Scarfing the chips on our shoulders

The waitress asks me if I would like some more hot water for my tea. I smile, meet her eyes and then I say something that instantly makes me wince.

“That would be great,” I say. “Thanks.”

As she meekly fills my cup, I chastise myself for probably the hundredth time for using what is a very common saying in Australia but which, in unfailingly polite America, is tantamount to an insult. It seems only assholes use phrases like “that would be nice” or “that would be great,” and by it they usually mean “that would have been great fifteen minutes ago when you were neglecting me.” I’ve known this for some time but I just can’t seem to shake the phrase from my instinctive conversational vocabulary.

So why do we say it, anyway? I think it’s part of our Australian cultural conditioning to apologize for the things we want, especially food. The English say could I please have. The French and Americans come clean: je voudrais – I want, I would like. Australians are less likely to use language relating to their own need, instead emphasizing the imposition on the other: would you please, do you have, and then inevitably: that would be great.

There is a strong reflection of the Australian character in the words we use to describe taking and eating food. We pilfer, snaffle or filch; and then scarf it down before anyone notices.

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Snaffle is a fun word. It is thought to have been borrowed from the Dutch around the 1530s to describe a bridle bit, which in turn developed from the word for beak. So it is about stealing livestock. Funny then that we should come to use it to describe stealing – or feeling guilty about lawfully acquiring – food. But then, we all know how Australians feel about horse thieves.

Filch is a very old word of unknown origin but etymologists think it may have been adapted around the 1300s from the German filzen, meaning to comb through. Pilfer also relates to petty crime, this time with a side of piracy.

I wonder whether Australia’s use of these words to describe securing food might reveal more than we expect about our history, which is a 200-year-old tragedy that begins with the criminalization of the poor and displacement of indigenous people, moves on to widespread drought and hardship, and only turns around when the country discovers how to pilfer the rocks and minerals under its crust, aiding those who hold all the wealth and poisoning the world.

But sure, feel guilty about wanting a cupcake. That would be great.

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