When the conversation lollies run out, Patrick Evans

The Dictionary of New Zealand English: New Zealand words and their origins
ed H W Orsman
Oxford University Press, $150.00,
ISBN 0 19 558347 7

It is nearly 20 years since I and a number of fellow conference-goers spent an extraordinary night in the company of Harry Orsman in the bar of the staff club at Victoria University. At the start of the evening the place had been full but as the evening proceeded the company fell away one by one, or by tens and dozens, as Harry began to reshape the gathering to something with which he felt more comfortable. A large table was hauled to the bar, the beer tubes pulled back over it to make jug-filling easier and what fiscal dimensions there had been to the evening’s transactions suddenly seemed to disappear.

Then Harry cut loose. For each unwanted drinker who tried grimly to hang in there always seemed to be a comment or yarn at Harry’s disposal that would finally prove too ripe — far too ripe — to bear, a moment at which, for all their determination to prove themselves impervious to the horror of his yarns, they suddenly found themselves at last to have been undone. Standing, ashen-faced, they would drain the last of their Pimms and, with what self-respect they still had left, stagger out into the night. In the end only I and another visiting scholar were left.

But for us it was only the beginning. The stories this Ancient Mariner told for the rest of that night, as I recall them, all revolved around the tiny township of Havelock in the Marlborough sounds and referred constantly, even obsessively, to the close relationships its denizens had formed over the years with nature and particularly with the local farm animals. It was a rather detailed story about a farm worker’s close friendship with a chicken which finally undid my fellow-scholar and me, both of us by this stage lying in foetal positions under the table and genuinely frightened at the prospect of having to laugh yet again.

When eventually Harry was inattentive enough to slip away for a moment we saw our chance and made a break for it but, finding ourselves too sore from laughing to be able to stand up, let alone run, we both crawled down several flights of stairs as quickly as we could and then made our way, helplessly, desperately and still on all fours, across the carpark and away from the torments of the Great Lexicographer. The conference papers the following day were a trial; but I spotted Harry at one of them looking serene and unruffled, his ear no doubt alert for an interesting new accent or a new turn of phrase, his eye on the lookout for fresh victims.

To enter the world of his magnificent Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English is to enter the world we escaped from with such difficulty that night. There is a personality at work here, a life that has been lived in a particular way — even a vision of life; and certainly there is evidence, quite movingly, of a particular kind of devotion to our country’s culture that we may not see in exactly the same way again. The devotion is to New Zealand as it has been spoken about by the people who have lived in it, a devotion involving years of travel about the country and listening to its inhabitants.

At one stage — at least as Harry tried once to persuade me — he pursued two burly truck drivers into a men’s room in Gore with a tape recorder to tell them that he was fascinated by their “Rs” and was beaten up as a result. That other less flamboyant (though slightly more believable) acts of dedication have occurred all over the country in the making of this work is evident in a series of autobiographical glimpses of the editor: we learn that the use of the word “samson” for those trolleys employed to shift heavy items of furniture about comes from their original brand-name, a fact ascertained by the editor from workmen using one to shift a grand piano at Victoria University in September 1963, about the time he also picked up the word “chunder” from students (and which I find sourced to my satisfaction for the first time in rhyming slang connecting “spew” and “Chunder Loo”, the latter a Chinese cartoon character created by Norman Lindsay); “rising” (for baking powder) goes back in his recollection to Marlborough about 1940 and “grot” to 1941 and St Patrick’s College, Silverstream; “frenchie” (and the wrenching tale of the young man from Cape Horn) to student days about 1945; he locates the term “eggshell blonde”, for a bald man in “Marlborough use” in 1949; and so on.

It was a couple of years after that last date that Orsman registered at Victoria University for a PhD thesis on “The English Language in New Zealand” under the supervision of Professor Ian A Gordon. As he tells us in his introduction, he had little idea at that time what “New Zealand English” was but what strikes me, as a fellow English academic, is how early that was for anyone to have been interested in it at all. As a pioneer, he decided on a working definition of it as “those items or that usage not exactly found outside defined sources” and acquired his methodology as he went along, ploughing, with pen and paper by his side, through newspapers and then periodicals and whatever books more or less serendipitously came up.

From this pre-technological era he looks less like the convivial raconteur of the Victoria University staff club and more like one of those medieval rabbis who provided us with the Torah or like Caroline Spurgeon, who compiled her Shakespeare’s Imagery over a period of decades on 5-inch-by-3-inch cards kept in a filing cabinet. By 1953 he had established the nucleus of his research, representing a clearer idea of what a truly New Zealand dialect, as opposed to more general borrowings, might comprise. With an increasingly large involvement of fellow-researchers, the Dictionary has accumulated since then, making it perhaps one of the longer-lasting PhD projects in academic history.

And yet with hindsight we can see that it is no accident that Orsman started his work when he did. The period in which he has accumulated his Dictionary has been the period in which New Zealand has entered the world, most obviously most recently but in fact going back to the ending of World War II and the beginnings then of an epistemic change which culture critics have termed the post-modern, an era in which drastic developments in communication have changed the very ways in which we perceive and think. Caught up somewhere in all this is the postcolonial tension between the heterogeneity of regionalism and the homogeneity of internationalism, that ineluctable melting-down of local differences which bit by bit makes all parts of the world more like than unlike and rubs out the culture and identity of the local wherever it is in the world, replacing it with the fetishised replica of itself as a hollowed-out spectacle of the collective international gaze.

More than anything else, the Dictionary is a monument, even a homage, to the world that has been left behind by this process, the country of whaling (“scrag” for an inferior whale, “trying” for boiling down blubber, “slumgullion” for a mixture of fish and blubber oil), goldmining (“blanketings” for what is caught on a blanket board, “diggings” or “diggins” for a place where gold is found, “riser” for a profitable claim), sawmilling (“corduroy” for floating logs downstream, “fiddling” for crosscut sawing, “side scarfing” for cutting into wood, “sloven” for a splintered end of wood) and the sheepfarm and shearing shed (“handy dog” for a nonspecialist farm dog, “huntaway” for a drive dog, “cleanskin” for unmarked cattle, “raddled” for sheep marked in ochre after being badly shorn, “sixty-nine” for the code call that announced the approach of women to the shearing shed and the need for the shearers to clean up their language and behaviour).

Sometimes the specificity of details Orsman accumulates in these area is quite remarkable: a “knocker” was a pad on the handles of shears to prevent them from coming together too hard; “burgon” was the name of an oldfashioned make of shears; a “propstick” was a wooden support for the shafts of a dray at rest; a “shafter” was a shaft bullock; and so on. It all belongs to a world in which local language bound communities together, when if someone referred to “the Garden of New Zealand” you knew they meant Taranaki, if they mentioned “Sleepy Hollow” they were talking about Nelson and if they said they had slept in the “Starlight Hotel” you knew they had spent the night outside.

That lost world drifts up constantly from the many pages of the Dictionary which record these and more recent losses: words like “Califont” and “Thermette” and “Tatts” (for Tattersall’s, the sweepstake, not to be confused with the Art Union), “shanghai” and “Self Help” and “Shacklock” (though in fact ours was a Neeco family, a name not noted by Orsman but representing a postwar electric range of brutal simplicity and crudity) are loaded with pungent nostalgia for an early boomer like myself. Sometimes there are phrases that tweak another memory: “Shanghai ballast” for rice reminded me of my father’s “Chinese wedding cake” for rice pudding; “suckers” for buttocks reminded me of the more recent “research outlet” for the rectum; “sword”, for blade-shears, brought back “pork sword”, for the male member; “sunnies” for sunglasses reminded me of “darks”, for the same. The last two terms bring us nearer the present, which is also represented bountifully by Orsman: “plastic fantastic”, “chateau cardboard”, “fiscal envelope”, “home alone”, “Tapanui flu”, “ping” (for a narcotic injection) and many others all betoken a far different universe from the old and in some instances a somewhat darker one.

But it is the sense of being able to go back into a more distant past, one that has been preserved at the level of the everyday, that I found the most enticing aspect of this dictionary. Which of us now remembers that poached eggs on toast were known as “a pair of bastards on a raft” or dumplings as “buggers afloat”? And what an innocent world is there in the phrase “kick-the-tin”, referring to a children’s game in which children, well, kicked a tin about; and in “conversation lollies”, confections which, when sucked, revealed such encouraging phrases as “Meet me tonight” and “Are you my true love?”. No “pashing” or “mashing” (“a passionate bout of amorous affection”) likely there in the short term, one would have to think, or likelihood of anything that might lead a couple to have a “rort” (“an act or bout of sexual intercourse”); but what a different relationship of the sexes lies in the term “cats’ bar”, for the kind of non-public bar a man could take a woman to (a “cat” was a prostitute), or in “knockdown”, meaning an introduction to someone, as requested by the young man Orsman quotes as asking a friend to “give him the knockdown to that tart in a green skirt” — how sad it is that in our more cynical days we’ve lost our capacity for a little romance.

But they are all there in Orsman’s Dictionary, those colourful phrases of other people’s childhood and youth, along with some, though not all, of my own: I sought but couldn’t find “tallywhacker” and “minge”, which mean what they sound as if they mean, and “clawing the maggot”, which was what occurred when one of the former couldn’t find one of the latter and the conversation lollies had run out. I also sought but couldn’t find “Waiouru blonde” for sheep and there are one or two others of my favourites that aren’t there.

But in this exhaustive compilation, merely one or two. My account has omitted mention so far of the Dictionary’s massive and authoritative grounding in the details of local flora and fauna as well as its sea of entries on Maori usage. Given this weight, it would be “hellishing” (“an intensifying adjective or adverb ‘exceedingly’”) “hard yakker” (“hard or strenuous work, toil, but not necessarily physical”) indeed to find ways of criticising the work of Orsman and his team.

Some might query a couple of aspects. First, in representing a very male-dominated period of our history it might be seen as having a rather male orientation: it abounds, for example, in enormous colourful entries that represent our various wars. My favourites here were “latrinograms” or “craptograms” for rumours generated on the communal “kazi” or toilet and “Deep Thinkers”, for later reinforcements of the 2NZEF (whose men were supposed to have engaged in deep thought before volunteering). Second, in its emphasis on this demotic inventiveness in our culture it might be criticised for fetishing the past it seems so meticulously to preserve and in particular for sentimentalising the “Kiwi bloke” of lore (how many people, for example, regularly call the Bank of New Zealand building in Wellington “Darth Vader’s pencil case”?) in a way that leads straight to the loveable old joker who advertises butter on television.

For me, though, the demotic phraseology of the Dictionary brought back a discourse I regularly heard at school and in pubs and factories while a student, a language which bore almost the same relationship to formal English as Anglo-Saxon to Norman French. Reading it again reminded me what was really going on that evening with Harry in 1978. I remember now that it was raining Duke Georges, a real thunderplump, and Harry started this latrinogram that it was all on at the pisser so I decided to give it a burl and there were these stuckup tonks there in their Groppi mocker having a perv at us, they really gave us the pricker, they were that far up themselves they were bike pumps. Harry took a real scunner to them and started to put the boot in, they were moaning and whining, were they what, but they took to their scrapers and soon we were on our Pat Malone and could get on the scoot as well.

We started chug-a-lugging panther piss out of Lady Astors straight from the tube so there was no need for a Parnell shout, it was Rafferty’s rules and no dry debate and that was caster because I didn’t have a brass razoo on me and Harry didn’t look like a cold-bot. Anyway, it was three-man vertical swill and we went at it rip, shit or bust and got that shickered we didn’t know whether we were punched, bored or countersunk. But we didn’t pook or cough the cud or toss a reverse lunch or chunder. We hung in there till Harry shot through to the kazi and then we turned it in, we turkeyed off flat tack home to bed and into mother and I tell you what, we were out the monk by sparrow fart. But we had a grouse time and I’ll tell you something else for free, this rumpty little Dictionary of his, it’s a grouse read, a real rubydazzler, a little trimmer, bonzer and bottler from arsehole to breakfast time.

Fucken oath.

Patrick Evans is senior lecturer in English at Canterbury University

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Language, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category