Letters – Issue 40

Now wouldn’t it gap your axe!

I was intrigued but somewhat disappointed with A K Grant’s review of A Dictionary of Modern New Zealand Slang, not so much by his strictures on content and my wide definition of “slang” as any informal use of language (I accept his arguments as expressing a worthwhile point of view) as by his put-down of New Zealand slang, alleging that it is largely borrowed from Australia. Indeed, the tagged “Aust.” words make up just under a third of the entries. An honest arithmetical check, and some deeper consideration or comparison, might have modified his final conclusion.

My experience and research lead me to quite different conclusions: that New Zealanders can hold their own when it comes to picturesque language, and that there is a corpus of shared usage whose origin is neither definitely NZ nor Australian, and for which a few years’ difference in earliest recorded datings is non-significant. “Australasian” or “Antipodean” would be a better label. There are of course shared words which have obviously passed into New Zealand English via Australian – for example, early farming terms like “station”, “cocky” – Australia was a generation or more ahead of us in settlement, but many of these would now be felt as native New Zealand, just as perhaps the silvereye is accounted now a native bird, though it was self-introduced from Australia in the 1850s-60s. Whatever their provenance, there are very few items in the Dictionary which I would not judge (and feel) to be truly New Zealand English. (The Dictionary of New Zealand English records about 700 items shared with Australian English. Perhaps it’s not so much who came first that is important as what each speech community does with the shared items. Coincidentally, 700 are also shared with Maori.)

However, it’s ironic that a new Antipodean cringe should creep up on us – a tug-forelocking to a perceived Aussie accomplishment by belittling New Zealand’s creative use of offbeat language. After all the older kind of cultural cringe which would enforce an ideal of Southern British received pronunciation on our speech (especially in broadcasting), and regard even words like “bush” as in some way inferior to “forest” (“Forest is a perfectly good word, why don’t you use it?”) is now clearly and properly seen as contemptible. I’ve always thought that New Zealanders have superb gifts of picturesque language able to be expressed in an accent obviously our own. Surely the local tongue is better applied voicing such gifts than to licking British or Aussie boots.

Harry Orsman

PS: The NZ Dictionary Centre at Victoria University, Box 600, Wellington would be glad of any pre-1960 written references for naughty (noun).

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