The term in question is the benign Australian phrase “fair dinkum,” which as an adjective means “real” and as an expression means “Seriously?” or “For real?”
Aussie Sophie Reynolds muttered the idiom this week on her Delta connection flight on SkyWest Airlines when she rejected the snack crackers offered, asked for pretzels instead and was told there weren’t any.
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure — and in this case, one person’s slang was another person’s swear word. The flight attendant misunderstood what Reynolds said and thought she was cursing at her.
The crew asked for her passport and told her swearing at attendants was against the law.
When Reynolds, 41, emerged from the plane in Pittsburgh, Pa., there were three uniformed police officers waiting for her to tell her about the federal rules prohibiting cursing at the flight crew.
But after chatting with authorities, Reynolds was allowed to go — and no charges were filed against her.
One linguist confirmed the definition of the common Australian phrase.
“It means real, authentic — the real McCoy,” offered University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Anthony Kroch. “If you say it with a question intonation, it means ‘For real?’”
If it were actually an expletive, President Bush most likely wouldn't have uttered it in front of the Australian Parliament, the way he did in 2003 when he recalled a prior meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
"I called him a 'man of steel,'" Bush told the Parliament. "That's Texan for 'fair dinkum.'"
Similarly, Aussie "Crocodile Dundee" star Hogan probably wouldn't have cursed in a TV commercial trying to lure Americans to his homeland.
"America, you look like you need a holiday — a fair dinkum holiday," Hogan says in the 1980s-era tourism ad.
Kroch said miscommunications are common even when two people essentially speak the same language, since slang and dialect can vary so widely.
“Misunderstandings due to dialect differences are very common,” he said. “But I don’t think most people hearing something they don’t understand would assume it’s offensive.”
Reynolds told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she said “fair dinkum” out of frustration. The newspaper quoted the airline on Thursday as saying that SkyWest was still investigating the incident but Reynolds had exhibited other aggressive behavior during the flight.
Ordinary Aussies were surprised to hear the “fair dinkum” tale.
“I can’t see how it can be misconstrued,” said Penny Mapp, 37, an Australian who lives in New York. “It seems somewhat extreme.”
Mapp said “fair dinkum” is often used sarcastically, but never as cursing.
Swearing in and of itself is a special case anyway, according to Kroch.
“There’s no way to tell whether people are swearing just by their inflection,” he said. “If you use a swear word that the other person doesn’t know, it doesn’t count as swearing. Swearing is the use of taboo words. A word that you don’t know can’t be taboo.”