There’s a story – probably apocryphal but hopefully not – that provides enormous insight into Australia’s character.
It goes like this: Several years back, Prince Charles’ private secretary was travelling through Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney. When it came to handing in his form to immigration, the chap on duty noticed that the rather prim visitor had listed his occupation as “courtier”.
To which he replied, “Hey mate, there’s no ‘t’ in courier. Welcome to Australia.”
Part of what makes us who we are is a healthy disrespect for authority, a love of wordplay and a fondness for – how to put this delicately – extracting the urine, aka taking the you-know-what.
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You need only look at our beaches for another prime example. Did you know that we invented Speedos back in 1914 as a perfect if brief sartorial accompaniment to endless summers of sand between the toes and salt tang on our lips?
Did you also know that it took less than four years for them to be referred to by the infinitely funnier ‘budgie smugglers’.
Then there’s our love of snacks that leave many international visitors utterly confounded or even grimacing as the result of ladling on their Vegemite like jam. Rookie error: It’s meant to be thinner than the pretext for invading an oil-rich nation but again, welcome to Australia.
The example here comes from our enduring fondness for Shapes and near canonisation of a flavour mysteriously known simply as barbecue. Such innovation was taken one step further recently when the brains trust at Arnotts – which was established in 1874 in Newcastle (ours not theirs) but is sadly no longer Aussie-owned – had an epiphany. Which we assume went something like this:
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Trent from marketing: We know Aussies love Shapes right?
Trent’s boss: Right.
Trent: And we also know Aussies love meat pies right?
Trent’s boss: I’ve got a Zoom in five minutes Trent, can you get to the point?
Trent: Three words. Shapes. Meat. Pie. Which we’ll market by promising “sweet tomato, rich gravy beef with subtle pepper and onion.”
Rest of Australia: We love Trent.
Speaking of much-loved traditions, we now go to the cricket and a scene which would appal many a straitlaced nation. No matter whether you’re at the MCG, the SCG, the Gabba or the WACA, if you get a prime minister in attendance – past or present, forgettable or infamous – the crowd will boo them like a pantomime villain. Do you remember how shocked our American mates were when this happened to Donald?
For us, it’s just something to do in the tea interval. And the only way for a PM to turn the tide – as evidenced on numerous occasions by the late great Bob Hawke – was to demolish a beer on the big screen with Usain Bolt-type speed. I’m sorry, but can you imagine that happening in any other country? We’ll wait.
Delve a little deeper and for all the uniform characteristics, you’ll find a fiercely competitive nation. States take on other states, towns like to think they’re better than the next one over and in cities like Sydney, the eastern suburbs versus western suburbs fault line is felt everywhere from stand-up comedy stages to footy ovals.
AUSTRALIA’S BIG THINGS
This rivalry is literally writ large when it comes to the outsized novelty structures that dot our highways and lure road-tripping travellers. At last count, there are some 150 destinations offering these gargantuan photo ops. Here are just the fruit and for the sake of efficiency pop the words “The Big” in front of each: banana (Coffs Harbour), apple (Batlow, Tallinn, Yerrinbool, Acacia Ridge, Thulimbah), cherries (Young), orange (Tenterfield), mango (Bowen), watermelon (Chinchilla), pineapple (Woombye) and so on. It’s like God’s shopping trolley had decided to go vegan.
Out-size flora aside, we also fragment into not so friendly competition when it comes to beer. Queenslanders will defend XXXX like it was a one-point lead at the old Lang Park, South Australians take great delight in the ritual of rolling their Coopers on a bar top and obviously Victoria Bitter is not the name of an aggrieved Spice Girl – although it is quite the dad joke. Moreover, we even stand by our own respective beer sizing terms. To whit, a 285ml middy in Perth, Sydney and Canberra is a pot in Melbourne and Brisbane, a ten in Hobart and a handle in Darwin. It’s all just gloriously bonkers but we’ll certainly raise a glass to it.
This internecine linguistic warfare is not merely confined to the bar. Travel throughout our wide brown land and state by state you’ll hear different words for everything from swimwear (togs v swimmers v cossie) and convenience stores (milk bar v corner shop v dairy) to frozen treats (icy pole v ice block v ice lolly).
We also say ‘yeah nah’ when we mean ‘no’, ‘nah yeah’ when we mean ‘yes’ and can’t decide whether the correct pronunciation of ‘dance’ is meant to rhyme with ‘aunts’ or ‘pants’.
Where you will find a nationwide uniformity is in our quest to shorten any word with more than three syllables into one with two or less. So far, this linguistic chop shop has delivered classics like sanga, ranga and postie. Even under the most trying of circumstances, this trait shines in sentences like: ‘I’m a bit povo at the mo so I’m gonna duck down to Cenno.’ Which translates as: ‘I’m doing it a bit tough financially right now and might see if Centrelink can help.’ I mean, you’ve just got stand and applaud that.
At first glance, it may all seem a bit facile and trivial, even juvenile at times. But the glimmer in the eye and the smile on Australian lips is a hard-won and flinty humour, a bulwark and coping mechanism for the unique challenges foisted upon us by geography, circumstance and history.
They don’t know before arriving, but it’s as much a part of the Australian experience for visitors as finding out the Starbucks isn’t real coffee. And as current circumstances prompt us to rediscover our own immense backyard, it’s out there just waiting for locals too. It’s in the deadpan asides of city tour guides and barkeeps, the gentle sarcasm of rural providores asked the same questions by every tour group and an affable ribbing from a country chef when you ask if there’s any chance of a kale smoothie. The best part of all this is that there’s no cultural gap so you’ll be in on every joke. Which means we don’t have to tell you that there’s no ‘t’ in courier.