An Australian Phrasebook for Native English Speakers

It’s easy to make friends in Australia, home to some of the world’s most gregarious people. Understanding what my new friends were talking about was another matter. They probably thought I was “a few kangaroos short in the top paddock,” but rather “like a box of birds,” we were able to strengthen our cross cultural understandings and do our bit for international diplomacy.

On my cruise from Singapore to Australia, some of my new friends indulged me with a few lessons in Australian colloquialisms. Their use of the English language is as beautiful and varied as the Australian landscapes. The following are some of the more colorful phrases I learned. (And, my fellow Americans, here’s a tip: We need to pick up the pace of our speech. Practice saying these fast!)

A few kangaroos short in the top paddock  Also known as “A few kangaroos loose in the top paddock.” This can be interpreted as the opposite of smart, missing a few brain cells, nuts, eccentric, or foolish.


Tart up  To dress up in a glamorous fashion. Generally known for dressing provocatively. 

Like a shag on a rock  Put the Austin Powers version of shag out of your mind. “Like a shag on a rock” is the equivalent of being completely alone or by oneself, oftentimes referring to being abandoned. As in, “They went home and left me at the club like a shag on a rock.” Shag is an Australian coastal bird that perches solo on a rock.

Like a box of birds  Sounds like a collective noun, doesn’t it? Flock of geese, herd of cattle, school of fish … Well, actually, it’s the answer to “How are you?” Responding with “Like a box of birds” means to feel really good, be happy or chirpy, and, presumably, energetic.

Bobby dazzler or bobby daz  Not named after a specific person named Bobby or a British police officer, a bobby dazzler is someone who is dressed up in fancy clothing, very attractive, or a piece of eye candy. The origin is believed to come from dazzling to the eye.

Flat Out Like a Lizard Drinking  Don’t mind that Australians are world champs when it comes to imbibing alcohol. This has nothing to do with actual drinking. “Flat our drinking like a lizard” means to be extremely busy. Huh? Yes, as a matter of fact, not only do lizards drink very quickly, they stretch their bodies to reach the water. Additionally, in Australia slang “flat out with work” means to have too much work to do.

Going to see a man about a dog  Used in answering, “Where are you going?” when you want to keep your whereabouts unknown, for example, going to the pub or out to buy an anniversary present. Obviously not used in the case of trying to keep your whereabouts a real secret.

It’s so windy, it’ll blow a dog off a chain  This is one of the more literal slang phrases. In the Australian outback, working dogs are chained or tied so they won’t wander. The outback is also home to very strong winds. The phrase “it’s so windy, it’ll blow a dog off a chain” creates the image of a dog being strung behind its chain due to the strong wind.

Aren’t these great? I can’t wait to try some out when I get home. Wonder if anyone will understand me, or if they’ll think I’m “a few kangaroos short in the top paddock.”


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