Small Poppy Syndrome: Why are Australians so Obsessed With Nicknaming Things?

Australian kids
Kids in rural Australia
iStock

What unites a nation? A shared culture, similar values, healthy respect? Or in the case of Australian English, perhaps a rabid obsession with nicknames?

In these polarizing times, it’s all too easy to feel as though you don’t even share a common language with some of those you share a country with. We’re keenly aware of how changing language can divide and bias us, even if we sound the same. Bewildering linguistic innovations in slang, jargon, the idioms and argots of different subcultures, generations and even genders can be used to put people in their separate places.

So it’s fascinating to observe those communal language quirks that work to bring everyone back together again. When speakers share a linguistic camaraderie that reflects a community’s values, it can ultimately help build a culture.

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Every month, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

This is the case for the weird, wonderful, and distinctly Aussie habit of nicknaming and abbreviating everything. Nicknames may seem trivial, and even childish, but they also reveal how Australians see themselves and relate to each other, all baked (under a hot summer sun) into their language use.

The Aussie Habit of Nicknaming

“Strine” slang has always been an important part of Australian life, prized for its informality and irreverence, at times vulgar, at times poetic, employing metaphors (“don’t come the raw prawn with me”), similes (“as mad as a cut snake”), as well as rhyming slang (“dog’s eye with dead horse”—obviously a meat pie with tomato sauce). But Aussie slang, and Aussie nicknames, have moved on from the colorful ocker idioms of yesteryear.

Enter nicknames of the hypocoristic persuasion, beginning in baby talk or childhood language as shorteners (and in some cases lengtheners) for actual people’s names. Thus a Robert might be “Robby,” Mark could end up “Marko,” Sharon is classically “Shaz/Shazza” and for this Australian linguist, it was sadly impossible to avoid being called “Cheese” at school. This shows that though nicknames might generally end up as a shorter, easier version of something, length is probably not the most crucial aspect of a nickname. Rather, nicknames carry certain other pragmatic senses, such as a rejection of formality, and breeding familiarity (and therefore sometimes contempt, as we shall see).

Australian English gave the world the word “selfie,” and (probably) the new cute word on the block “doggo.”

Now, not content with making up informal pseudonyms for all our friends’ names, Australian English also tries to make friends with the rest of words in the dictionary. That’s right, Australian English is not just to blame for giving the world the word “selfie,” and (probably) the new cute word on the block “doggo”, but so much more. Many other ordinary words can be abbreviated into these childlike, diminutive forms that can have a curious effect on how Australians interact with each other—even if they don’t know each other.

Australian hypocoristics are formed by a semi productive process, easily understood and enthusiastically shared by its native speakers, and providing a rich source of new slang, just as an older, more idiomatic slang style begins to die out. Australians can’t seem to help themselves and will attempt to shorten any poor, innocent word they can get their hands on, whether it’s an avo toastie for brekkie or a choccy bikkie with a cuppa in the arvo—it can often seem so incomprehensible to the wider English speaking world, but not to Australians.

 

All the ways in which Australian English can form these abbreviations is an interesting story in itself, so I’ll keep it short. Consider these examples, some more common than others, in which the first syllable (or so) is truncated and a suffix is added to the end:

  1. -y/ie: exxy (expensive), mozzie (mosquito), uey (u-turn), selfie (self-portrait photograph).
  2. -o: aggro (aggressive), rando (random person), weirdo (weird person), arvo (afternoon), povo (poverty/poor person), avo (avocado).
  3. s: dins/din-dins (dinner, with reduplication), totes (totally), probs (probably), turps (turpentine), Salvos (Salvation Army, with -o ending), maths (mathematics).
  4. ers/as: preggers/preggas (pregnant), Maccas (McDonald’s), champers (champagne). This patterns after the so-called Oxford slang suffix that gave us soccer (association football).
  5. z/za: soz (sorry), appaz (apparently), Bazza (Barry). (This last form may puzzle you, as it weirdly changes “r” at the end of syllables to “z”. This has to do with non-rhotic Australian English’s inability to pronounce /r/ at the end of a word or syllable. Phonologically speaking, /z/ is not only a common replacement for /r/, but it also then patterns after the plural-like –s ending).

The act of nicknaming is not unusual in itself—other dialects of English do it too, in similar morphological ways, but perhaps in more restricted contexts, such as the aforementioned baby talk and pet names. It’s just that Australian English speakers (along with our trans-Tasman cousins, the New Zealanders), seem to regularly do it so much more, and in much wider social and speech contexts. The fascinating thing then is not just how all these hypocoristics are formed, but why Australian English speakers do it so often.

It’s related to how baby talk is formed, and certainly looks like a diminutive, but unexpectedly, Australian hypocoristics don’t necessarily have the sense of being a smaller version of something, as linguist Anna Wierzbicka points out. For example, the abbreviations used in American English baby talk, like “birdie,” “doggie,” and “kitty,” have a diminutive effect (and might also be used this way in Australian English), but when the same suffixes are used with other, less childish words, such as “tradie” (tradesperson), “lippie” (lipstick), or “sunnies” (sunglasses), this doesn’t hold true. Instead, according to Wierzbicka, the pragmatic effect is one of “convivial good humor” and fellowship, while downplaying the importance or formality of what’s being said.

Nevertheless, because these abbreviations look just like the diminutives used in child language, some cultural commentators might find themselves cringing at the overuse of Australian hypocoristics, regarding them as infantile or juvenile, or even uneducated. So why don’t Australians start taking themselves more seriously, and use full, grown up words like the rest of the world?

What Diminutives Do

There might be a point to it all. When we dig a little deeper, it turns out that some of the unique characteristics of diminutives, found in so many different languages, could hold a clue to why these diminutive-like nicknames are so popular with Australian speakers.

Diminutives, a fascinating grammatical class in themselves, are near universal, according to scholar Daniel Jurafsky, and are prominently used in child language. The association that diminutives have with childhood is key when we start to consider their use in wider, adult speech contexts. Some researchers claim that diminutives can also be gendered, as apparently more women use them than men, theoretically because women are more likely to be communicating with children. It’s not clear, however, that this assumption holds water across the sea of languages. In a quantitative study of Greek diminutives, for example, sociolinguist Marianthi Makri-Tsilipakou finds that Greek men are more frequent users of diminutives in speech, possibly because it is more marked when Greek women use them. Meanwhile,  in Australian English, hypocoristics do not appear to be constrained in use by gender or generation. Everyone uses them.

As a matter of fact, Jurafsky points out that the semantics of diminutives are not restricted or limited to this idea of smallness or childishness, even if that is their core meaning. There’s evidence that, in many languages, diminutives developed from hypocorism, that is, from people’s nicknames in childhood, rather than the other way around. When people nicknamed words in the same way, these abbreviations acquired the baby talk sense of “small” or “nonserious.” When regularly used in different speech contexts, perhaps this core meaning of the diminutive then developed new, related connotations—sometimes even contradictory ones. In Mexican Spanish for instance, “ahorita,” a diminutive form of “now,” has the more intense sense of “immediately, right now” while in Dominican Spanish the very same word means “soon, in a little while.”

The enthusiastic and effective use of nicknames mirrors core Australian values and desired national characteristics, such as mateship, friendliness, informality, and solidarity with other Australians.

It’s easy to see how the close association of diminutives with children’s and (as it’s assumed) women’s language can give rise to a range of non-threatening pragmatic senses in different languages. They’ve been used to convey affection, informality, playfulness, familiarity, euphemism, inoffensiveness, politeness… and even, in the end, contempt. While a friendly nickname can express familiarity and help build relationships, an ironic nickname like “little Donny” applied to an adult you don’t respect can carry the weight of contempt.

What Language Use Reveals About Culture

So how does this all play out in the great Australian obsession with nicknames? The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis being what it is, linguists tend to be cautious about directly or causally linking linguistic or grammatical processes to real social and cultural phenomena. Nevertheless, Anna Wierzbicka makes a compelling argument that this widespread use of Australian hypocoristics is evidence that language use can be strongly associated with culture. The enthusiastic and effective use of nicknames mirrors core Australian values and desired national characteristics, such as mateship, friendliness, informality, and solidarity with other Australians. This claim has been made for other languages too, such as Greek, where a similar, informal socialization and friendliness is interpreted through the use of diminutives.

Playful hypocoristics are a way to convey this shared ethos, downplaying formality and minimizing the kind of bragging so upsetting to Australia’s infamous Tall Poppy Syndrome, in which those who rate themselves and their successes above all others are cut down (in this case, probably with a sharply worded, friendly nickname or two). Perhaps the cuteness makes everything seem friendlier. Pure speculation? Research studies have shown that the use of hypocoristics by Australian English speakers to each other does have a real world effect, resulting in an increased positive reception, as speakers are seen as more likable. The same use of those same nicknames by a non Australian accented speaker does not have the same effect.

Interestingly, there’s a contrasting example of how language and culture interact when we consider American culture, with its national stereotype of the rugged individuals going it alone, the ethic of hard work, and the drive for personal success. Studies have observed, in language found in books, song lyrics, and T.V. shows, that there’s a marked increase in ego-driven language use, phrasing that emphasizes uniqueness, the personal, the individual, the self.

Likewise, in a study of compliments and politeness, Americans were described as “emphatically enthusiastic” (PDF download) in the way they tend to offer direct, maximized appreciations of success compared to some non-Americans. In American English, for example, speakers are socialized to be politely, but forcefully, complimentary through structures like “I love your —” (I love your shirt/hair/car/etc.), while in New Zealand English the more tepid “like” replaces “love” in twice as many compliment cases. While Americans tend to overtly observe and celebrate successes through enthusiastic compliments, non-Americans such as Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians are more likely to praise by understating or minimizing the force of the compliment, if they use them at all, such as “you’re not a bad driver,” or “that wasn’t the worst meal you’ve cooked.”

While Australian and American societies are similar in many ways, they differ markedly in which national characteristics are most valued by their citizens. Where Americans might elevate the individual, self-sufficiency, and success, Australians seem to value mateship, the collective, and community building—and it’s possible this is reflected through the language use of both societies. Australia’s quirky, playful obsession with nicknames, a kind of small poppy syndrome that helps Australians share and celebrate their culture of egalitarian friendship and community, might have a serious side after all.

 

In memory of Jesse Cox.


JSTOR Citations

Does Language Reflect Culture? Evidence from Australian English

By: Anna Wierzbicka

Language in Society, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep., 1986), pp. 349-373

Cambridge University Press

Universal Tendencies in the Semantics of the Diminutive

By: Daniel Jurafsky

Language, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 533-578

Linguistic Society of America

Greek diminutive use problematized: gender, culture and common sense

By: MARIANTHI MAKRI-TSILIPAKOU

Discourse & Society, Vol. 14, No. 6 (NOVEMBER 2003), pp. 699-726

Sage Publications, Ltd.

Australian Nicknames

By: John Greenway

American Speech, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Oct., 1959), pp. 224-226

Duke University Press

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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