In the beginning was the word, Nelson Wattie

The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary
ed Tony Deverson and Graeme Kennedy
Oxford University Press, $130,
ISBN 0195584511

Lexicographers are celebrating the 250th anniversary of the publication, on 15 April 1755, of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the book that made their profession respectable in the English-speaking world. Well, more or less respectable: notoriously, Johnson defines lexicographer as a “a harmless drudge”, which may explain why the celebrations have been subdued. There were no fireworks over Wellington Harbour.

After Johnson, the next great step in lexicography, the greatest ever, was publication of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which, after a complicated history, reached completion in 20 massive volumes in 1928. Since then it has undergone various revisions and supplementations as well as giving birth to many children – shorter, concise, pocket, compact, electronic and other versions. The volume under review is one of these offspring – a sibling to other national dictionaries: The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998), The Australian Oxford Dictionary (1999, and already in its second edition) and others. These have rapidly become standard reference books in the newspaper and publishing offices of their various countries, and the new volume can expect to do the same here: a reason for celebration, though not, perhaps, for fireworks.

If this is the matrilineal heritage, from the mother of all dictionaries, a patrilineal ancestor is the 40-year labour of Harry Orsman, culminating in his monumental Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997). The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (NZOD) shows genetic features from both these ancestral lines. (For those who are unsure: the DNZE focuses on words and usages peculiar to New Zealand while the NZOD is a general dictionary of words used in New Zealand, most of which are also used elsewhere.)

Before we go any further we must warmly welcome this book, a wonderful achievement not only for its editors, but also for the large team of assistants at and around the New Zealand Dictionary Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, and contributors all around the country. There has never been a book like it. It manages to get more than 100,000 entries into one volume. Following a lexicographical fashion of some 10 years, it also includes entries on geographical, personal and other proper names, adding some further 10,000 to the total (it is the first dictionary in the world to include an entry on my uncle).

It will be an invaluable book in many a home and office, even though, like any other reference book, it will never tell you everything. The language changes weekly, even hourly – and this book does not even paint a complete picture of the language at the cut-off moment. This need surprise nobody, since even the OED itself was in need of revision immediately after its appearance. That is one thing which makes lexicography less like drudgery, and more exciting than it may seem to outsiders: language is in flux.

What is one to do about words from everyday speech, which might or might not be in use a few years from now? Samuel Johnson included “Giglet: a wanton”, “Fopdoodle: a fool”, “Dandiprat: an urchin”, “Jobbernowl: a blockhead”, and many more words he erroneously thought would survive, while excluding “dumbfound”, “ignoramus”, “shabby” and “simpleton” on the grounds that they were substandard and not likely to endure. To err on the side of caution in this area is to risk failing to give a true picture of the language at the time of publication. On the whole, NZOD is commendably bold. If you need a definition of “fanzine”, “hissy fit”, “barista”, “skanky” or “blog”, you will find it here. Inevitably, you will also start to question some of the innovations: surely a barista makes those fancy cups of coffee rather than serves them? And Parekura Horomia may be disappointed to find that “boil-up” is said to mean no more than making tea.

In The Age of Revolution, the historian Eric Hobsbawm remarked that “words are witnesses that often speak louder than documents”, and went on to list some that entered the English language with the Industrial Revolution and are evocative of that period. John Ayto’s decade-by-decade lists in 20th Century Words amount to a piecemeal social history of the century. Similarly, what is included here can tell us much about who we are and how we differ from others.

Some colloquial words have, however, been excluded, for whatever reason. (From this point on, words not in the NZOD will be italicised.) These include ballbreaker, b-boy, brothel-creeper shoes, burnout (to be found in neither of its meanings: exhaustion after stress, or a series of drag races – but “drag race” is there), flattie (in the meaning of “flatmate” – it’s there referring to tyres), galpal, happy pill, Joe Public (but “Joe Bloggs” is included), lo ryder (those navel-revealing jeans),  macdaddy (a man with many sexual partners, also called a manho),  manbag, metrosexual, moistie (a non-PC word for a nubile woman), speed dating and a few other possibly ephemeral items.

One of the areas where we are all aware of rapid change is electronics, and words introduced into the general language from that field are likely to have a longer life than colloquial expressions. In the nature of things not all the technical terminology will be found in a general-use dictionary. But we do find more widespread terms, such as “cursor”, “operating system”, “messaging” and “microcopy”. The large number of these, which are absent from dictionaries published as little as 10 or 15 years ago, reflects the way such technology has taken over a central role in many lives. On the whole, the editors have been alert to this, but a few absences are notable: DVR, EPG, HDD, phishing (fraudulently obtaining passwords or other personal data), photo capable, text capable, text marketing and telco.

By now it should be clear that NZOD is indispensable, yet not enough in itself for serious students of New Zealand English. For my own part, in addition to surfing the net, I keep the compact OED (with reading glass) and the Shorter Oxford on my shelves, and Collins Concise Dictionary (2001) on my desk. Based on the Bank of English at Birmingham University with its 520 million words, the Collins dictionaries are able competitors to Oxford. Unlike the 2003 version, which doubles as a thesaurus, the 2001 edition is very comparable to NZOD. It covers a similar range and is designed to serve “Australasia” (NZOD makes an interesting comparison between the way this term is used in Australia as opposed to New Zealand), so that it includes New Zealand words. While NZOD calls for a desk or table to hold it, the Collins can be usefully held in the hand.

A page selected at random from NZOD and compared with CCD reveals that, at this point, the new dictionary has considerably more entries. Those found on that page and not in CCD are: “pula” (Botswanan coinage), “Pulau Seribu”, “pulmonary tuberculosis”, “pulmonic”, “pulpie” (“NZ colloq. a worker at a pulp and paper mill”), “pulsatile”, “pulse” code modulation, and ‘Pulu’. On the other hand, CCD also has four terms not found in NZOD: Pula (in Croatia), Pulau Pinang, pulsejet and pulse modulation. Perhaps more significant is that the entry on “pull” in NZOD is considerably longer than that in CCD (even allowing for the fact that it includes sub-entries for words presented as separate entries in CCD). On the whole, the new dictionary “wins”, but the other seems to be useful for supplementary checking – and is literally handier to use.

To win $4000 Australian on a recent episode of the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, you would have had to know that a fascinator is “a lace or crocheted head covering”. Collins tells you that; Oxford doesn’t. One of the teasers for that question was alcazar, and again Collins defines it but Oxford doesn’t. The “encyclopaedic” entries in CCD include three under the headword Hagen (the slayer of Siegfried, a German city and a US golfer) and none in NZOD. So don’t throw your Collins away when you get your Oxford – but do get it all the same.

The Collins book is sturdy on Maori expressions that have come into English, but, unsurprisingly, the new Oxford book is much, much better. This is a rapidly expanding part of our local language, and only people on the spot are likely to catch the nuances. Words like “maihi” (but not ama and raparapa), “hani”, “hikoi”, “kaitiakitanga”, “kaupapa” and “ngawha” (to say nothing of “Eketahuna”, and “Te Kanawa”) appear in an English dictionary for the first time – there are many more. But it is surprising that rohe (tribal territory), a term quite often encountered in the media, is absent, and some others found in non-specialist, English-language contexts will have to be sought elsewhere too: ao, atuatanga, awhi, kapata kai, mana whenua, manaakitanga, puha toroi, ngahere, tangata tiriti, tere, whakatauki and whara whakairo. In a university-produced volume it is surprising to find no entry under wananga, the word used in the Maori names of all New Zealand universities as well as, notoriously now, for the Maori tertiary educational institution. It is buried in “whare wananga”.

The natural limits of even this large volume dictate that words used in specialist, technical and scientific papers must be sought in the appropriate specialist sources. But kahu ariki is used by Michael King in his immensely popular, best-selling history of New Zealand. The new dictionary will not tell you that it means “royal family, the descendents of King Potatau”. Readers of King’s book will also look in vain for adzebill, argillite, Colonial Maori and its synonym Archaic Maori, Transitional Maori Culture and peripatus. There would be a different reason for including the medical term amyloidosis: it is the disease that David Lange suffers from. I’d like to see all these in a future edition.

Emphasis on the Maori words should not disguise the changes in our language due to the presence of other ethnic groups, especially from Pacific islands. NZOD has a few of them, but there are more that deserve a place. While “fale” (house: compare “whare”) is there, the more specific fale afolau and faletele (chief’s house) are not. Others that deserve a place are au va’ine (women’s social groups), ’ie faitaga and ’ie toga (men’s and women’s garments), malae (Samoan and Tongan equivalent to “marae”), tatau (first used in New Zealand English by Edward Gibbon Wakefield in 1845) and its specific types such as malu and taulima, monomono (Tongan “tivaevae”), papaa (Cook Islands for “palagi” or “pakeha”), pulemau, pulenu’u (Samoan political terms) and umukai (the Cook Islands “hangi”).  More generally, the term Pasifika has a range of meanings that deserve to be analysed. They partly overlap with Pacificness and Pacific Style. All of these have been noted in New Zealand contexts.

It is fun to find such words and quite a few more could be added, from such areas as the drug culture, boy racing, ethnic food and popular medicine. I hope to get a longer list out on a website. On proper names, I could express my distress at seeing that Noel Hilliard and other literary figures are absent, that under “Frisch” I find a zoologist, a physicist and an economist but not Max Frisch, one of my favourite writers – and so on. It seems more worthwhile, however, to conclude by reiterating that this book is unique, solid and completely indispensable to those who love – or simply use – the English language in New Zealand.


Nelson Wattie is the revising editor of The Reed Dictionary of New Zealand English.


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Posted in Language, Non-fiction and Review
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