I have great respect for missionaries who go to foreign countries. I have huge respect for missionaries who go to foreign countries where the language is not English.
My family and I lived in Australia for six years in the 70s. In that country, where they do speak English, one would think communicating would be a snap. Not so.
After a while, we learned some of the colloquialisms. But, at first, it was a battle not to appear stupid.
Instance #1 – At a Sunday evening fellowship at the church my husband pastored, a woman walked up to our 17-year-old daughter, Kathy, handed her a baby, and said, “Could you nurse him for a while?”
Kathy’s response: “I don’t think I can.” Once we realized that to “nurse” a baby meant simply to care for it, to hold it, we understood. Before that, we were both in a state of shock.
Instance #2 – Meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper. That’s right. Four meals, not three. Newbies were in big trouble if they didn’t understand a “supper” invitation, maybe at 8 p.m. A “yank” (a name we were often referred to by) would think, “Supper! Great! I can wait until 8 for my evening meal.” But it was not meant to be: ignoring a “dinner” offer, with meat, veggies, salad, bread, etc., because “supper” was coming was a big mistake. We “yanks” soon discovered, sometimes painfully, that “supper” consisted of tea and “bickies” (Australian slang for biscuits, what we would call cookies), while “dinner” was the evening meal.
Instance #3 – “Under the weather” here in the U.S. means “ill, not feeling well.” How was my husband to know that that term meant something entirely different in the land Down Under? When one of the deacons was ill, my husband announced his illness in the service, using the term “under the weather.” We both wondered why several people looked at him strangely; we soon learned that “under the weather” meant “drunk.” That was a term we had to stop using.
Instance #4 – An American pastor friend told this one: he and his family arrived in Australia to help start a church. Their first night in their new home his wife sent him to the shop (that’s another one – it’s a sandwich “shop”, a pie “shop”) to buy a pie. He went to the shop and asked for a pie. What he didn’t know was that in Australia only meat pies are called pies. And they sometimes put strange things in those meat pies. The shop assistant looked at him and asked, “Peas?” She meant, “Do you want a pie with peas?” Our friend was imagining a fruit pie with peas. (You can understand his dilemma.) He responded, “Pea pie?” Lo and behold, the lady finally explained, when she understood what he wanted. “You want a fruit tart,” she explained. And so he was able not only to take an apple “tart” home, but also to have a great story to tell.
Instance #5 – A conglomeration:
a. The wog – that’s what you have if you’re ill.
b. Fair dinkum – if I’m “fair dinkum,” I’m telling the honest truth (a bit of a redundancy there).
c. A jumble sale – a garage or yard sale.
d. Tucker – food
e. Bush tucker – food you eat “out bush”
f. Casket – people are buried in them, but you can also buy lottery tickets wherever the sign “Caskets” is displayed.
g. Billabong – a river
h. Go walkabout – what the Aboriginals do – they are great cattle and sheep station workers, but their tradition leads them to simply leave one place and head for another, with no particular logic in the move
i. Pumpkin – Australians eat lots of pumpkin – they are really squashes – but none of their pumpkins look like ours. And they don’t make pies out of them either.
Most Americans dream of visiting Australia. We actually lived there for nearly six years. If you plan a trip Down Under, be sure to check with me. I’m fair dinkum when I tell you that you will love the country and its people, but I’ll also try to prepare you for what could be language problems.