No worries

| September 18, 2022

I had an interesting interaction with a student the other day. I’d just given her an extension for the first assignment, and the exchange went something like this:

Me: You can have an extension until Monday.

Student: No worries.

This use of no worries has always struck me as interesting, and very different from how I’d use the phrase in this situation:

Student: Could I have an extension until Monday?

Me: No worries.

But, as is usually the case with the linguistic fallout of a nation’s culture and interactional style, what looks to be a straightforward, simple little expression is anything but.

Described in Jonathan King’s Waltzing Materialism as the “national motto” of Australia, this complex little phrase “no worries” even has its own Wiki entry. Here it’s earmarked as being ubiquitous in Australian speech, and our foray into Aussie slang certainly supports this.

No furries

The more we love an expression, the more we play with it. No worries has generated numerous remodelled versions – notably, gloriously truncated nurries, and the more complex no wuckers/no wucks, two truncated spoonerised versions (from no fucking worries -> no wucking furries -> no wuckers/no wucks).

No wuckers also shows the -ers ending, a double diminutive sometimes added to adjectives (like chockers, ‘chock-a-block’; preggers, ‘pregnant’), and also to nicknames (one of my school nicknames, Budge, was occasionally transformed – I like to think, affectionately – to Budgers).

Certainly, no worries (along with its offspring) featured in our slang survey of 2300 Australians, and on the ABC Facebook pages (where listeners posted their favourite slang expressions). In fact, it’s one of Australia’s international success stories.

And now we’re exporting it

Along with other notable exports such as no flies on you, budgie smugglers and, of course, selfie, no worries has made it big-time, especially in the US.

No doubt what shot it to stardom was the fact that it translated Hakuna Matata, the title of the hit song from the 1994 Disney film The Lion King – and from there it found itself on t-shirts and other Hakuna Matata merchandise.

And just like Australians whinge about the Americanisation of their beloved lingo, it so happened that earlier this year no worries turned up on an American blacklist — the annual Banished Words List of Michigan’s Lake Superior State University. Aussie hackles were raised by the reasons given for its banishment:

“Nominated by writers nationwide for misuse and overuse, this phrase incorrectly substitutes for ‘You’re welcome’ when someone says ‘Thank you’. A further bungling relates to insensitivity. ‘If I’m not worried, I don’t want anyone telling me not to worry,’ a contributor explicated. ‘If I am upset, I want to discuss being upset.’”

But this isn’t what no worries means, you’re probably thinking. It’s not a simple substitute for “you’re welcome”, and it’s certainly not insensitive advice to somebody to stop worrying.

Research by linguists Cliff Goddard and Anna Wierbicka would support you. An Aussie no worries is complex, and appears as a response to many different types of requests, apologies, thanks and concerned inquiries into troubles and misfortunes – it might even appear in place of a “thank you”, as in the exchange I mentioned at the start.

Australia’s love of informality

So what’s it doing there? Well, one feature of Australian culture that historians, sociologists and linguists seem to agree on is that Australians generally like to make light of the less happy aspects of existence (those who gripe or can’t remain cheerful in the face of adversity are branded sooks and wusses).

Australians also love informality – familiarity and friendliness is preferred, whatever the setting. This casualness is connected to the egalitarian feel of Australian society, or as historian John Hirst once described, a “democracy of manners” that rejects displays of respect (as might form part of a student’s polite request for additional time when an assignment is due).

Finally, if you find yourself enraged by the American misunderstanding of no worries, bear in mind that over the years a good many American English expressions have been adopted and outrageously adapted by Australians.

In fact, some we even claim as our own, including such quintessential Australian colloquialisms as bonzer, “very good” (from US bonanza, reinforced by other sources), and digger (“a miner”, and later “Australian soldier”). So don’t expect no worries, or any of our linguistic exports, to stand still once they’ve left Australia’s shores.

This article was published by Lens.