Fidlets, fingies and riding a doo: study sheds light on Antarctic English slang

<span>Colloquial words and expressions in Antarctica often borrow from military, navy and mountaineering terms.</span><span>Photograph: Samantha Crimmin/Alamy</span>
Colloquial words and expressions in Antarctica often borrow from military, navy and mountaineering terms.Photograph: Samantha Crimmin/Alamy

If you know what it means to be a “fidlet” going for a “jolly” in your “doo”, then you are part of an exclusive club that speaks colloquial Antarctic English.

A New Zealand linguistics doctorate graduate from the University of Canterbury has completed a world-first study into colloquial Antarctic English, spoken at the US, British and New Zealand Antarctic research stations.

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While there have been previous literary studies into Antartica English vocabulary, Dr Steph Kaefer’s study marks the first time a researcher has visited Antarctica to document the unique colloquialisms used in daily life.

Over three weeks in 2019, Kaefer spent time at three English-speaking Antarctic stations observing and gathering data from workers based on what the US station refers to as “The Ice”, or the British call the “South”.

Initially prompted by a love of the continent, Kaefer was further inspired to investigate Antarctica’s vocabulary after reading an academic’s article discussing how newcomers to the continent were struck by the distinctive vocabulary.

“Some of it was mundane, talking about the weather conditions, organisation of the community and day-to-day operations, but he did say some of the lexicon was richly figurative,” Kaefer said.

Before embarking on her trip, Kaefer expected to find a pan-Antarctic vocabulary, but quickly discovered there were distinct colloquialisms within each station.

Americans, for example, call newcomers to Antarctica “fingies”, which comes from FNGs – a borrowed military acronym that means “Fucking New Guy”. The British use the term “fidlets”, a diminutive of “Fid”, which in turn is an acronym for Falkland Island Dependencies, the former name of the British Antarctic Survey.

A non-work excursion away from the station in US Antarctic English is a “boondoggle”, or a “jolly” for the Britons. A snow mobile is “snow machine” for the US workers and a “doo” at the British station. New Zealanders, Kaefer said, tend to adopt colloquialisms from the Americans, due to the closeness of their research stations, but a few original terms stood out.

“Nose wipers” refer to the large protective gloves used in extreme weather conditions, while being “tray’d” refers to the last person to put their dish in the dishwasher after a meal and who now must empty it.

Colloquial words and expressions in Antarctica often borrow from military, navy and mountaineering terms but not exclusively. Sometimes terms are newly created on site, but mostly, they are English words repurposed for the environment or lifestyle.

“For example, the word ‘toasted’ refers to an individual who is burnt out from serving a winter,” Kaefer said.

“So for someone who has just come out of that, you would say ‘he’s pretty toasted’.”

Kaefer said it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how some words came into common use, but Antarctica’s isolation likely plays a part into why some words such as “boondoggle” – an old US term that has fallen out of use – may have lingered on.

“It’s possible when we started building research stations in the 50s and 60s words like ‘boondoggle’ might have been common at that time and it became a regular part of speech … in Antarctic culture it can take on a life of its own.”

Antarctica, like outer-space, is known as an ICE environment – isolated, confined and extreme – meaning unlike other isolated communities, the rate of change for its vocabulary can be slower.

“That’s a really cool linguistic phenomenon, where [words] get preserved or fossilised in Antarctica because there is not as much backwards and forwards with the language.”