It’s mostly down to the success of the Australian animated children’s series “Bluey” – an Emmy-winning program that premiered on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s children’s channel and has garnered an international audience thanks to Disney Plus. There’s even a stage show coming to the United States later this year, kicking off at Madison Square Garden. (Disclosure: I present the show “Drive” on ABC Radio Sydney.)
Reports of this linguistic contagion bring me enormous pleasure. Finally, we have our revenge.
At birth, it seemed, Australians of my generation were enrolled in a PhD program in US popular culture. For me, it was “McHale’s Navy” and “F Troop.” For later generations, “Beverly Hills, 90210” or “Friends,” not to mention the movies, music and politics.
We paid the price for our enthusiasm, regularly scolded by our parents for “using those terrible American words.” These included “sidewalk” instead of “footpath” and “trash” instead of “rubbish.”
Of course, it was not just American influence. I also read endless Enid Blyton adventures, in which children would feast on “ices” – a treat that held me entranced, until I realized that “ices” was just a British term for “ice cream.”
And yet I’m pleased they did not translate “ices” – the fantasy added something of its own. As Bluey’s young American fans realize, part of the pleasure in watching an imported show lies in these mysteries and surprises.
In Bluey, we meet a family of dogs living in the suburbs of tropical Brisbane. Imaginative play is at the center of each story – the two inexhaustible parents encouraging their young pups, Bluey and Bingo, to learn through games about life, its conflicts and its pleasures. The best episodes dig deep: “Early Baby” is about premature birth; “Camping” is about friends who enter your life then disappear; “Copycat” is about death and, in a way, resurrection.
Is Bluey particularly Australian? Despite occasional criticism of the show, it presents a kindly but hopefully accurate view of Australian suburban life. There’s a playful father who shares equally in both parenting and housework, and a loving, lively mother who demands respect. The children are delightful. The parents are in love. There is countryside nearby for the pups to play.
Some faults in the national character are noted. Australian humor can include excessive banter and teasing. One episode explores the issue, as the father admits he has misjudged the line between playful and mean.
What’s never doubted is the glory of Australian English. The program makers – as one recently explained to me on Sydney radio – are grateful their international partners have allowed the Australian words to stand. Some notable terms include:
Bodgy: Inferior or substandard.
Budgie: A colorful Australian bird. Separately, see also: “Budgie smugglers” for the revealing swimming briefs. And “the Singing Budgie” for our superstar Kylie Minogue.
Brekkie: Breakfast. All Australian words, if possible, are shortened.
Bubbler: Most Americans call it “drinking fountain.” I think we Australians have it right.
Bush: Farmland, but also wilderness. An Australian “heading for the bush” can be headed for a hip regional town with excellent coffee, or a crocodile-infested swamp with no roads. “Bush bashing,” also featured in the show, means walking though countryside without using a path.
Chips: These are fat versions of french fries. Adding to the confusion, we use the same name for potato crisps, so – on this word alone – you may be better, America, to go your own way.
Chook: A chicken. In the show, it’s wonderfully used in the phrase “made you look, you dirty chook.” See also: “Bin chicken,” an uncharitable name for the ibis, a bird whose long beak can make quick work of a rubbish bin.
Dunny: A toilet, traditionally outdoors but more commonly now indoors. The word is vulgar – hence the Bluey episode in which the mother, Chilli, cautions the children against it, before finally relenting. Americans might also care to train their toddlers in the great Australian insult: “May your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down.”
Gray nomads: Retired folk who circle Australia in caravans or motor homes, stopping to chat (and work) along the way.
State of Origin: The world’s best sporting contest, between the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland in the sport of rugby league football.
Tradie: A skilled tradesperson who visits your home, often a “sparky” (electrician), “chippy” (carpenter) or “bricky” (bricklayer).
Ute: A utility vehicle. By the way, it was our idea.
Australia is often portrayed internationally as a land of shark attacks, deadly droughts and tough outback men like Crocodile Dundee. In truth, we’re a (mostly) suburban people, with (mostly) benign wildlife, populated by people (mostly) for whom parenting is life’s most important work.
How odd that it has taken a family of anthropomorphic dogs to show the world the real Australia.