No Worries, Mate! It's All Good Down Under

A young woman blows bubbles on the streets of Perth, Australia. (Photo: Daniel Lee/flickr).

You hear the expression everywhere these days, from California to New York, from London to Christchurch, from Johannesburg to the Cayman Islands. "No worries" is a catchall phrase that many Americans have picked up where "No problem," left off — but its meaning (and origins) are different from the older American expression.

A truly Australian maxim, "No worries" can be traced back to first usage there in 1966, which Richard D. Lewis documents in his book "When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures."

Lewis quotes noted linguist Anna Weirzbicka that the expression exemplifies Aussie culture, including: "amiability, friendliness, an expectation of shared attitudes (a proneness to easy 'mateship'), jocular toughness, good humour, and, above all, casual optimism." Weirzbicka says the slogan is probably the most Australian of all the unusual and specific Australian phrases, of which there are plenty.

Or, as Annette Kobak writes in The New York Times, "The ritual incantation 'no worries' has particular charm when set against a background of man-eating crocodiles ..." And perhaps that's part of it — Australians aren't apt to worry about ants when there are crocs to be dealt with — literally as well as figuratively.

Of course soon after its adoption, "No worries" spread to neighboring New Zealand, and then, via popular Australia soap operas like "Neighbours," to the U.K., where it rapidly caught on. And finally, a few years ago, it made it all the way to America, starting on the West Coast and moving East. I've heard it plenty in New York City over the last four or five years, especially among what I'll call the "barista set" of younger travelers.

As a dual citizen in Australia and the United States, "No worries" has long been my favorite expression. Whenever I'd visit family Down Under, it was a lovely reminder that I was in a country where they value downtime, and that stressing out just isn't worth it.

"No worries" is used in all sorts of situations: in response when someone helps you with something (at a cafe, car repair, etc.) and in that case it means "Just doing my job, but thanks." It's also used to calm people down who are freaking out — as in,"It's OK, we'll figure it out." It's also a response when you're apologizing for something, like say, stepping on someone's foot when moving across a crowded beach. It means you haven't caused offense.

For me (definitely a worrier), the phrase absolutely works to calm and relax and remind me not to sweat the small stuff.

"No worries" lends most interactions in Australia a more relaxed attitude (or did the attitude come first?) and is a regular reminder that whatever it is that has gotten your attention is probably not all that important. Which makes me hopeful that its introduction to the U.S. in recent years is a sign that we Americans are ready for a more laid-back, less work-centric culture. That would be a pretty fantastic export from Down Under to the rest of the world, wouldn't it?

Samela Harris, writing in Adelaide's paper, The Advertiser, has her doubts: "The Americans have no idea of the etymology of 'no worries'. So, while they may cheerily adopt our 'no worries' mantra, 'no worries' will never catch on as an attitude."

What do you think? Can America become more relaxed if we change our language?