Let me set the scene for you: It’s a winter afternoon during lockdown last year, and I’m about to co-present a paper online for the Forum of Englishes in Australia. There’s just one problem – I’ve noticed my desk is on fire.
The fireplace behind me has issued a few sparks onto some papers, and I’m frantically snuffing them out with a mousepad – and I find myself saying: “Hang on, just a bit of an issue.”
A fire during a Zoom presentation ranks somewhere between “not ideal” and “catastrophic”, so it’s not surprising that among the first words in my mouth are “a bit” – a phrase typically used for mitigation. And as Kate Burridge and I have recently discovered, one that’s used in characteristically Australian ways.
“A bit” is a discourse marker – one of those hard-working little linguistic scraps like “you know” or “I mean”, which help manage the flow of discourse, perhaps through interpersonal work, or signposting the structure of a conversation.
Linguists such as Anna Wierzbicka have observed that discourse markers – such as “a bit”, or its well-known cousin “yeah-no” – are a reflection of tightly-held cultural values.
And for Australians, one of those core cultural precepts is “do not whinge” (even about your recent draft being set on fire).
Our recent analysis of corpus data on “a bit” reveals a grim catalogue of woes that Australian English speakers have mitigated with “a bit”.
These range from “a little bit of a car accident”, “a bit of a headache”, “a bit of a blood clot”, and even a plane crash (which was described as “a bit of a frightening experience”.) My desk inferno hardly seems to rate, which I reckon is a bit rough!
‘A bit of a babe’ – and a hell of an understatement
“A bit” is a classic hedge – reducing the force of statements that speakers and listeners may find undesirable or unpleasant.
Hedges such as “a bit” are an integral part of our everyday conversational routines surrounding ill health or misfortune. But funnily enough, Australian speakers do not only mitigate overtly negative statements, but even seemingly positive ones. For instance, our data reveals examples such as calling someone “a bit of a local hero”, and plenty of instances of “a bit of a legend”. Tall poppy syndrome means the issuing of compliments can be a fraught business – in fact, in need of mitigation!
But that’s not all that “a bit” does – there’s a rich vein of humour in this little discourse marker.
A common use of “a bit” is an ironic understatement, which draws attention to something that is very obvious – this is then used for humorous effect.
One speaker in his early 20s described his university career as “half a decade, mate, yeah – it’s a bit long!”.
Even more vividly, one example we found described Nigella Lawson as being “a bit of a babe” – and as the photographic evidence demonstrates, this is quite the understatement.
Have you ‘got a lot on’? Or just ‘a bit on’?
This ironic use even made an appearance in the media not too long ago, As multiple states and territories across Australia were simultaneously entering lockdown due to fresh COVID-19 outbreaks, Dean Bilton, who was running the ABC live blog during the afternoon of 30 June, 2021, received a comment about his apparent overuse of the phrase “there’s a bit on”. He responded as follows:
“Q: How many times can we say there’s a bit on in the blog today? Is there a quota we need to reach? Happy to help. – A bit on”
“A: You’re right, there have been a bit of ‘bit ons’ on today. I’ll look to dial it back, but are there any other phrases that sum up the mood of ‘Oh cool, everything is melting down all at once and we don’t even have time to address another one before another one comes and melts all over us’ so succinctly?”
As Dean playfully suggests here, this ironic use also shades into playing down one’s troubles.
Linguist Karin Aijmer has described discourse markers as being “slippery customers”, and “a bit” is certainly no exception – it evokes particular pragmatic effects in turn, and likes to defy categorisation.
If the ABC’s live blog is any indication, it seems speakers of Australian English are increasingly aware of this multifaceted potential of “a bit”, and its frequency in the community. In fact, we’re so aware of ‘a bit’ that speakers and writers can even be criticised for its overuse – definitely a benchmark for success in a discourse marker!
Oh, and the presentation went well, by the way – some might even say it was “lit”.
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