It Ain’t What You Say (It’s The Way That You Say It)


It’s amazing how many ways there are to say the same thing. As a lover of language, and someone who’s gotten around a fair bit over the years, I find it endlessly fascinating.

Setting aside indigenous dialects and simplified variants, which is a different and more complex discussion, there are so many ways for speakers of stock-standard English to express exactly the same ideas, ranging from differences between countries to state-by-state regional variations here in Australia.

When I was a kid, my family lived in four Australian states and one off-shore territory in only ten years. Even as a child, each time we moved I was always fascinated by the new ways I had to say certain things.

For example, when I went swimming in New South Wales, I wore my ‘swimmers’; when I went swimming in North Queensland, I wore my ‘togs’; and when I went swimming in Victoria—not that it’s often warranted down there—I wore my ‘bathers’.

When I went to school in NSW, I took my ‘case’ (yes, back in the day, it was an actual case—we didn’t even know what backpacks were); when I went to school in North Queensland, I took my ‘port’ (even when I was nine, I never understood why they called them ports); and when I went to school in Victoria, I took my ‘bag’ (and not just any bag—our primary school had its own funky single-strap over-shoulder affair, much like a 60s airline travel bag, unlike any schoolbag I’d ever seen).

In NSW back in the 80s, if I went to a Fish & Chip shop and ordered a flattened round of battered deep-fried potato, I’d ask for a ‘potato scallop’, but in Victoria if I wanted the same thing I’d have to ask for a ‘potato cake’. Pasties were also popular in Victoria at the time (and, quite possibly, to this day); anywhere that sold pies and sausage rolls also offered an impressive range of pasties—pronounced like ‘pastel’ in Victoria (as well as in the UK) but, elsewhere in Australia, pronounced like ‘past’. And in case you’re wondering, nobody pronounces pastie like ‘pasty’, a lesson I learned very quickly.

People in Queensland, NSW and Victoria tend to refer to locations and people in other states as being ‘interstate’. Perhaps understandably, our island cousins in Tasmania tend to use the more blanket term ‘the mainland’. South Australians and Western Australians also take a blanket approach, applying the term ‘the eastern states’ to any location beyond their respective eastern borders. Meanwhile, given that the majority of the Northern Territory’s population lives in and around the country’s northern-most city, Darwin, they tend to refer to virtually anywhere else in the country as ‘down south’ and to those who reside there as ‘southerners’. (As an aside, it’s fair to say there’s always an element of derision—if not outright venom—in any reference to southerners or those from the east.)

In the summertime, if I wanted a frozen sweet treat in NSW I’d ask for an ‘iceblock’ (which they call an ‘ice lolly’ in the UK and an ‘ice pop’ or ‘popsicle’ in the US and Canada). But in Victoria I’d ask for an ‘icypole’.

‘Ice lolly’ is the perfect segue to international differences in how we describe sugary snacks of the not-frozen variety. Here in Australia, we tend to refer to them as ‘lollies’. In the US, they call them ‘candy’, while in the UK they’re ‘sweets’. There are even differences in the way the terms can be applied. Here, it’s generally one ‘lolly’ and two or more ‘lollies’. It’s similar in the UK, where it’s typically one ‘sweet’, or two or more ‘sweets’. In the US, however, while there’s the singular ‘candy’ and the plural ‘candies’, the singular term can be applied to one or more sugary delights.

And staying on the theme of unhealthy stuff, assuming we don’t name specific brands, in Australia we generally refer to sugary carbonated beverages as ‘soft drink’ which, in the US, is typically referenced as ‘soda’ or ‘soda pop’ and, in the UK, simply as ‘pop’. And when we go to a fast food chain and order a horribly unhealthy meal, here in Australia we’re generally asked, “eat in or take away?”. But in the US, it’s “for here or to go?”. To the untrained ear this can be quite off-putting, if not entirely unintelligible, depending on the speed of delivery and the relative enthusiasm of the ‘server’ asking the question.

Internationally there are other obvious differences that Australians have long been aware of, thanks mainly to TV and movies. For example, we call it a ‘lift’ and so do the Poms, but Americans and Canadians call it an ‘elevator’. Worldwide, a moving staircase is generally known as an ‘escalator’, but many years ago Americans called the first escalators ‘inclined elevators’. And what we Aussies generally refer to as a ‘shopping centre’, Americans tend to call a ‘shopping mall’ or, more frequently, simply a ‘mall’—which is the same word applied, in Australia, to a street that’s been closed off to vehicular traffic, then paved and restricted to pedestrians.

What Aussies call an ‘esky’ and our Kiwi cousins across the ditch call a ‘chilly bin’ is usually known, virtually everywhere else, as a ‘cooler’; the Australian usage is actually based on the trademarked brand name of the first such portable cooler manufactured and sold in this country. It’s not the only example of this happening, either.

In most parts of the world, we suck accumulated detritus out of our carpet using a vacuum cleaner, with the act of doing so broadly described as vacuuming; but in the UK, you’d almost always get out the hoover to hoover the carpet. Of course there are other brands of vacuum cleaner on sale in the UK, but evidently Hoover was the most common (or possibly the only) brand available, for long enough for it to become not just the colloquial name for ‘vacuum cleaner’, but also the colloquial verb form.

Americans mostly go to ‘theatres’ to watch ‘movies’. In the UK, you’d go to the ‘cinema’ (with a long ‘a’ at the end, so it sounds like cinemaar) to watch a ‘film’, while you’d typically go to the ‘theatre’, such as those in London’s West End, to watch live performances of stage plays and musicals and such. In Australia, we also go to the ‘theatre’ to see shows performed live on stage; Americans enjoy the same spectacle at the ‘theater’ or the ‘theatre’, depending what side of the country they’re on. Australians also go to the ‘cinema’ to watch ‘movies’, although, for clarity and simplicity, we’re more likely to use the broad colloquialism ‘the movies’ (or ‘the pictures’ in the olden days) than to say we’re going to ‘the cinema’. It’s all very confusing.

Speaking of confusing, what we (arguably, incorrectly) call a ‘burger’ in Australia, Americans call a ‘sandwich’. In fact Americans call virtually anything involving any kind of filling between a bun, panini, toasted bread or muffin a ‘sandwich’. Interestingly, other than in New York City, you have virtually zero chance of getting some filling between two slices of bread—which, funnily enough, is what Aussies and Poms call a ‘sandwich’—anywhere else in the USA.

We Antipodeans and those from our former motherland have something else in common: we call the thing that goes over the engine of our cars the ‘bonnet’ and the lid over the back-end ‘the boot’, while Americans and Canadians call them the ‘hood’ and the ‘trunk’ respectively.

Then there are all the international variations on fruit and vegetable names! What Australians know as ‘capsicums’ are known as ‘peppers’ in the US and the UK; what Australians, Americans and Canadians call ‘zucchini’ and ‘eggplant’, the Brits know as ‘courgettes’ and ‘aubergine’ respectively; what we call a ‘cos lettuce’ Americans call a ‘romaine’; and let’s not even get into all the variants of orb-shaped orange-coloured citrus fruits—’clementines’, ‘mandarins’, ‘satsumas’, ‘tangerines’ and, of course, ‘oranges’ to name just a few of them.

It’s not just words, labels and names that attract regional differences. Sometimes, entire turns of phrase are different—in some cases, inexplicably so. One example, in particular, even begs the question: why would anyone knowingly use a phrase that says the opposite to what they actually mean?

Most Australians would be familiar with the phrase, “I couldn’t care less”. We often say and hear it and it means precisely what it says—i.e., with regard to the topic of discussion, it would not be possible for me to care any less about it than I presently do.

The equivalent American phrase is “I could care less”. It’s typically used in exactly the same context as “I couldn’t care less”—i.e., whoever says it is actually suggesting that it would not be possible for them to care any less about the topic of discussion than they presently do.

Problem is, the American version clearly states that the exact opposite is true—that, in fact, while implying they really don’t care about the topic at hand, it would be possible for them to care even less about it. But if you could not care less about something, why on earth would you say that you could? This is, patently, nonsensical. It would be like saying “I could eat another thing” after a huge meal, when you’re actually full, have no remaining appetite and, quite literally, could not eat another thing. And why would anyone say that? It would just be silly.

There’s also a difference with difference. Or, rather, with ‘different’. In Australia and in the UK, we tend to compare concepts or objects that aren’t the same by saying that they’re “different to” or “different from” each other. e.g., Subject A is different to Subject B, or Subject X is different from Subject Y. In the US, they typically describe dissimilar objects and concepts as being “different than” each other. e.g., Subject C is different than Subject D. None of the three is wrong, per say—they’re just different to/from/than each other.

Even the way we all say ‘ice cream’ has its subtle differences of inflection: Australians typically place the emphasis on ‘ice’, while Americans and the Brits tend to emphasise ‘cream’. Neither emphasis changes the meaning; ice cream is ice cream, wherever you are. But it’s fascinating that the way the English language has evolved over many centuries has seen subtle variations like this (along with variations of accent) popping up all over the place.

How did it happen? How did such subtle variations come to be? How did different accents develop, when most English-speaking locations were formed from much the same stock? The answer to those questions, my friends, is a passion, not a rant. And, besides, it’s far too long and complex for here.

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