Six Divisive Regional Slang Terms Likely To Result In An Australian Civil War
Bubblers or drinking fountains? Togs or cossies? Potato cakes or potato scallops?
Remember the great Twitter potato war of 2014? Depending where in Australia you grew up, you know those delicious battered, deep-fried golden roundels as either ‘potato cakes’ or ‘potato scallops’.
But there are plenty of other linguistic fault lines in Australia. The boffins at the Macquarie Dictionary have mapped Australian regional language, including feedback from amateur contributors. Browse your own regionalisms, discover in other parts of Australia, and search for terms that mystify you. As they say in Perth, that’s mint.
Now, whether you’re a sandgroper or a banana-bender, a croweater or a gumsucker, let’s see which side of the border you fall on…
If you grew up in Queensland you might change into your swimming ‘togs’. The word originally meant ‘clothes’ – especially an outer garment – and originates from the Latin ‘toga’. The same clothing theme is reflected in names such as ‘swimsuits’ and ‘swimming costumes’, which in NSW and Queensland get abbreviated to ‘swimmers’, as if the garment itself is doing the swimming. But only in Sydney is a swimming costume known as a ‘cossie’.
The term ‘bathers’ – used in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria – harks back to swimming’s history as a leisure pursuit. During the 18th century, therapeutic bathing became popular at mineral spas and seaside resorts.
Growing up in Victoria I always knew men’s swimming briefs as ‘Speedos’, after the swimwear brand (importantly, Australians use the plural while Americans refer to ‘a Speedo’), but in Queensland they’re ‘dick togs’ (DTs, in polite company), and ‘ball-huggers’ in WA.
Men in NSW, meanwhile, mock ‘dick-stickers’, ‘dick-pokers’ and ‘dick-pointers’. But to Sydney’s serious-minded, they’re ‘sluggos’ (short for ‘slug-huggers’), and sometimes ‘scungies’ (especially among surfers).
‘Scungies’ are also girls’ sports briefs in NSW – the sort worn for modesty over regular underpants and under netball skirts. (In North Queensland, they’re ‘bum shorts’.) But in Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne, they’re called ‘bloomers’. This name reflects the history of women’s sportswear, which was modelled on the ‘Bloomer suits’ American feminists had devised in the 1850s.
Fruit and veg troubles
What are shallots? To most Australians, they’re small brown onions. But in Sydney, ‘shallots’ are what other Australians call ‘spring onions’. Now introduce spinach, and watch things get more complicated. Sydneysiders call ‘spinach’ what Victorians call ‘silverbeet’. Beta vulgaris is also known as Swiss chard – as opposed to Spinacia oleracae, which in NSW is called ‘English spinach’.
In most parts of Australia, that orange melon with the hard, rough, beige-and-green rind is a rockmelon. I mean come on – it looks like a damn rock. It gave its name to Sydney pop band Rockmelons, who enjoyed the cod-reggae hit ‘That Word (L.O.V.E.)’ in 1992, fronted by Deni Hines.
However in Victoria, that word is ‘cantaloupe’. The word is a Frenchified version of Cantalupo (“singing wolf”), the papal estate near Rome where the melons are said to have first been cultivated in Western Europe after being introduced from their native Armenia.
Meanwhile, small cardboard cartons of fruit juice with attached straws are known in South Australia as ‘fruit boxes’. But in Queensland they’re known as ‘poppers’ after the brand of that name, much as in Victoria they’re ‘Primas’.
Political processed meat
It’s a bland sausage of finely ground pork and other mystery meat, sliced thinly for sandwiches or pan-fried. It’s not quite the same smallgood as bologna, the Italian sausage derived from mortadella. But in WA it’s known by the same phonetic name, ‘polony’.
Once it was known as ‘German sausage’; in South Australia, with its substantial German history, it’s still called ‘fritz’, as it is in adjacent western NSW. But during WWI, German associations fell out of favour, and various wholesome Allied names took over: ‘Belgium’ in Tasmania, ‘devon’ in NSW and Victoria, ‘empire’ in Newcastle and – my favourite, because it’s a dig at the British royal family – ‘Windsor sausage’ in Queensland.
Get your drinks right
When a stray softball hit me in the eye in primary school, my cruel, uncaring teacher’s idea of first aid treatment was: “Go and get a drink of water.” At my school in Melbourne, drinking water came from ‘the taps’ mounted above a long trough. Pushing down on a lever controlled the flow of water, and flat metal guards prevented kids’ mouths from actually slurping on the nozzles. Those guards could emit a singing tone if rubbed when wet.
But if that softball had hit me in NSW, the ACT or the Northern Territory, I would have sought medical aid from ‘the bubblers’, while ‘drinking fountain’ seems to be the dominant terminology in Queensland, WA and Tasmania. However, in a heartening case of linguistic compromise, some areas of regional Victoria seem to use ‘bubble taps’.
Generally, Australians call carbonated sweet drinks ‘soft drinks’ or ‘fizzy drinks’. But in WA and SA, they’re ‘cool drinks’, which has nothing to do with the serving temperature. Meanwhile in Tasmania, soft drink is ‘cordial’ (or, sometimes, ‘fizzy cordial’). Since the 14th century, ‘cordial’ has meant “of the heart” – speaking cordially meant speaking sincerely, and a cordial was originally a tonic to stimulate the heart. So who knows what Tassie kids thought of that heartfelt Cottee’s ad?
I don’t even want to get started regarding the different beer glass names, but it’s also noteworthy that Queenslanders refer to 750ml beer bottles as ‘tallies’ or even ‘largies’. Everywhere else, they’re ‘longnecks’.
I grew up calling those little square towels ‘facewashers’. Apparently, this isn’t a regionalism – but ‘washer’ is more common in Queensland, NSW and the ACT. WA, SA and Tasmania tend to prefer a ‘flannel’, although ‘face cloth’ is also used.
And if I had a day out of school uniform, it’d be called a ‘casual clothes day’ in Melbourne, as in Adelaide. But ‘free dress days’ are held in Queensland and Perth, and ‘mufti days’ in Sydney, southern NSW and northern Victoria.
Mufti means “judge” in Arabic, and the sense of ordinary, non-uniform clothes dates from 1816 – because British army officers who’d been stationed abroad took to wearing comfortable Eastern-style dressing gowns, tasselled caps and slippers on their days off, which made them resemble Muslim clerics.
In cold weather, Victorians, South Australians and West Australians pull on ‘windcheaters’ – long-sleeved, fleecy-lined sweatshirts. But in NSW, the ACT and Queensland, such garments are known as ‘sloppy joes’, and many in these states insist that a windcheater is more like a zip-up hooded jacket. (A ‘jumper’ – never an American-style ‘sweater’ – is always woollen.)
Do kids even run around barefoot in summer any more? When I was a kid, early summer before your feet had toughened up was the worst time to step on ‘bindi-eyes’ – those prickly burrs that lay waiting in the grass like nature’s landmines. They were also known just as ‘bindies’.
The Macquarie says the word derives from the word for the plant Soliva pterosperma in the Aboriginal languages Kamilaroi and Yuwaalarraay, from
NSW’s Liverpool Range. The plant grows pretty much everywhere in Australia except Tasmania.
But around Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, it’s not a bindi-eye. It’s a joey. And in Wollongong and the NSW South Coast, it’s a jo-jo. It’s also the worst name Moe ever heard.
Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She founded online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast, and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit. She blogs on style, history and culture atFootpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.
Feature image via Twitter/@MrGlass23.