Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Good Shortcuts Go Bad

Hands up everyone who knows what a redneck is. Rather a lot of hands there, I see. Hooray for cultural imperialism (for those who are wondering, yes, that is sarcasm). How about an ocker? Yeah, that's what I thought, thanks Rowena and Chris. A bushie? Same two hands. Hmm... I think I see a little problem here.

I've got an interesting view from where I sit, because I'm not 'Merkin, but I live in the USA. It's very easy for 'Merkins to forget that not everyone has the same cultural references as 'Merkins. Yes, a lot of USian stuff gets exported, enough that most of the rest of the English speaking world has a fair idea of what the main US idioms actually mean.

It's not that the USA is necessarily more insular than anywhere else, either. It's just so flipping big that by the time you get through the USA stuff there's no room for the rest, kind of like the way it gets inside a large university.

Add to that the human norm is to assume you are normal and anything that isn't like you is not, and you've got a recipe for some serious confusion.

Say you want to write about the Australian equivalent of rednecks. No, I'm not asking why. I don't want to know. I'm just assuming it's something some crazy person might want to do at some point. You go do some research, and you find that lo! 'bushie' seems to fit the bill.

Only you're going to have the Aussies pissing themselves laughing at your masterwork, because you won't find a bushie with a truck up on blocks living in a trailer. He's in a tent, or a tin shed, or camping in the back of his ute, and he knows how to live off the bush. He likes beer, but that's normal.

Maybe ocker, then? They are kind of working class-ish, and tend to have that sort of feel... Except you get them everywhere. And there are some very wealthy ockers out there (Paul Hogan comes to mind. He made millions out of Crocodile Dundee by being himself. Hell he made himself plenty by being himself on the Naked Vicar Show (Yes, that was a real TV show, and yes, it was shown in Australia in prime time), himself being a smart-arse painter on the Sydney Harbour Bridge crew. The old footage if you ever find it, he's in grotty old shorts and a flannie shirt with the sleeves pulled out.). But wait! There's a catch. There's a bit of ocker in most Aussies, because ockers are usually also battlers. Oh, and ockers aren't inbred. Or dumb.

You go looking further, and come across the yobbo. This is a peculiar subspecies of ocker found mostly at sporting events, usually with six-pack (beer, not abs) and thongs (footwear, absolutely NOT underwear. If these guys wear undies - and quite a few don't, which leads to the unfortunates who get an eyeful of what's under the shorts developing a phobia of guys with beer guts and short short shorts - it's usually the jockstrap or Y front variety). Not right at all...

Which is the thing. The redneck is very much a USian phenomenon. Now the redback... Oh, never mind. You'll find out about that on your first visit to an old-style Oz dunny (outhouse, and yes, they're still around). Redbacks are spiders. They like nice dark, moist places and have no sense of smell. I think you get the idea. But I digress.

The point of this ramble is that every culture has its unique subgroups and stereotypes. You can write a redneck in anything US-based, and be fairly sure most of your readers will be know what you mean. There are others where that's not the case. Calling someone a liberal as an insult in the US has damn near the opposite meaning in Australia, where the Liberals are the conservative side of government.

So what are some of the groups you've seen dropped into books with the assumption that you'll know exactly what sort of person this is because he, she, or it is a 'redneck'? Or a 'yobbo'. Or a 'Tory'. Or... whatever.

p.s. For those who are wondering, you can get a start on some of the unexplained Aussieisms here.


Anonymous said...

I'm from the UK and have read my share of Aussie books (A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz is a real favourite) - I think you can pick up a lot of idiom from the context.

...and I was a huge fan of the Paul Hogan Show when it was shown here in the 80s.

C Kelsey said...

Wow great article. I've never heard of any of those. So do all those different words denote a sub-species of redneck?

Here in the US it gets interesting because we use rednecks to mean rancher, hunter, survival specialist, dumb southerner, inbred... And since Foxworthy came out with his comedy routines many folks jokingly refer to themselves as rednecks.

One word, hundreds of meanings. If you're confused that's okay. So am I. :)

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris

Yob or Yobbo is London backslang for a young male lout (yob = boy).

Ocker is Ozzie.

Yob is actually a bit old fashioned in the UK. You would now hear 'chav' or 'pikey'.

These are Romany words for youth or child but became applied to gypsies and then became general words for the white urban uncultured.

Chav, in particular comes from the North Kent Coast, specifically Chatham.

We don't have a rural working class. Only rich people live in the country in southern Englandso regretably we have no rednecks.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Kate.

Aton, I think the Australian humour is closer to the UK humour, than the US.

If you are looking for the equivalent of trailer park trash, the Australian word is 'bogan'. Don't ask me why.

And they don't live in trailer parks. Here we call them caravan parks. Bogans could just as easily live in a poor working class suburban, or a middle class suburb and have delusions of elitism.

It is more a mindset, a narrow world view. And you can get that anywhere.

In Queensland, where I live, it is the deep north, as opposed to the deep south. The southern states have mocked 'banana benders' for years. (You never see a straight banana, do you?).

Chris McMahon said...

Anton, I used to love Paul Hogan's 'Donger' characters. The cop who used to knock people arse over tit with his beer gut.

Hi, Rowena. You forgot to mention bogans are inseparable from their cars, and have a fondness for Ugg boots (sheepskin boots). The cars are usually overpowered, with flashy paintjobs and shiny mag wheels. Their houses might be dumps, but their cars . . .

Kate said...


A lot of Oz dialect is descended from Brit, although it's kind of the bastard child of cockney, Irish and Scots mixed with a bit of everything else for spice.

Context... varies. See, mate, when you're going like the clappers and some bastard chucks a wobbly or spits the dummy, you've got to hit the anchors straight off or you're ratshit. A bloke needs a tallie after that, but you do that these days and you've got a free ride in the pineapple taxi and there goes your in with the shielas. I tell you, mate, you got the rough end of the pineapple if you think you can pick up more than shrapnel doing this.

Mike said...

And for extra credit, how does this posting tie to the recent one by Amanda Green/Sean Kinsell about the best balance in conveying a foreign setting?

My own off-hand interpretation -- my Japanese friends would be very likely to ask what made their necks red. Just calling someone a redneck is characterization by stereotype, and we know that doesn't work very well, even when people know the stereotype. When you toss in cross-cultural lack of knowledge (heck, what about cross-era -- do young people consider a redneck the same way I think of a redneck? Probably not...).

Maybe it works best to consider your audience as aliens from Rigel who have learned English as a second language?

Kate said...

Chris K.

Not really, except in the sense of "rural" or "low income". The pejorative that's usually attached to "redneck" isn't really part of oz culture.

Of course, Jeff Foxworthy is helping to shift that with his routine so who knows what "redneck" will mean in 20 years time?

If you want a multi-use word, the Aussie "mate" is a good one. Everything from best friend to "if you get too close I'll kill you" depending on context and tone of voice.

Kate said...


Wherever yobbo came from, it's mutated. In Australia, it's got the specific sports-related connotation. And ocker does not mean any Australian. You're likely to get the ups or the finger if you try telling that to the wrong Aussie (if said Aussie is being polite. Otherwise you'll get called a stuck up pommie bastard shortly before you get your block knocked off).

Kate said...


Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten bogan culcha, ugh boots and all (they're only Ugg boots when they're new. After they've been on a bogan's feet for a few weeks, they're ugh boots).

Do you still see skegs around the beaches, or has that one mutated?

As for we banana benders, we clearly perform a vital service to the rest of the world, bending all those bananas.

It all shows that you really can't assume someone else knows what the heck you're talking about, because it varies so much :)

Kate said...


Yep! The Paul Hogan Show was great fun. Of course, I think a lot of the success was that he was very much one of the boys, and taking the piss out of himself as much as the rest of the world.

Kate said...


Call it analysis paralysis or flying in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own fundamental orifice: it doesn't really matter. The connection to Sean Kinsell's guest post, which Amanda kindly posted for him, is that we're talking mostly about writing and in this case how much can be packed into one word by implication - but only in some places.

Think of it this way - what does "sea" mean to someone who's never seen it? They might know, intellectually, that the word means a shitload of water, but they don't associate the word with anything. I spent much of my life a short trip from the sea. (the Pacific Ocean, east coast of Australia for those who care). To me, "sea" evokes smells and sounds and that unique feel of sand mixed with sunscreen and drying salt water.

Now add dialect... If I lent you something and told you it had a boomerang attached you'd wonder what the heck I meant. I know that any variation on that phrase means the item had bloody well better come back.

What works best is to mix it with context so that you can figure out the dialect from context, and understand what it means in that situation.

Oh, and there is no deliberate association with Sean's post, because that wasn't what I was thinking about when I wrote this one. The human pattern matching machine at work, seeing connections where none were intended :)

Amanda Green said...


I wouldn't dream of answering for Sean, but I think we're almost talking apples and oranges here because you can have a character talking 'strain in the middle of Dallas. In fact, we have a lot of them and they have as much difficulty understand us when we put on the drawl and use the mix of 'merican, Texan and Mexican -- and a little Patois or Cajun -- as we have understanding them.

As for identifying someone as a "redneck" or "bogan", you do it and then add in enough background descriptors to show why you've cast them in that role. That way, your reader knows exactly what you're getting at. At least that's what I try to do because, yes, folks do have different images of what certain types of people might be.

Mike said...

Sure, sure, I know I'm creating a connection where there was no intent... but I do think the two issues are related? I mean, Australian slang fits into a social matrix that has a certain location and era, right? And as far as someone raised in Maryland is concerned, it might as well be the other side of the world (hum, almost). I think we sometimes miss the fact that our common language hides great divides in culture/society? It's perhaps easier to see these issues when we also cross linguistic barriers at the same time, but... they're intertwined.

Hum, now how would I describe "redneck" in Japanese? Probably blue-sheet. Which is relatively recent slang, referring to the people who have chosen to ride out recession and post-earthquake times living in blue plastic sheet shanties that they throw up in the flood zones and parks. There's a whole little odd subculture springing up around these people.


Dave Freer said...

Actually, Kate, I think one of the biggest problems is the words and expressions that are so commonplace that we don't realise that others don't get it. 'Bikie' is an Australian eg (not in the slang list). And 'liberal' - which confused the hell out of me with Americans. And my own 'I'll be a Ductchman's maiden aunt.' EVERYONE knows what that means, don't they?

Dave Freer said...

Oh for the record I suspect I'll be a drongo bushie from beyond the black stump, or an ocker with kangaroos in his top paddock :-)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

And if you go 'troppo' it doesn't mean you're going to live in the tropics. It means you've gone crazy.

Anonymous said...

Two words.

"A Clockwork Orange."

Three... three words!

Original edition didn't have a translation of the slang, so there was no choice but to determine meaning from context.

kesalemma said...

*cacking myself too much to think straight and post coherently*
*should also be asleep...on committee of convention that starts in 18 hours...eek*

Kinda on, kinda off topic, I was completely thrown by some very US style speech patterns/modern slang used by Glen Cook in The Black Company series and it's sequels. Great books otherwise, but there;s nothing worse than being jolted out of a great story by language that does not fit.

Kate said...


Yeah, the extra contextual information is what really does the trick. You mention the bogan and describe people passing out from the fumes rising from his ugh boots as he walks by...

Is this where I mention that my natural mode is 'daggy' and I have rendered people unconscious with ugh boots?

Kate said...


A common language certainly hides divisions that would be much more obvious with different languages. From what I've seen, most people don't realize those divisions exist unless they've lived in a different country that uses the same language.

I've been in the US getting towards 7 years now, and I still get thrown by all sorts of things.

Kate said...


Actually, the dutchman's maiden aunt is a monkey's uncle, if I remember right.

And no, you won't be a drongo anything, but you'll definitely be a bushie from beyond the black stump. Probably one of those tough little bastards you don't want to piss off ;)

Kate said...


Actually I thought living in the tropics was one of the reasons people went troppo. All that liquid sunshine.

Kate said...


Didn't Clockwork Orange actually derive most of the slang from roots that someone with a decent knowledge of English/Latin/Greek could figure out with the extra contextual information?

When you talk about slang that's grown out of and mutated from rhyming slang, it gets much more fun, as does the use of a word to mean its opposite or what it actually means depending on tone of voice - and that's before you add in a love of playing silly buggers with words. (One of the many small plumbing businesses in Oz calls itself "Winnie the Phew!". Then there's Dial-a-Dunny and Rent-a-loo.)

Kate said...


Try to get some sleep before the con, and I hope it goes well!

Yes, modern idiomatic speech patterns in high fantasy - or sword and sorcery for that matter - can be horribly jarring. Usually it's a sign of authorial tin ear when that happens, but sometimes it's just - as Dave said further upthread - you're so used to the language you don't realize it doesn't belong where you're writing it.

Amanda Green said...

Kate and Anton,

re: Clockwork Orange, the slang in it did, in some cases derive from the roots Kate mentioned. But in other cases it came from Russian and Russian slang. The odd spellings of some of it could cause a bit of head scratching. But, when you watch the movie -- and, yes, there are differences -- the Russian-based slang is more easily identifiable and translatable.