Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Down Under, Obama Has a "Chinwag"

Visiting Australia earlier this week, President Obama broke the ice by injecting some Australian slang into his public speeches. He used a selection of Aussie-isms like chinwag and ear-bashing for comic effect, but it's probably a good thing that he didn't go overboard by trying to mimic a broad Australian English accent (often called "Strine"). British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, wasn't so lucky: he got into some hot water for an ill-advised attempt at Strine.

At a state dinner at Parliament House in Canberra, Obama got the crowd laughing by peppering his speech with local slang:

As many of you know, I first came to Australia as a child. But despite my visits, I have to admit I never did learn to talk "Strine." I know there is some concern here that your Australian language is being Americanized. So perhaps it's time for us to reverse the trend. Tonight, with your permission, I'd like to give it a burl.
I want to thank the Prime Minister for a very productive meeting that we had today. I think she'll agree it was a real chinwag. When Julia and I meet, we listen to each other, we learn from each other. It's not just a lot of earbashing. That's a good one — earbashing. I can use that in Washington. Because there's a lot of earbashing sometimes.

In case you couldn't figure it out from context, give it a burl means "give it a try"; a chinwag is a good discussion; and earbashing is tedious or scolding speech. Obama closed by saying:

The alliance between the United States and Australia is deeper and stronger than it has ever been — spot on — cracker-jack — in top nick.

Later, when speaking to American and Australian service members at an air force base in Darwin, Obama joked that he was trying to learn "Strine," and pronounced Darwin with a quasi-Australian accent as "Daah-win." It's a good thing he left it at that, or he might have cause an international incident, if a misfired joke by David Cameron is any indication.

Earlier in the week, Cameron was speaking in London at the Lord Mayor's Banquet, telling the audience about his recent trip to Australia where he met his counterpart Julia Gillard. "After the meeting, I turned to the Australian prime minister and said, 'Thank you very much Julia for allowing us to have this meeting in Australia.' "And she said — I can't quite do the accent but I'll try — 'Not a bit David, this is good news for Sheilas everywhere.'" (Sheila is Australian slang for "woman.")

The reaction in Australia to Cameron's joke at their expense was sour, to say the least. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "bizarre," and Owen Vaughn of news.com.au wrote:

It is perhaps one of the worst Aussie accents in history. Worse than James Coburn's half-Cockney, half-American attempt in The Great Escape. Worse than Meryl Streep's "Ah Ding-gow ay-t my baibee."
It's so bad it could cause a diplomatic row.

So why was Obama warmly received, while Cameron has been jeered Down Under? In the Sydney Morning Herald, Giles Hardie observes, "Of course Obama is the leader of the free world, the ambassador for hope and if we're honest a bit more likeable than Cameron, so we declared the former a wit of first world order and Cameron a twit who was out of order." It also seems clear from the reception by Australians that Obama was perceived as laughing with them, while Cameron was seen as laughing at them (or at least their prime minister).

While both American and British leaders might see Australian English as a source of levity, these two incidents also afford an opportunity for a more serious look at language issues in Australia. I recommend the latest podcast from PRI's The World, "Australia Through its Languages," for anyone who wants to dig a bit deeper than chinwags and sheilas.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 18th 2011, 9:40 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Many transgressors were deported to Australia from Suffolk England,(where I live) and of course, took language with them. For the unitiated the two accents can sound very alike. Chinwag and earbashing are common local words here. Ferial
Monday November 21st 2011, 5:13 PM
Comment by: nancy J.
I wish that they would stop the negative comment,your opinion or remarks have deep affect on the world and IF,IF! you are trying to fix the problems of the OR,OR! YOU ARE THE PROBLEM! We say that we need a change, Start with the negative comment. THAT ALL FOLK!
Monday November 21st 2011, 6:16 PM
Comment by: JEANETTE D. (MACQUARIE HILLS Australia)
It must be known that most Australians cringe at the very broad accent (as done by Julia Gillard) when it is displayed on the world stage, or even in film. This accent, along with many of the 'strine' slang terms, are more common in lower socio-economic areas eg western suburbs of Sydney. In country or outback areas of Australia, the slower patterns of speech and colloquial expressions are authentic and endearing.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 8:00 AM
Comment by: Sherrill A.
Can't you just leave the politics out of it? It is clear you are a fan of Obama--good for you. To put down David Cameron for a slip of the tongue and give Obama a pass due to your bias, is pretty smarmy and leaves me cold.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Sherrill: I'm simply reporting on the differing reactions in Australia to the Obama and Cameron speeches. We don't "give Obama a pass" around here when it comes to language -- for starters, see past Word Routes columns about Obama's use of sweetie, lipstick on a pig, green behind the ears, nonplussed, deliberate haste, glide path, enormity, take my lumps, and shellacking.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Zachary R.
Goodness gracious, it's pretty embarrassing when countries are acting like 5yr olds on the play ground. We're really getting upset about someone making fun of the way we talk? There are so many things far more deserving of our irritation, far more injustices that truly harm others. Why do we not get offended at our own country's faults? Why do we critique others but fail to see how we have problems that extend beyond the emotional "boo-boo" of someone getting our accent wrong. Let's focus instead on things that have become so cliche to talk about but very rare to see someone lift a finger for, like poverty, or government corruption, our children's poor education etc...

My opinion is that this is a silly thing to get upset over. I hope the emotional wound heals up quickly so that we can all do something productive as a world-wide community.
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 10:59 AM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Gosh, that caused a whirlpool to shoot up from the deep.

Now I digress - I just viewed the parish record of a village near here. A man of 38 years, who had a wife and four young children, one only six monthe old, was deported to Australia for fifteen years. For what? Writing a dissenting letter to the local squire who employed him. I imagine he was complaining about working conditions. People were transported for the most trivial of reasons. Further to compound this injustice this man would get no parole and when he was realeased, he would have to find a job in Australia and save the money up himself to come home; how difficult would that be? Unless, which could be likely, he decided to settle in Australia. But what of his wife and children.......we can only speculate on the hardship, probably heartbreak too....Ferial
Tuesday November 22nd 2011, 2:26 PM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
Your man was lucky. He found a new home and possibly contributed to producing a new way of speaking the English language that is easily recognised. I cringe sometimes at our overdone Ocker accent but love the language,the words,expressions and the freshness of our unique method of linguistic communication. chrisp

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