LINGUISTICS LESSONS….The latest from Down Under:

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has labeled “absurd” a directive requiring security guards at the country’s Parliament House to stop addressing visitors and lawmakers as “mate.”

….Hilary Penfold, secretary for the Department of Parliamentary Services, said the ban was intended to ensure staff did not offend visitors.

Hmmm. It doesn’t sound like this would offend anyone. Unless maybe it was a foreign visitor who got fooled by the local accent.

Take me, for example. The first time I visited Australia I hopped into a cab and then listened dumbfounded as the driver immediately launched into a lengthy stream of complaints. He complained about the blacks who ran the taxi stand, the blacks who stole fares from him, the blacks who fouled up the roads with their bad driving, and all the blacks who just generally made everyone’s lives miserable.

Holy God, I thought, did I just happen to get the most racist taxi driver in all of Sydney? Or are all Australians like this?

Halfway to the hotel, I finally figured out that he was complaining about “blokes,” not “blacks.” The guy who ran the taxi stand (and thus controlled the flow of taxis) really was black, though, which probably contributed to my confusion. At any rate, it turned out that my driver was just an ordinary fellow complaining cheerfully about pretty much everything. No harm done.

Could the same thing could happen with “mate”? Feel free to guess in comments.