To a large extent, Melbourne looks and feels very similar to a city in the UK. After living in Cambodia, the people, the buildings, the cars, food, and shops mostly resembled the UK in some way. This wasn’t too surprising given the past and continuing large migration of people from the UK and the related cultural links that it brings. But there were times that I was left a little adrift.
When living in Cambodia, phrases in English were used slightly differently as to how they would in the UK, or were just phrases that you wouldn’t hear at all. This should be expected given the many nationalities using English as the common language, but Australia, where English is the predominant language, I didn’t expect to be left scratching my head quite so often.
Most people would know that if an Australian said “arvo”, they meant afternoon. However, when the Social Services Ministers accused mothers of “rorting” because they received government maternity pay as well as maternity pay from her employer, I couldn’t work out if it was a good or a bad thing. It turned out that he was accusing mothers of fraud and dishonesty.
My surprise at the word only added to my surprise that the Government thought claiming universal government maternity pay was like fraud if also receiving maternity pay because your employer had decided to give you it. This was certainly a policy that I could not “spruik” for, which means that it is not an idea that I could promote. Spruiking (sprook-ing) gets used in the context of promoting something in the sense of pushing an idea or the sale of something.
I work in health promotion (does that make me a health spruiker?) so I was a bit surprised when asked to perform an acquittal. After a bit of investigation, I found out that I wasn’t being asked to judge somebody as not guilty but rather to write an end of grant report to a funder. Then during a meeting after I had completed that report, I was asked to “speak to that”. And it turns out that people are being asked to “speak to” things such as new projects, changes of staff, and even new offices all the time.
Most people would understand what it means if you are told to speak to the hand, but if you are asked to speak to the new office, don’t assume that you are being asked to say hello to the new office complimenting her on how nice she looks. In fact, you are being asked to speak about the office. And possibly behind her back.
It’s not just that Australians are creating their own phrases, they use words that have dropped out of use in the UK. A few months ago, a former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam died and I saw what looked to be his name printed in the media as Vale Gough Whitlam. My dad uses his middle name as his first name so I didn’t think too much of it.
Then another former Prime Minister died, Malcolm Fraser, and he too was referred to as Vale Malcolm Fraser. There were two choices here; either Australia had a bizarre rule about who can become Prime Minister or vale had something to do with death. The online Oxford Dictionary defines vale as a noun meaning valley, which wasn’t helping much but after more Googling, I found that vale means farewell or goodbye in Latin. Vale to any thoughts that Australians are ignorant of culture and history then.
Of course, given time, I will begin to pepper my conversations with those same phrases that seemed so strange. On my first day in Australia, Claire enthused about “parmas” and how it was common for pubs to have pot (half pint) and parma nights for $10-$15. Silently, I was surprised that the masculine world of Australia that I thought I was entering had parma ham antipasti dishes as its staple pub grub. It turns out that “parma” is short for chicken parmigiana which is a giant slab of chicken schnitzel, covered with a wad of thick ham and covered in melted cheese. A meal where size rather than taste grades worth. Take that you pretentious antipasti deli serving wine bar; this is Australia after all.
It was early on that I realised that what words may be considered inappropriate in the work place may not be in Australia. I was sitting in a meeting of about 50 people discussing public health at Melbourne University, when the presenter used the word “shit” quite deliberately and proceeded to reuse it. There was no surprise or demurring in the room, just my mind drifting to what words I could get away with in my Scottish accent.
Haste ye back to the blog