I’m Australian, so I’m used to “shrimp on the barbie” and “a dingo ate my baby” jokes. I’ll even laugh politely if you gesture at my cutlery and say, “Call that a knife?” But this year, a new Aussie gag entered the fray, courtesy of the internet. Instead of the usual Steve Irwin impressions, my American friends started ribbing me for the simplest and most unexpected particularity: the way I pronounce the word “no.” Apparently, I say it “naur”; if I’m being really feisty, I say it “naurrrrrrrrrr.”
In 2021, “naur” became a meme, thanks to the alchemical meaning-making of the internet. Viral tweets and TikToks spread the joke like Vegemite on toast, and before long, it was appearing in places Crocodile Dundee himself never ventured. In April, video footage of a gigantic outdoor swing went viral — you can hear a person loudly saying “no” in an Australian accent — when someone retweeted it with the disbelieving caption “i cant they really say ‘naur’ LMFAOOOO.” Various “naur” jokes ensued: “Naur” became a topic of conversation on Botched. Fans of the musician Mitski dubbed her hit song “Naurbody,” and people imagined what it would be like to get a marriage proposal rejected Down Under. (This joke about Normani — I won’t spoil it for you — is my favorite example.)
In another timeline, the joke would have ended there, relevant only to Australians and people who like to be mean to Australians. But it didn’t.
Even before “naur” became a main character on social media, people were attempting Australian mimicry online. Actor Brian Jordan Alvarez got attention last year for his shockingly on-point version. TikToks riffing on an antipodean kids’ TV show called H2O: Just Add Water made the rounds a couple of years ago, making fun of how the performers pronounced one of the characters’ names: not Cleo, but Cleourrrrr.
Suffice it to say, the algorithm was primed for further iterations. One of the earliest viral “naur” tweets was this, a proto-Joycean tragedy in miniature from 2020 about Iggy Azalea. “Iggy is in the house crying like naur....naur.... naur carti naur,” it reads. Like many online artifacts, it is almost impossible to understand without additional context. When I called its author, 24-year-old fashion consultant Chris Bridges, they said its popularity was “really random.” Bridges had dashed it off in the early hours of Christmas Day last year after seeing a tweet by the Australian rapper criticizing Playboi Carti for apparently choosing not to spend the holiday with their son. “I was just, like, bored in my house, trapped with my family. I really wanted to go out. So I was just on Twitter, drunk, tweeting,” Bridges said. “I tweeted it and I went to sleep. And I woke up the next day, and everyone was laughing.”
Bridges wasn’t the first to popularize the spelling; they had seen it on Tumblr. Their tweet was a dig at Azalea and her accent, but they said they’d had some practice because of an Australian friend they like to rag on, albeit in a more loving way. “We make fun of her accent relentlessly,” they said. “Saying weird stuff she would say. I kind of got hooked on the way she would say ‘no,’ like, naur. It really sent me.”
In June, Chicago-based comedian Seynique Smythe tweeted a photo of n, a, u, and r Scrabble tiles. When I DM'd Smythe to chat (“naur,” she responded at first, swiftly following up with “jk”), she said that the photo came from a real game she’d played. Her hand had made her “desperate” — when she saw the letters, she thought to herself, Can I play this? But the reason the meme had resonated at all was a pop culture reference. “I used to love the Australian show Saddle Club when I was a kid and I remember there was a character named Lisa who always said ‘no’ like that,” she said. “So when I first started seeing the meme around, it stood out because it was like, ‘OMG, other people have noticed this.’”
Typically, when people who aren’t Australian attempt the accent, they don’t do a very good job. This has resulted in horrid interpretations, like those in the “Bart vs. Australia” episode of The Simpsons and Robert Downey Jr.’s in Natural Born Killers.
But the Australian accent isn’t uniform across the country. Sydney-based dialect coach Victoria Mielewska has worked with Kate Winslet, Liev Schreiber, and Elisabeth Moss on perfecting their Australian diction. “Australia is such a melting pot — there are so many different accents. It's hard to actually say [any] is the absolute one,” Mielewska said. But generally speaking, there are common elements that are difficult to imitate yet tempting to lampoon. As former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre Bruce Moore laid out in the 2007 book Talking and Listening in the Age of Modernity, they include a nasal quality, flat intonation, and a drawl.
“If you're British or American, a lot of your accent is based on musculature in the mouth,” Mielewska said. “They're very muscular accents. When you go into Australian, you really relax the tone and the soft palate. So it's actually asking [non-Australian] actors to undo what is inherent and habitual with their own accent. And that's why it's so hard ... you have to have a certain amount of vulnerability, and allow that exposure of this new accent to come through.”
“Naur” is an unusual instance of non-Australians actually managing to sound Australian, albeit in an exaggerated way. So what accounts for the way Australians say “no”? Mielewska said the word actually “has a fairly tight musculature” compared to other Australian-accented words. To get “that unique Australian sound,” she said, the lips round toward the end of the word, and the tongue bulks up to make that “r” sound. Her tips for nailing it are to put “no” and “ur” together, stretching out the sounds, and not to stay on the same note throughout the word. “Be definitive about it,” she said.
Crystal Abidin, an associate professor of internet studies at Perth’s Curtin University, said that online jokes about Australian accents have been around for much longer than, say, TikTok has. “[The letters] ‘n’ and ‘o’ becoming like a 12-letter ‘no’ was definitely one of the viral things I saw on Australian Tumblr from as early as 2008, 2009,” she told me. “But I would say the mainstreaming of Australian vernacular, in general, really took off internationally on Facebook pages.” One category of early Facebook memes compared Australia to other countries, usually in a self-deprecating way. “Like, ‘China has Phoenixes; we've got bin chickens.’”
“I think people really warm to the Australian accent a great deal.”
The repository Know Your Meme recognized “naur” with its own entry in July 2021. According to Google Trends, “naur” hit its peak online in late September. While the accent jokes kept coming, “naur” began to be used on its own, as a cartoonish, emphasized version of “no.” How did it make the jump? As linguist Gretchen McCulloch puts it in her 2019 book Because Internet, a meme “isn’t just something popular, a video or image or phrase that goes viral. It’s something that’s remade and recombined, spreading as an atom of internet culture.”
In this case, “naur” spread further still thanks to K-pop fans who noticed that stars like BlackPink member Rosé and Stray Kids’ Bang Chan and Felix, who all have Australian roots, pronounced it that way. “The ‘naur’ meme has received a lot of acknowledgment, reciprocity, and feedback from the K-pop stars themselves,” said Abidin, who added that BlackPink members have used it playfully with each other during interviews. All of this has the effect of entrenching it as part of the relationship between fandom and stars. “It absorbed into K-pop, transcended fandom, and is known by the stars too, which really has a major effect in disseminating the visibility of the meme to a larger, broader international audience as well.”
Now, it basically seems to be an accepted word for Gen Z on TikTok and Twitter. That probably wasn’t an organic outcome, Abidin said. “It is often the case that on platforms, especially like Twitter, this kind of meme that has only a very niche social capital becomes a mainstay of the platform, even if nobody understands it. It goes out of its silo, takes on a life of its own, and it becomes ingrained as part of pop culture in general. And this has to do with K-pop fans strategically trying to groom algorithms into registering what they do as trends.”
I’d dreamt up a theory, shoddily constructed around the cultural prevalence of Hemsworth brothers and K-pop stars like Rosé, that the accent was coming into its own. But maybe not. Unfortunately, it seemed like my accent had become part of the landscape not, as I’d hoped, because of some global agreement that the Australian accent was a mellifluous joy, heretofore unappreciated, but because 1) people were making fun of it and 2) there had likely been a concerted digital effort.
Embarrassed about the wishful thinking, I figured that I was predisposed to think fondly of the meme mostly because I was an expat, nostalgically pining for the sounds I grew up with. But it had also seemed to mark some kind of change in how other people saw the Australian accent. It used to be the butt of the joke rather than something that could bring a bunch of different people together, and this was the first time I could remember non-Australians using it to communicate and laugh with me, rather than just wielding it at me.
Were locals enjoying the gag as well? Abidin reminded me of the concept of “cultural cringe,” an all-Australian skepticism toward homegrown cultural products, which might well apply to a joke that made fun of the way most of us talk.
But according to Michelle Rennex, a senior writer at Australian culture website Junkee and one of the first people to cover the “naur” meme, that wasn’t the case. “No Aussie is actually offended by anyone coming up to us and saying ‘naur,’” she told me via email. “The good thing about Australians is that we know how to take a joke.” Rennex said she loved the meme; her favorite iteration is this reference to the Saw movie franchise. “I often make my accent extra thick to get my point across. It’s common for Australians to make fun of the different types of Aussie accents. But while we might not all normally say naur in such a thick accent, there’s definitely a trace of naur in all of us.”
Honestly, I love “naur.” It may seem bizarre to contemplate it so seriously, but I really do think about it all the time. Maybe that’s because it is so ridiculous, an utterance that instantly clears my brain and turns me into an Australian Girl Doll: no thoughts, just naur.
Yet it’s obvious why this otherwise trivial meme has stuck with me all year. I live in New York and thanks to the various travel complications caused by COVID-19, I likely won’t see the Southern Hemisphere for some time. I’m homesick and grateful to have my national identity recognized and played with while I’m so far from home, even if it’s because of something as quotidian as the way I speak. “People enjoy listening to it, and people are fascinated by it,” Mielewska told me, before she said something that made me feel really happy and, well, heard. “It’s welcoming, it’s open, it’s personable. I think people really warm to the Australian accent a great deal.” ●