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When an Austrian becomes an Australian

08/11/2012

In a scene from the movie, Dumb and Dumber, the Jim Carrey character pulls up at a bus stop to ask an attractive young woman for directions. When she answers him, he says "That's a lovely accent you have there, New Jersey?", to which she replies, "No, Austria". Jim then says in a pretty bad American-Australian accent,"Well, g'day mate. Let's put another shreeemp on the baarr-bay". With a look of contempt, Miss Austria answers, "Let's not". 

I encountered this same confusion of nationalities in a book on American cinema published in 1973. In one chapter, the author (who subsequently became a fairly well-known film academic) refers to director Billy Wilder as an Australian emigré. Although I wasn't completely familiar with Billy Wilder's background, it didn't sound right but this was an edited and possibly peer-reviewed academic publication I was reading. I concluded that the author was alluding to Wilder's flight from a cultural desert and mentioned in conversation with my cinéast friend - hereafter referred to as Mr Film Geek - that I recently learnt that Billy Wilder was from Australia. In a tone not dissimilar to the one directed at Jim Carrey above, Mr Film Geek replied, "No, Austria". In my embarrassment I rechecked the chapter and there it was in black and white for all to see "...Billy Wilder, an Australian emigré to America..." 

Now this is a situation where a good proofreader would have been worth her weight in gold, especially a knowledgeable and conscientious one who will act on a hunch that something just doesn't sound right and will take time to check the facts. In this instance someone stuffed up (possibly the author himself), but worse than that, the error wasn't picked up before going to press and the mistake lives on in the text forever. There is a moral to this story: to mistake an Austrian for an Australian is dumb; to not hire a good proofreader is dumber.