‘Toasty’, ‘Country mice’, ‘Greenout’ – study reveals “Antarctic language” | Polarjournal
The ‘Weather Guessers’, or meteorologists, at work at the Darwin Automatic Weather Station near New Zealand’s Scott Base. At the same time, they are also ‘country mice’. Photo: Helen Thompson, ©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection (K0020809_54) (2008-2009) , CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ

When staying at English-speaking Antarctic stations, you can and should expand your vocabulary by a few terms if you want to be part of the community. Antarctica’s own language and its development was the perfect topic for a New Zealand researcher’s doctoral thesis.

After spending a while ‘On The Ice‘, the majority of ‘beakers‘ probably suffer from a ‘greenout‘ on their return that ‘fidlets‘ or ‘fingies‘ have probably never experienced before. *

Um… Excuse me?

It is these and many other words and expressions that newcomers – those ‘fidlets‘ on the British and ‘fingies‘ on the American, Australian and New Zealand research stations – encounter and raise question marks in their minds.

In her doctoral thesis, Dr. Steph Kaefer from the University of Canterbury investigated this colloquial Antarctic English, which is used exclusively in English-speaking research stations. She concentrated on the stations of the USA, Great Britain and New Zealand.

In 2019, she spent a total of three weeks at three English-speaking research stations to observe the use of the special language and collect data from the people working there. She wanted to find out how the words she had collected had developed over the decades and how they had evolved.

“Often, when we create words, we make them transparent – particularly in a situation where you need to pass on a lot of information easily, you want people to understand without needing a lot of background information. But when you’re creating a community, whether intentionally or not, and you don’t want people to understand, you might make the words more opaque so that people can’t work them out unless they’re part of that group,” Dr. Steph Kaefer said in a university press release.

According to Dr. Kaefer, linguistic theories state that changes take place more quickly, especially in an isolated environment. However, the Antarctic stations also appear to be special in this respect. New slang words were not added by younger generations, so contrary to her expectations, the lexis did not change over time.

Examples of Antarctic slang expressions. Screenshot: Cool Antarctica

Instead, expressions such as ‘toasty‘ – being close to burnout after overwintering -, ‘boondoggle‘ – a pleasure / non-work trip during a stay in Antarctica -, ‘country mice‘ – scientists and assistants working in the field – and their equivalents ‘city mice‘ and ‘house mice‘ persist in Antarctica’s own vocabulary. Some of the expressions sound cute or humorous, while others are rather crude. They often come from the military, the navy or from mountaineering, but are also newly minted on site.

“But the community I researched is different to other isolated communities in that it’s not just isolated but also confined and extreme, which is known as an ‘ICE’ environment [‘ICE’ stands for isolated, confined, extreme; editor’s note] and is well known in the literature as a type of environment but not as a community,” Dr. Kaefer explains.

She is the first to examine these conditions and their influence on language and found “that they likely have an unusual impact on the language and this community”.

* ‘ On The Ice ‘ – in Antarctica | ‘Beaker ‘ – Scientist | ‘Greenout ‘ – The feeling you get when you see and smell green things (plants) again after a long stay on the ice. | Fidlet’ or ‘Fingy ‘ – newcomer to Antarctica

You can find more Antarctic slang on Cool Antarctica.

Julia Hager, Polar Journal AG

Link to the study: Kaefer, Stephanie 2023. Antarctic English lexis : a mixed-methods investigation of its development and formation. https://doi.org/10.26021/15145

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