall tales, given the slightest opportunity.

What do you call the room with the toilet?

It isn’t the john or the bathroom, as many Americans call it. We say the toilet, or (if you want to be specific) the Gents or the Ladies. Other terms include the dunny and the loo.

The bathroom is where you keep the bath, which is often not in the same room as the toilet. If you ask for the bathroom, many Australians will think they’re being funny by directing you to the wrong room, even when they know perfectly well what you’re really looking for.

North Americans are often disconcerted by the low level of water in the bowl. Australia is a dry country. Don’t worry, it’ll still flush.

Speaking of flushing: modern Australian toilets usually have two buttons, one for a full flush and one for a half flush—another way of conserving water.

Words for cars and trucks

Not all unfamiliar terms are slang, of course. Some are regional variations or colloquialisms. Once you learn what they mean, they’re safe to use. For example…

Australians, like Brits, call the part of the vehicle over the engine the “bonnet,” and the bit where you put the luggage is the “boot”. The window in front is a “windscreen” and the liquid that runs the car is “petrol” (unless, of course, it’s diesel or LPG—liquid petroleum gas).

A commonly seen vehicle is the “ute”—short for “utility”—which is a small truck. It’s the sort of vehicle that Americans call a pickup. They come in a variety of sizes, and in both 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive.

More words: billy tea, damper, ensuite

Some correspondents asked me to explain a few terms that we used in our newsletters.

Billy tea—tea brewed in a “billy” hung over a campfire. A billy is a metal container shaped like a large can (like you’d buy in the supermarket, full of soup or fruit or other food), with a wire handle. Sometimes they have a lid, but not always. You boil the water (“boil the billy”) and then throw in a handful of loose tea, stir it with a stick, and let it sit for a few minutes until the tea has steeped.

Damper—a bread made from flour and water (and sometimes a raising agent) and cooked either in a camp oven (heavy cast-iron pot with lid, which you place in a campfire and heap coals around and on) or by wrapping some dough on a green stick and toasting it over the campfire. Damper is tastiest eaten dipped in golden syrup, which is a sweet substance somewhat like treacle or molasses but not quite the same as either of those. In town you can buy damper with additives like spinach and fetta cheese, but the original authentic stuff is just flour and water.

Ensuite—a private bathroom and toilet associated with a hotel or motel room (or the master bedroom in a house). Although most modern hotels and motels have private bathroom/ toilets in every room, older places and those in the outback often have some or all rooms that share toilets and showers down the hall. Anything called a “cabin” is likely to share facilities, although some cabins do have private facilities; if they do, they’re usually called “ensuite cabins”. “Self-contained” usually means it has a kitchen, though not necessarily a toilet or shower. When in doubt, ask. See also our page on accommodation.