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One of my friends said, ‘Is it on the house?’ in Australia, but some felt a little awkward. Do Australians not usually use the expression, ‘on the house’?

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"Free" and "on the house" both mean that you don't have to pay, but the inferred meaning is slightly different.

If something is "free" it is without charge. For example, you might receive a voucher through the mail that says you are entitled to a free drink if you hand the voucher in at a bar. That drink was never going to have a charge attached to it, because it was offered by the bar as a promotion.

When a drink is offered "on the house", the inference is that the "house" or establishment is buying the drink for you. Similarly, if you were drinking with a friend and he/she said "these are on me" it would mean that they are picking up the bill.

True, the outcome of both is essentially the same - a drink that you don't have to pay for. It is also true that some establishments may use the two expressions interchangeably without any attention to the root meanings.

As to whether or not it is a known idiom in Australian English I would have to say yes on the basis that it appears in the script for Australian movie Crocodile Dundee II:

-G'day, mate! Bet you've got some stories to tell, eh?
-Have I ever, son. Have I ever. But not on a dry throat.
-Ida?
-The drinks are on the house.
-That's a first!

  • 1
    Maybe worth spelling out that only some kinds of establishment are houses - if a bookshop gives you a free book, I wouldn't expect them to say it was on the house. Chips in a casino could be on the house. If something is on the house it is normally a consumable of some kind, rather than say a toy or other free gift that you are intended to keep. This may be because establishments that are houses tend to provide services rather than selling goods, or it could be a separate issue. – Minty May 10 at 13:53
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It is an AmE expression, probably not common in Australia;

From the Oxford English Dictionary: "on the house: at the expense of the tavern, saloon, etc.; also transf. and fig. (orig. U.S.)

1889 Kansas City (Missouri) Times & Star 30 Nov., The first drink Thursday was 'on the house' in the leading saloons.

(The Phrase Finder)

1

Free drinks (on the house) and (free drinks are) on the house in the context of a bar, pub, restaurant, business etc. mean the same thing

At the expense of the establishment, as in

The expression is very common in the UK, so I would imagine that it's also familiar to Australians; however, in New Zealand and in Australia a term more commonly used to mean “at one's own expense” is shout

2. NZ Australian informal with two objects
Treat (someone) to (something, especially a drink)

‘I'll shout you a beer’
‘He'll happily let you shout him a drink and not return the favour, for example.’

2.1 no object Buy a round of drinks.
‘anyone shooting a hole in one must shout for all players present on the course’

(Oxford Dictionaries)

The awkward atmosphere among the group of friends could have been provoked by the speaker's assumption that he or she didn't have to pay, either the establishment was offering its clients something free of charge or someone in the group had offered to pay/shout for a round (of drinks).

References on EL&U
What terms describe who pays for a meal?
Can I “shout someone out”, or only “give a shout out to” someone (to recognize them)?

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    Not sure I understand your answer; maybe the question has been edited. "shout" in Australia/New Zealand doesn't mean the same as "on the house"? – Stuart F May 10 at 8:58
  • @StuartF the OP was asking Do australians not usually use the expression, ‘on the house’? which is why I posted the slang meaning of "shout" as a possible answer. – Mari-Lou A May 10 at 10:17
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    But shout means something different from on the house. In AmE, if I say I'll stand you a drink, it means I'm paying for it. If I say it's on the house, I'm not paying for it unless I own the bar. – Peter Shor May 10 at 12:32
  • @Petershore I said very clearlt the Australian expression means at "one's own expense". – Mari-Lou A May 10 at 17:43
  • @Mari-LouA: it seems to me that you're saying Australians don't need to use the phrase on the house because they have the word shout. But I don't think they're interchangeable. – Peter Shor May 11 at 1:35
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I did some googling as follows:

pub in australia drinks "on the house"

and I found plenty of "on the house," for example

There's live entertainment from noon plus ANZAC biscuits available throughout the day. All service men and women get their first drink on the house.

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