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Letters from Downunder

Excuse me, what did you say?

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

Many years ago an English author was visiting this city of Melbourne, Australia, to promote a book that had just been released. It'd had lots of publicity, and the line of people wanting to buy a copy was long and orderly. After signing innumerable copies, the author didn't even look up as the next person stood at the table.

"Emma Chisset," she said, so he dutifully wrote that on the fly leaf and signed his name yet again. Handing her the book and looking up for the first time, he saw a plump middle aged woman in a print dress. He smiled tiredly as she read the inscription. Thrusting it back at him, she snarled, "No, you bloomin' idiot, that's not me name. I asked you the price. Don't you unnestand Inglish?"

Now, for the benefit of anyone as much at sea as the author, what she said in Australian was 'How much is it?' The author was astonished, then amused, and finally excited. This was culture in all its diversity, this was… another book. So he changed his name to Alphabeck Lauder, (get it?) and proceeded to have fun with accented meanings.

It's a strange fact that English, as she is spoke, varies so much from country to country - even city to city - that all kinds of confusion can result. Take the case of a visiting Pentecostal preacher from Kansas here in his revival tent, scooping up a baby from his mother's arms and cooing delightedly, "Oh, my, isn't he a real little bugger?" Instant uproar. That's a term of derision out here, meaning 'really bad or awful'. Or worse.

That was not something misunderstood, just a case of divergent meanings, and although confusing, someone is sure to get a laugh. It can lead to the odd disaster - 'full on' does not mean 'full speed ahead' as the English sailor found out as he rammed another boat instead of knowing that his wit had been appreciated, but it is a barrier to uniformity, a repository of diversity, and a source of merriment and wonder. We discovered this first hand in New Orleans many years ago, where we had to learn that 'bah' meant 'boy' and that at a service station the answer to 'how's ya arl' was not answered by 'we're well, thank you', but by popping the bonnet.

But Australia, having its roots in the lower classes (convicts and soldiers) from the British Isles (well, no Scots, who were too canny to get caught), has its own lingo that baffles many a visitor. So, for your eddication an' Confucian, here's a little story in Aussie-speak.

'I was lookin' in a cattle dog for some jocks but they all looked too cathedral, so I thought I'd fossick through the local op. I was flush, but me ute had had a prang an' me goanna needed tunin, an it's easy to pinch from the oppo's. Well, they had some real good speedos, so I lifted one and took me esky to the bondi. It was bonzer lookin at the shielas and drinkin me tinnies, one even said I was real flash, but she wouldn't take a pull, so I did a bare surfie. It's a bonzer life, aint it?'

Confused? Here's the translation. 'I was looking in a catalogue for some underpants but they all looked too tight, so I thought I'd search in the local opportunity shop. I had plenty of money, but my utility truck had been in an accident, and my piano needed tuning, and it's easy to steal from opportunity shops. Well, they had some very nice bathing costumes, so I stole one and took my cooler to the beach. It was lovely looking at the girls and drinking my beer, one even said I was showy (cool), but she wouldn't sit and talk with me, so I went for a surf without a surfboard. It's a wonderful life, isn't it?'

Notes: An opportunity shop is a charity raising money by selling second-hand goods. 'Too cathedral' - cathedrals don't have ball rooms. Bondi, a famous Australian beach. Esky, locally made portable cooler. Speedos, locally made swim trunks.

To read other articles by Lindsay, visit the Authors' section of

Read Past DownUnder Columns by Lindsay Coker