Australia is an English-speaking country, technically, but as an American immigrant here I sometimes have trouble understanding the locals. (What’s a “galah”? Can you eat it for brekkie?) They, on the other hand, have almost no trouble understanding me, with all the American movies and TV that they watch. Just about any slang term I care to use, they’ve heard before.

But very occasionally I will be asked to translate an inadvertent Americanism, and this particular one stumped me. In a conversation about politics a friend asked me whether New England is as liberal as everyone says. He seemed to be picturing a population composed entirely of Harvard professors and Boston Unitarians. I told him about the Irish—he said he knew of them—and then I mentioned the “flinty New Englander” bloc.

“What does ‘flinty’ mean?”

“Oh. Flinty New Englanders are people who live in rural areas, sometimes on farms, spread out for optimal isolation. They’re taciturn, skeptical, and independent, they don’t have a problem with guns, and they don’t like outsiders. They also wear flannel, or they used to.”

“So like New England rednecks?”

“Not exactly. They’re seen as smart and wily, not stupid. They read books. Also, they’re haughty. Rednecks are just proud, which isn’t the same.”

“Is it a Puritan thing?”

“Sort of. They’re definitely austere. But a flinty New Englander would fool you—or make a fool out of you—if he saw an opportunity. Then he would tell his friends about it. Slowly. Without laughing once. A Puritan wouldn’t do that.”

“I don’t think I get it.”

I ended up groping vainly for vivid hypotheticals. “He’s a guy who, if you offered him a cigarette, would shake his head, and then pull out one of his own of the same brand . And then not accept a light, either!” None of these seemed quite right, and I left feeling discouraged and just a bit homesick, despite being a Southerner myself.

I realize now, of course, that the answer was staring me in the face the whole time. To make my Aussie friend understand the definition of “flinty,” I could have just said, “You know the stereotype people have of Australians? Tan, outgoing, chatty, warm, fun, friendly? The opposite of that.”

Articles by Helen Andrews

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