Streuth! Iconic Australian language, such as that used by Paul Hogan’s (pictured) character Crocodile Dundee, is under threat.
With all the carry-on in Canberra in recent weeks you probably missed Oxford Australia’s word-of-the-month for June: it was meat-safe cot. I challenge you to work it into a conversation sometime today; I challenge you to explain it.
Turns out they are cots covered in wire mesh to protect against insects and flies and early last century kids up to the age of five slept in them, particularly in rural areas. They’re now highly collectable pieces of Australiana, apparently. Certainly they’d be conversation starters – for instance, how on earth were parents allowed to put their children in cots Oxford describes as ”designed rather like a large meat safe, completely wired in with drop panels”. These days we reserve that sort of treatment for asylum-seekers.
Frankly, as words-of-the-month go, it’s not a particularly strong one. Put up against 2013’s first five words-of-the-month – Fonzie flat, stubloon, Canberra bashing, bunger and chook lit – it suffered by comparison.
You’d be familiar with each of them, as in: ”I was in the Fonzie flat (a self-contained dwelling usually above a garage) looking for me last stubloon (a brass token with an exchange value of one stubby of beer), when I turned on the telly, lit a bunger (cigarette) and there was Andrew Bolt Canberra-bashing (the act of criticising the Australian federal government and its bureaucracy) again – fair dinkum, even a bit of chook lit (fiction written for older women) would be more fun.”
It’s terrific that our language experts are celebrating such words, some new, some old, but I fear few of them will ever make it into common usage. They’re destined to remain curiosities, particularly as our language becomes more and more Americanised. If you doubt me, consider this: ”G’day” and ”G’day mate”, probably the most Australian of all our sometimes curious expressions, are under threat. If we’re not careful, it will be replaced by the hideously truncated greeting favoured by Americans: ”Hey”. Worse, ”Hey, buddy”. That’s two American words. Crikey.
The Urban Dictionary is already on to this, noting in one of its ”G’day” entries that it is an Australian expression meaning ”Hello friend” which ”most Australians don’t use” because they ”see it as very stereotypical”. Really, I’m a stereotype? (Don’t answer that.)
I decided to test our diminishing ”G’day” quotient on an early morning walk last week. Fresh off the plane from the US, where I’d spent the past month delighting friends and strangers alike with my ”G’days”, I tried it on the locals. Didn’t get one in reply. Got a ”Morning”, a ”Hi” and, worryingly, two ”Heys”. What’s going on here?
The emotionally bankrupt ”hey”, a contraction of ”hey there” usually accompanied by an upwards jerk of the chin, started appearing in American movie and TV scripts in the mid-’90s. It’s rarely said with any real gusto; screenwriters like to use it to signal trouble in a relationship, often the morning after a particularly heated argument or exchange when the oomph has gone out of a relationship. Inevitably it has crept into our language too, particularly among Generation Y. I asked one of them last week whether they ever used G’day to greet friends. ”Only ironically,” was his reply. Meaning, if we wanted to mock older Australians who’ve long regarded it as the building block of pretty much every conversation, big and small.
It’s not entirely generational though. It’s also geographical. G’day is most at risk where hipster culture thrives. I don’t think there’s too much to worry about up in Goondiwindi.
If the expression is falling out of favour in some parts of our country, I suspect it’s a reaction to its overuse in the ’70s and beyond, particularly in tourism advertising. For the past decade, Australian businesses have been showcasing their ”capabilities” to American markets under the banner of G’DAY USA. It’s ironic that American culture is devaluing the very expression that identifies us so readily in that country.
Paul Hogan and Lara Bingle have a lot to answer for. Their Tourism Australia campaigns – his worked, her’s didn’t – helped build and then reinforce our image as beer-swilling, prawn-grilling beach-bums. I understand why many want to distance themselves from that and present a more modern face. I worry when it starts to cost us much-loved Australian idioms though. Particularly when they’re supplanted by lazy American expressions. ”Hey” is bad enough, but if ”buddy” gets any more traction, we might have to march on our various parliaments. It’s unthinkable that it would ever replace ”mate”.
It might fall to the PM to protect these crucial building blocks of our language. Kevin Rudd is partial to a G’day; in fact, he rarely begins a conversation without it, recognising perhaps that it’s the quickest way to establish an emotional bond with the listener.
I can live without ”stone the crows”, ”banana benders”, ”budgie smugglers” and the like, but I reckon ”G’day” and ”mate” are two words worth fighting for. If we lose those we might as well crawl into the meat-safe cot and stay there for good.
Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age and The Sunday Age.