New Zealand English in the 21st century

In 1997, the landmark inaugural publication of Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English provided us with a comprehensive word-hoard of New Zealand-isms, from Captain Cook’s first encounter with Māori in 1769 (when Māori words such as mana, pa, marae entered the English vocabulary) to the millennium. Professor John Macalister has studied Orsman’s work and documented the increasing part that te reo Māori has played in the development of the New Zealand English.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, the Māori component was relatively small. Since 1980, however, the intensification of interest in Māori affairs has been stimulated by the re-working of the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi (te Tiriti), by the subsequent land claims from the Waitangi Tribunal, and by contestations over the ownership of beaches and foreshore, mineral resources, and even the airways. This has resulted in a new familiarity with Māori words and concepts—words such as tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty), kāwanatanga (right to self-government), kaitiaki (guardians)—and their accompanying set of legal concepts (public domain and ancestral connections). Non-Māori have become accustomed to using the term tangata whenua (people of the land) for Māori (sometimes reverentially, sometimes cynically). Whānau, the extended family, is another term which has crossed the bracket border and no longer needs to be explained to the general public.

Along with this has come modernisation of old terms, e.g. Waka, a canoe, becomes a political party and waka-jumping is the leaving of one political party for another, and the rūnanga, or tribal council, of Banks and Cook has now become the tribal trust board managing the commercial venture of an iwi (or tribe). New concepts have been introduced such as nohoanga (temporary campsites in National Parks). Fusion of words, as in cuisine, has produced words such as iwification, used without the old safeguard of following the word with the meaning in brackets, e.g. The American terms redneck and honky have received local application while more inventive hybrids, such as the treaty industry and mana-munchers, have appeared, and Hui has replaced meeting for many bicultural functions with reference made to cyber-hui, hui-hoppers, and rent-a-hui protestors. Other applications include high-fliers or tall poppies referred to as Ngāti Aorere, granny flats as kaumātua flats, and people of European origin as being Ngāti Pākehā (tribe European). An interesting addition is the noun whāngai (to be fostered or adopted) now also used as a verb (“I was whāngai’d”).

The increasing Polynesian population from the Pacific Islands is introducing us to the languages of the Pacific, particularly Samoan words. One that has gained traction is fa’afafine (transsexual) while the recent fad for tattooing has introduced pe’a (the male waist to knee Samoan tattoo) and corresponding to the Māori whānau is the Samoan aiga.

Other trends reflect our changing society with words associated with drugs, with extreme sport, with life-style, and with cuisine. It is difficult in some instances to say whether the words have a truly endemic origin or not—two frequently heard druggie words are 'P' for amphetamines and 'clan lab' for the clandestine laboratory where P (and other drugs) are manufactured. Clan lab is probably American in origin whereas P may be local. Tinnie house, a place where cannabis and its derivatives can be bought, is a local coinage as we think is homebake. Diana Looser has studied Boobslang or prison argot and has discovered such gems as alphabet weekend for a weekend during which one spends most of one's time indulging in drugs and alcohol (“I had an alphabet weekend: A, B, C, D, E and F”), bankcard (a pound of marijuana, to be sold for cash) and shark for poor quality heroin (”It's got a bite to it you don’t need”).

As in other parts of the world, the growth of a café and restaurant culture has introduced us to many words for foods and garnishes we would not have recognised even twenty years ago—pesto, couscous, mascarpone—but often with local flourishes. Air New Zealand serves its first-class customers food decorated with pikopiko (fern fronds, reflecting also the koru of Air New Zealand’s logo), and flavoured with horopito (the NZ pepper tree, once known as New Zealand painkiller and used by bushmen to alleviate their aches and pains). As locals strive to counteract the provincial downturn in traditional activities and attract tourists, there has been a proliferation of wine trails and events such as Taihape’s gumboot-throwing weekend, Masterton’s Shearable Arts, the West Coast Wild Food Festival, and a beer company’s Wild Food Restaurant Challenge.

The rural world, researched by Dianne Bardsley, continues to introduce new terms in the development of breeds and technologies. Land and animal husbandry has commonplace terms: open space covenants, run plans, smitches, tumblewheels, and tread-ins. The first New Zealand-bred sheep, the Corriedale, has been joined by the Borderdale, Carpetmaster, Coopdale, Coopworth, Drysdale, Growbulk, Highlander, Kelso, New Zealand Romney, Perendale, Romdale, and Tukidale. Cashgora, Dicoll and Perino are new fibre products, while cervena from farm-bred deer is presented on restaurant tables internationally. Increasingly, new cultivars of agricultural pasture plants are given names from te reo Māori, so that terms such as tama, huia, and koha are given to ryegrass, white clover, and seradella forage crop, respectively. The combining of English and Māori can be seen in terms like Supernui and Zeronui, both ryegrass cultivars.

Politics continues to throw up a host of terms, some of which are with us for some years, and others for only a brief half-life. Brashism, doing a Brash, fart tax, Helengrad, Corngate, Paintergate and Powdergate will no doubt belong to the latter group, while fiscal envelope has enjoyed a lengthier profile. Wine box is now in general use in lower case letters to denote any method of tax evasion, and Rogernomes, first known in the 1980s when Rogernomics was espoused, are still cited.

It is particularly difficult to establish the actual origin of new terms in sport since it has become an international language itself but adjectives like “go-to” seem likely to be original. Some words, especially in extreme sports where New Zealand is particularly inventive, have clearly originated here, e.g. zorbing, and possibly blackwater rafting. While bungy jumping may not be an original New Zealand concept, the world-wide commercialization of the sport has local origins. At a more sedate level, pressies and dibbly-dobblers are found on rugby and cricket fields.

New Zealand's recent success in the film-making world has emboldened Wellington to claim the names of both Wellywood and Middle Earth. Air New Zealand advertises tours to Middle Earth while Taranaki, now known as 'The Naki', or following the filming of the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai, as Nakiwood or Tomanaki, the product, no doubt, of inventive PR minds. Inventiveness, too, from the Weather Office whose spokesman introduced us to the weather bomb (referring to an extremely bad storm), and to our up and down yo-yo summer (which two days later returned from across the Tasman with reference to an Australian cricketer's season of wildly fluctuating cricket scores). The locally-fostered legend of Kiwi inventiveness is still symbolised by variations on Number 8 fencing wire (“What's the Spanish for No 8?” and No 8 Ventures Investments).

An ever-increasing tendency to create acronyms and use initialisms is most obvious in the areas of education, health, and national and local government administration in New Zealand, where DOC (Department of Conservation) and WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) are in such everyday use that little thought is possibly given to their genesis. We might even be regarded as advantaged in being able to form a huge variety of terms that end in –nz, examples being Fanz, Fenz, Finz, Fonz, Funz, not to mention Frenz, Frinz and Fronz. Newcomers to New Zealand English could easily be confounded by the acronyms that form words used in te reo Māori, such as Tamu (Tertiary Advisory Monitoring Unit) and Weta (Waikato English Teachers’ Association).

The environment continues to be an area where new terms are being coined, both for new species being found, and the renaming of species, and for conservation methods and processes. Examples include Castlepoint daisy, insurance populations for endangered species, retirement plans for land to be retired from farming, kawenata (open space covenants on Māori land that recognise tino rangatiratanga), and Judas goats that carry an electronic transmitter to betray suitors.

Despite the globalisation of English, our own homegrown variety of the language appears to be as idiosyncratic and pervasive as it has ever been.

Dianne Bardsley and Desmond Hurley

Parts of this overview were prepared by Desmond Hurley for Susie Dent’s Larpers and Shroomers: The LanguageReport (OUP, 2004).