Sometimes the differences between countries are glaringly obvious, enough to rear up and feel like a slap in the face: the language, the culture, the food. Sometimes, the differences are subtle, a nuance that is the undertone of a society, not noticeable to a tourist, but one day, a year or two after living there, it seeps into your bones and you don´t know how you didn´t notice it immediately. After two and a half years in Spain, I´m still surprised by the little things that are completely different. There have been times I haven´t noticed them until I stepped off a plane for a visit back to Australia and think that´s different, when it was once normal. There are the odd times I feel like a foreigner in both countries, now.
However, the thing that remains the most obvious, yet at times can take you years to figure out the smaller touches, is language. I´m not going to go into the differences between Spain and Australia, nope. That´s obvious. Spanish, English. Terrifyingly different.
I´m talking between America, England and Australia. And, of course, the Kiwis.
We all speak English. A common tongue means we can all communicate and make friends and share a beer and a joke. Fantastic, yes?
Wrong. Well, not wrong, we do all those things. But seriously, some of the biggest moments of confusions I´ve experienced in language have been with fellow English speakers. It´s hilarious and a little bit absurd.
My friend, a Brit, and I often argue about what I mean when I say I feel like lollies. She insists this is a lolly pop. I insist it means things like gummy bears, jelly beans and anything that´s made 90% out of sugar. I mean, if I wanted a freaking lolly pop I´d ask for that, because that is a hard boiled lolly on a stick and is different to a lolly. Clearly. She raises her eyebrows and says I mean sweeties, which makes me think she´s a ninety year old in a terrible old movie. Then a friend from the States chimes in that we mean candy, and we both raise our eyebrows at him because apparently that can also mean chocolate and if I wanted chocolate I´d say chocolate!
Do you see my problem? No? Probably not, that one´s not so important, even if it´s a constant point of contention and we all try to teach our students that our way is better. Did I mention that we all teach English as a second language? You really should pity our students.
Do you want to know the epitome of confusion? Let me tell you a story.
I was backpacking a few years ago and ended up in a campsite in Bulgaria (that´s a story on its own). Now, I was essentially exchanging labour for board and was having a great time. I´d never mowed so much grass in my life. Far from where I was sleeping were a group of guys from somewhere in Britain. My geography when it comes to Britain is terrible (still), so let´s just say they´re from London.
I was in a beautiful place, surrounded by green and right on a river with a hammock you could lay in and not a road or town in sight. It was heaven. Also there were the two gorgeous camp dogs—one a puppy of about four months. She was the most adorable, cheeky little thing you have ever met. She also liked to steal your shoes. Which she did mine, frequently. One morning, I came out ready for the day and went to put on my thongs. I could only find one. Disaster. I looked around for the other only to see the puppy chewing on it.
I eyed her off. She eyed me off. I took a step forward and it was all she needed to give a happy bark and bolt off with it. This is quite a disaster because the only other shoes I had at that time were my hiking boots, and it was far too hot for those. So, barefoot and quite disgruntled, this being the fifth time the puppy´s run off with something of mine, I wandered in the direction she ran, towards the river and the camp of guys who I´m pretending were from London. They were a nice group who liked to share a few chats and they always gave up the hammock for me.
“Have you seen my thong?” I asked them.
They blinked at me, all five of them twitching a smile.
“What?” One asked.
“My thong?” I repeated, slowly. Come on, guys. It was ten in the morning, surely they weren´t drunk?
One gave a bark of laughter. The others were all smiling bewilderedly. So I thought I´d help. “It´s black, with a silver butterfly thing on it? The puppy ran off with it.”
Now one of the guys snorted and they were all chuckling.
“She ran off with your underwear?” One asked, literally guffawing.
So, it turned out to them a thong was a G-string, whereas for me they´re what they called flip flops (which is a stupid name, but that´s beside the point). Needless to say, there was a lot of laughter and mild embarrassment from me.
I never did get my thong back, either. I think it was sacrificed to the river.
We have many, many small differences that can be either confusing or really easy to figure out. The level of confusion changes depending on who you´re talking to. When I say football or footy, someone from Europe thinks I mean soccer, but I mean Australian Football, also known as Aussie rules. When I´m talking to someone from the States, they know I don´t mean soccer, but they think I mean American Football (and no, they are really, really not the same).
It took me a really long time to realise my British friends wanted to buy some alcohol when they said they wanted an off license, because I say the bottle shop. At least in the States they use the word liquor when they call it a liquor store, which is pretty clear. Pants in Australia and the USA are trousers in Britain, and pants there mean your underwear, which also leads to some pretty funny conversations.
There´s the never-ending debate on what you mean by chips. In Australia, it means fried potatoes of any type. If you need to differentiate between the cold ones in a packet and hot ones, you say hot chips but usually context is pretty clear. Do my British friends agree? Of course not, you have to say crisps if you mean the cold ones in a packet. In the states you use fries for hot ones. Does this seem important? No. Do we have slightly tipsy debates over who´s correct and which is better? You betchya.
A biscuit is apparently some kind of cake/scone thing in America, yet in Britain and Australia it´s what they call a cookie, a word we know of, but don´t often say. A barbie in Australia is a barbeque everywhere else, because barbie is a doll. Which it is in Australia, too, but it´s pretty obvious you don´t want to put sausages on your kid´s doll.
Bush is a shrub everywhere, but in Australia we use it the way everyone uses forest. In Australia we use words like capsicum for red and green peppers, zucchini for courgette (which I seriously just had to look up how to spell).
Don´t get me started on the word root…you can look that one up yourself to see why we Aussies giggle whenever we hear it. Same as when the Americans say fanny pack. Insert a giggle here…
Never mind the fact that in Australia we are weirdly lazy and like to shorten a lot of words and no one really gets it but us. There´s a few examples above, but the list goes on and on. Avo is avocado. Arvo is afternoon. Bottlo for bottle shop. Sunnies for sunglasses. Bathers for bathing suit. Ambo for ambulance driver. Postie for postman. Doco for documentary.
Also, because this comes up all the time: a chook is a chicken. And when you dack someone, you pull their pants and underwear down. I´ve thrown this in because this comes up in my next book and I´ve had every non-Australian beta reader left clueless as to what this means.
I could be here all day as none of this even scrapes the surface. It seems in Australia we use a whole range of words not touched on by the rest of the world. Which, I won´t lie, is great fun when mixing with friends from all over the world. Even if it does end in a friendly argument sometimes. You should really feel sorry for our non-native speaking friends who are trying to learn three different lingos.
Oh, and no one ever says, “Put another shrimp on the barbie.”
We say prawns, and sausages go on the barbie.