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Politics

Nov 22, 2011

Lauren Gawne writes:

Last week the local media were kept suitably busy by the brief visit of the U.S. President Barak Obama. We were kept up to date with his every move, and the bemusing hashtag blend #aubama spent a bit of time loitering in the list of trending Twitter topics. The trip was mostly an opportunity for a series of photos of Obama with a revolving cast of our leaders, but he also surprised us by showing off his use of the Australian vernacular, fortunately without trying to put on an Australian accent like David Cameron’s terrible attempt which was almost bad enough to make us want to secede from the Commonwealth.

In this video of highlights from a speech he made at a function in Canberra the U.S. President works in a few Australianism, to the amusement of the crowd. Here they are, with a translation, for those not so well versed in Antipodean English:

Give it a burl – To have a go, even if a positive outcome is unlikely. This one is shared with New Zealand. According to the Oxford dictionary it is also spelled birl – but I’ve never seen this before.

Chin-wag – To have a chat. Very informal. This has its origins in England, but many Australians would say we’ve taken it as our own.

Earbashing – To talk too much. The Oxford attributes this to Australian English, and their earliest attested example is only from 1944. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were used earlier than that.

Spot on – Precise or acurate. I never thought of this as an Australian phrase, judging from the citations in the Oxford it looks like it’s also acceptable in the U.K. as well.

Cracker jack – Someone or something who is excellent. Interestingly this is one I always thought was Australian, as I’m sure many people would – see the 2002 Aussie Larikin comedy Cracker Jack as an example. The Oxford traces the origin of this word to the homeland of Obama himself.

Good nick – To be in good shape. Interestingly I couldn’t find this one in the Oxford dictionary. It’s a phrase I’ve always been familiar with, and there are around a million hits for the phrase in Google. A quick scan of some of the results definitely indicate an Australian flavour, but I’m pretty sure that there were some usages from the U.K. as well.

Obama also commented on the Australian accent, mentioning that U.S. troops couldn’t understand why their Australian counterparts were always saying ‘cheese;’ they were saying ‘cheers’ but the lack of rhoticity on our ‘r’ sounds meant that’s not how they were hearing it (Obama didn’t actually use words like ‘lack of rhoticity,’ but I thought I’d explain the underlying phenomenon).

Of course, one of the reactions to this piece of linguistic lightheartedness was for the Sydney Morning Herald to decry the fact that outsiders all see us as a giant pack of bogans (a term of derision for the working class of the outer suburbs perceived to be lacking worthy cultural sensibilities). I don’t think any of these terms are particularly cringe-worthy, my family and my upbringing are fairly representative of a working suburbs Australian existence and the above are all phrases and words I know and most of them can be found in emails I’ve written (my gmail account is turning into the best personal corpus for quick identification of such factoids). Obama didn’t resort to jokes about convicts, nor did he ruin our accent so I think he did a pretty good job.

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2 comments

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2 thoughts on “Obama tries the local lingo

  1. Mike Flanagan

    My blood oath mate!

  2. johnb78

    As a Brit-born Aus resident, Cameron made me cringe (mind, he’s not exactly my flavour of politician to start with; it’s possible I gave him less benefit of the doubt than I would to someone I’d previously liked).

    But out of Obama’s phrases, “give it a burl” is the only one I didn’t already know as a BrE phrase before I moved here. Particularly surprised ‘earbashing’ is an Aussie-ism, but then most Brits aged 15-35 watched Neighbours and Home & Away as kids, and my dad spent years working for an Aussie company when I was growing up, so maybe I’ve picked it up that way.