The curse of swearing like a foreigner

WARNING: This post contains swearwords. But so did the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, so either deal with it or move on…

My love of appropriate swearing – no, that’s not an oxymoron – has been documented before. I thought I knew the whole lexicon. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover a whole new swearword: shithouse.

At first I wasn’t actually sure whether it meant good or bad. Was it the Aussie’s sense of irony at play? But a quick scan of the Urban Dictionary revealed that it was far more straightforward than that. It definitely means bad.

But much as I love the word, there is a problem with it. I just sound ridiculous saying it.

Maybe it’s because I’m female. It sounds totally natural when spoken by an Aussie man, which of course is where I first heard it. The example of usage given in the Urban Dictionary is perhaps a giveaway: Fuck me, I lost my right testicle! That is shithouse. Frankly, I can’t see when I’d ever use that combination of words, in that order.

Or maybe it’s my Scottish accent. While my accent has definitely got a bit milder in the two decades that I’ve been away from Scotland, the only people who can’t tell that I’m Scottish are those who assume I’m Irish (‘What part of Ireland are you from?’ ‘Er, the part that’s in Scotland…’). Indeed, there are some who still think I sound like Billy Connolly. An Australian colleague’s wife commented on how broad I sounded when she first met me; I felt like turning into the Scottish linguistic equivalent of Crocodile Dundee and introducing her to my relatives and schoolfriends: ‘That’s not an accent. That’s an accent!’

And as anyone who has ever watched anyone from Scotland depicted in a TV drama, swearing is (apparently) what our accents were designed for…although I fear it only extends to our native words.

I’d never want to change the way I speak permanently. Not only would it mean losing my identity, but it would also not go down well with my Scottish compatriots. Just ask Sheena Easton. But it would be nice to sound a bit less Scottish when it mattered – like in my Spanish oral exam at university, or when I need to use the dialect of where I live, rather than where I’m from. In Bristol, I always sounded like I was taking the mickey when I hopped off a bus with a friendly ‘Cheers Drive!’ in my approximation of a West Country accent and in Australia, I can’t say ‘shithouse’ without sounding like it’s a word I’ve never, ever said before.

And that really is shithouse.






The Scottish Referendum: a view from an ex-pat

Saltire and union flagI’ve only just become Australian, but in a few days, my ‘other’ nationality will be put to the test when Scotland votes on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. The idea of Scottish independence has been lurking in the background of Scottish politics for many years, but this is the closest it has ever come to reality.

As a non-resident of Scotland I don’t have a vote, but my accent is enough to prompt discussions about the referendum with almost everyone I meet. Among my friends – Scottish, English and Australian – there are representatives of both sides of the debate. My Facebook feed is filled with photographs of YES posters in suburban windows, balanced by opinions on why Scotland can never be like Norway (and if it was, why Scots would hate having to pay a fortune for beer). It’s clear that while some are making their choice based on the facts as they see them (this is a political campaign, after all, so there has been misinformation and spin on both sides), others are following their hearts.

To vote yes or no to breaking up a union of nations is a huge decision and one that most people outside Scotland, who haven’t been exposed to the growing interest in Scottish nationalism, cannot fathom ever having to make. For Scots, however, the referendum was inevitable and in my view, it represents the greatest opportunity the country has ever had. The fact is that if the Scottish people were truly happy with the status quo, no referendum would have been called. This is a chance to start afresh, to do it our way.

Since the Thatcher years, which saw Scotland’s industries decimated and a series of hugely unpopular policies introduced, the views of the Scottish electorate have diverged sharply from those of their neighbours south of the border. It is easier to spot the Loch Ness Monster than a Scottish Tory. They are so uncommon that when the rare occasions that I meet one, I still find myself doing a double take. In the general election of 1997, not a single Scottish seat was won by the Conservatives. In each of the three elections since then, the Tories have only managed to take one seat. The Conservative share of the vote in the Scottish Parliament – elected by proportional representation – has been dropping steadily for the last few years, and the party currently holds only 15 of 129 seats.

As a result the policies of the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Parliament and its counterpart at Westminster are also wildly different. The powers given to the Scottish Parliament on its formation in 1999 have given the Scots an opportunity to show how they would like things to be, albeit in a limited way. The strong support for the SNP (even prior to the referendum being called) suggests that Scots’ priorities are very different to those of their southern neighbours. University tuition for Scottish students is free; students south of the border pay thousands of pounds for a degree. In Scotland, there is a commitment to free universal healthcare including free prescriptions; in England the National Health Service is being systematically dismantled and a packet of pills will cost you eight pounds. Westminster is happy to have nuclear submarines stationed on the Clyde; the SNP have pledged to remove them. To paraphrase one of the many memes circulating online this week, the yes camp might not be sure of what it’s running towards, but it knows exactly what it’s running away from.

This increasing disparity, combined with a strong sense of patriotism, has undoubtedly added momentum to the yes campaign. There are still many questions about what independence would mean that have not been – and perhaps cannot be – fully answered, but there is undoubtedly a growing sense that Scotland is different, and needs more control over its own destiny. Few in the no camp would be likely to refuse the carrot of additional powers now being dangled by Westminster in the form of ‘devo max’, should independence not be achieved.

And whatever happens, this referendum can only be good for politics. Scotland, a nation which could have been excused for becoming apathetic, having repeatedly voted for one government but received another, thanks to the way British elections are run, has had its interest in politics reignited. Ninety-seven per cent of the adult population have registered to vote in the referendum, some 300,000 more than were registered for the last Westminster election, and turnout is expected to be extremely high. Among the 97 per cent are many 16 and 17-year-olds, given the opportunity to have their say for the first time. The lowering of the voting age was a smart move: it will create a generation of more politically engaged young people, who appreciate the importance of participation in political decisions.

Will Scotland be independent come Friday? Probably not. According to the latest polls, every one of the ‘don’t knows’ need to be converted to yes for that to happen. The natural tendency for many Scots to doubt their own ability may also come into play at the last minute, with some yes voters switching to what they consider the ‘safer’ no. I may not need to replace my UK passport with a Scottish one this year, but a few years from now…who knows. The genie is out of the bottle. It would take a monumental rethink on how the union is governed to lure it back in.

The joy of the incidental visitor

Welcome MatWhen you leave one side of the world for the other, you know that you will never see some people again. It’s a harsh reality of expat life: you invite everyone to come and visit you in your new home, and everyone promises they will, but it doesn’t happen. Money, family…LIFE gets in the way.

Close family will come, if you’re lucky, but there is no guarantee. Surely it would be better for you to come here, they say. You can see everyone that way, and you’re used to the long flight, not like us. Wouldn’t you rather come back than put us up for a month? We don’t want to impose.

So while our spare room is the only room in our house that is propery finished, it’s also the least-used. We’ve only had one set of ‘proper’ family visitors in the five years since we migrated, and they’ve made it clear that they have no intention of coming back. If we want to see them again, Mohamed will have to go to the mountain.

But while our nearest and dearest expend their energy on getting us back to Blighty, we’ve discovered that many other people we know do travel to Australia, usually to visit family of their own. And what has been fantastic is that they often take the opportunity to spend a little time with us.

Our first ‘incidental visitor’ – a former work colleague of the Silver Fox – called on us just months after we moved, during a visit to family in Perth. Another making a similar trip followed soon after. And in a couple of months we will meet an old journalist friend (and former boss) of mine for dinner. It’s been 15 years since I left the paper we both worked on, and almost as long since we’ve spoken. But he’s coming out to Australia to visit others, remembered I was in Melbourne and decided to look me up. I’m looking forward to it already.

These brief get-togethers are an opportunity to share a little of our new life, catch up on some gossip and hear a familiar accent. For at least some of the visitors, I’m sure we have provided some respite from family business, and the endless cups of tea which punctuate visits to overseas relatives.

So should you wish to pop in, for an hour, a day or a week, you’ll be very welcome. But beware the risks – one of these incidental visitors is bringing her family back to Melbourne in a few weeks, to stay for good.

Losing a language

Scots dialect tablematsI read a story on the BBC website recently about people who had lost fluency in their own language. At first the idea seemed ridiculous, particularly as I work with words. Surely I could never forget what they mean, no matter how embedded in another culture I become?

But even although I have spoken English all my life – a few years at night school practising tortured Spanish aside – it did make me wonder if my travels had had an impact on the way I speak.

I grew up in Scotland, but never considered myself to have a particularly strong accent; not did I use a lot of Scots dialect. So the people in my home town might have had accents broad enough to warrant English subtitles on a film set there, but with the naivety of anyone who had never travelled far, I assumed that I’d always be understood. With a mother from the west of Scotland and a father from the east, I’d never developed the intensely localised vocabulary of either community. I was also a bit of a snob, associating true Scots dialect with the working class of which I was most definitely part, but which I was keen to escape. I remember finding a dialect dictionary in the university library and gleefully searching for the words I’d heard my mum use a million times, but which sounded strange on my own, aspiring middle class lips. Continue reading

Footy fever

HawksNow that I’m Australian, I have to do Australian things. And that means going to the footy.

AFL is as much a part of life in Melbourne as trams and hipster baristas. If you meet someone new, you can be pretty sure they will ask you who you barrack for (note: never support, always barrack for) early in the conversation. If you don’t have a team you’re considered a bit odd.

So I got myself a team pretty sharpish: Hawthorn FC. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t because they win a lot. Nor was it because I find their brown and gold strip particularly attractive (I much prefer Port Adelaide’s black and teal ensemble). No, it was a practical decision. The Silver Fox had sworn allegiance to Hawthorn more than 20 years ago when he saw them play on his first visit to Oz. While he would argue that I am not inclined to follow his advice on much else, he knows his football, so I decided it would be simplest to tell people that I, too, barrack for the Hawks. Continue reading

Rules for a happy office?

office body languageThis week I attended a training session at work, on the organisation’s Responsible Conduct of Staff Policy.

After two hours of discussing the misuse of corporate credit cards, the rules around having another job on the side and the implications of swearing at your colleagues when they annoy you, it struck me that there were a few things missing* from the policy.

1. When returning to the office after exercising, please do not do your cool-down stretches in front of colleagues.
There’s a reason many of us don’t befriend all of our colleagues on Facebook: we know there are some things they just shouldn’t see. The same can be said for senior managers doing glute stretches while wearing very short shorts. Things escape when put under pressure. You know what I’m talking about. Continue reading

What happened to humility?


A little while ago I was introduced to a new member of staff at work, just a few days after they started. I work for a long-established, huge, sprawling organisation, with many illogical structures and unwritten rules that seem specifically designed to confuse the newbie.

I launched my usual ‘new starter’ conversation. ‘How are you finding it?’ I asked with a smile. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll give you a few weeks to get your head around everything.’

The response was cold, firm and direct: ‘I’ve done this type of work many times before. It’s not difficult.’ Continue reading