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.")
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.
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 other articles by Ben Zimmer