A list of “banned words,” published annually by Lake Superior State University in Michigan, includes this year’s unmistakably Australian “no worries.”
LSSU .’s Ironic List has been compiled every year since 1976 from entries containing terms considered “familiar but problematic.” This year’s list also includes “ask for a friend,” “circle back,” and “wait, what?” before elimination.
While the list includes submissions from around the world, Peter Szatmary, executive director of marketing and communications at LSSU, said that “none of the many ‘no worries’ nominees were from Australia. All ‘no worries’ callers provided their addresses. like in the US”.
But how did this Australianism get there?
“Like anything: use, contact, and time,” said Tiger Webb, a language researcher and chair of ABC’s English Usage Committee.
The first use of “no worries” dates back to a 1965 edition of Sydney’s Oz magazine, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The phrase likely got a boost in popularity from Australian cultural exports like Crocodile Dundee, which Webb says contains six copies, as well as the Sydney and Steve Irwin Olympics.
“‘Don’t worry’ is a victim of its own success and has since become naturalized in America, that is, stripped of specific Australian connotations.”
Webb says that an American lexicographer and writer on usage, Bryan Garner, dates the shift to naturalization around the year 2000.
Examples of “no worries” in the wild, “without accompanying Australiana” begin to appear around that time, such as this 2000 New York Times article, “No goals, no complaints, no worries for the US national team“, or this 1999 Rolling Stone article, which begins: “Don’t worry: Basement Jaxx makes the world’s happiest dance music.”
Google’s Ngram viewer, which allows users to see how often a word or phrase appears in a corpus of books, also shows that the term has become increasingly common in American English from the 1990s onward, rising sharply after 2000.
Lauren Sadow, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University’s school of education with a background in linguistics, suspects that more recent influences in popular and social media likely helped spread “no worries” even further, with Australians such as Margot Robbie, Rebel Wilson and the Hemsworths that became famous.
In addition, the phrase has become popular in recent times.
It’s also not the first time this little phrase has been noticed: a 2014 Quartz article looks at how American English might have “infected”.
In the UK, decades of Van Buren have helped make it commonplace – in a 2007 ninemsn articlelinguist David Crystal said an increase of “no worries” had been noted over the past 10 to 15 years.
Webb also mentions the phrase hakuna matata, from Disney’s 1994 film The Lion King: “Hakuna matata is translated as no worries, suggesting the phrase was not foreign to American audiences.”
As for why it’s been nominated for banishment this year, LSSU’s entry for the phrase says it’s “incorrectly substituting for ‘You’re welcome'”.
The list quotes one entry as saying, “If I’m not worried, I don’t want anyone to tell me not to worry.” It adds: “When I’m upset, I want to talk about being upset.”
“The description in the listing misrepresents the use of the phrase, at least in Australian English,” Sadow says. “In Australian English, although it’s used in the same place as ‘you’re welcome,’ the meaning is quite different.”
“It’s the speaker who says they feel ‘no worries’, and they think the listener should have ‘no worries’.”
Webb is a little less reserved. “In my opinion, the compilers of the banned words list at LSSU made the insane mistake of viewing ‘no worries’ as abused, overused or incorrect.”
Those who object to being told not to worry are “misunderstanding on two pretty fundamental levels,” he says.
“In this context, ‘no worries’ means that the person being thanked has had no trouble or trouble; it is not an obligation of the person being thanked that the person thanking should not have to worry.
“Even if it did, that would probably still be fine. A lot of talk is what’s known as phatic, that is, being there for social interaction rather than information transfer,” Webb says.
Sadow says: “It would not be used in a situation (as one commenter said) where one of the parties would be really concerned. It would be completely inappropriate to say, “You broke my leg!” ‘No problem’.”
She points out that it is “very similar to American English ‘no problem’,” another expression that could be classified as phatic.
“I’d say its use has been misunderstood by people who don’t have it in their own idiolect,” Sadow says.