A Dictionary of Modern New Zealand Slang
ed Harry Orsman
Oxford University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 19 558408 2
Harry Orsman achieved semi-divine status among New Zealand scholars with the publication of his highly-acclaimed Dictionary of New Zealand English. But I doubt if he has enhanced his deservedly high reputation with the publication of this curious work. It purports to capture in Mr Orsman’s words “the distinctive informal vocabulary of New Zealanders since the Second World War”. And yet there is nothing distinctive about many of the entries. They simply represent borrowings from Australia. Mr Orsman, honest scholar that he is, gives us the respective first-recorded-use dates of these entries, and in almost every case the Australian usage precedes the New Zealand one. Thus we find that the very first entry, ace, meaning to be on one’s own, was used in Australia in 1904 and New Zealand in 1909. The next entry, acid, as in “put the acid on”, is a dead heat on both sides of the Tasman:1906. Then we come to acre. This is apparently a euphemism for “arse” – first use, Oz 1966 – part of our distinctive informal vocabulary in 1968.
Some entries seem hardly to qualify as slang. According to Mr Orsman, American invasion refers both to the American cultural influence on New Zealand life before the Second World War, and also to the arrival of American troops here during the Pacific war. Is that slang? Well, Mr Orsman seems to think so.
I do not wish to suggest that there are no examples of original New Zealand slang in the work. Aftermatch function is undoubtedly one of ours, as is Nappy Valley, describing dormitory suburbs that have since progressed towards gentility. But then shortly after Nappy Valley we come across naughty, which Mr Orsman describes as “a twee name for an act of sexual intercourse”. I wouldn’t have said it was twee, I have always thought of it as being rather racy. But I suppose that is a matter of personal taste.
The attribution dates for naughty are: Oz 1959, NZ 1963; which suggest not only that the Australians discovered sex four years before we did, but that we only learned about it through Philip Larkin’s wonderful poem, “Annus Mirabilis”: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”
But slang is such a slippery and elusive eel that it is almost impossible to catch in the nets of scholarship. I was talking about this book, and in particular the entry on naughty, to an elderly friend of mine who was a bomb aimer/navigator over Germany during the Second World War. He told me that in 1940, while he was still in New Zealand, he was approached by an attractive young woman who asked him, without many preliminaries, if he would like “a naughty”. Some instinct made him draw back from this kindly proffered invitation, and just as well, because next thing the young lady’s husband loomed up, accusing my friend of having tried to seduce his wife. My friend indignantly asserted that it was the wife who had tried to seduce him. The husband shook his head sadly, said, “Oh well, that sounds like par for the course”, and went off in search of his wife. (I notice that “par for the course” is not included here, presumably because it originated elsewhere, but that is true of many of the entries.) The point I make is that naughty was certainly in common parlance among airmen and wives of airmen on Air Force stations in New Zealand in 1940, well before 1959 or 1963. This information is undoubtedly my major contribution to New Zealand lexicography.
The book has merits: I would not wish to be taken as suggesting otherwise. Many of the contextual settings of the slang words or phrases are clearly devised by Mr Orsman himself, and some of them are succinct and some of them are funny. For example: Aussie haka: “A public song and dance indicating lack of cash when met with a bill, one’s turn to pay or shout etc, by patting pockets (breast and trouser), and making arm movements resembling those of a true haka.” I don’t imagine that one travelled back across the Tasman.
The problem with this book is that if you were to do it properly and include only truly indigenous slang you would have to spend years researching it and travel to all parts of the country, listening to people in pubs and workplaces. I suspect there is a lot of Otago, Southland and Westland slang that has not come to Mr Orsman’s attention. The book has hairy, hairy ape, and hairy goat. But where is hairy lasso (a gender-based metaphor)? There is a better book about New Zealand slang to be written than this one, although by the time you had done the research, you would find that all the slang had changed anyway. That is the nature of the beast. In the meantime, perhaps this one should be retitled A Dictionary of New Zealand Slang Largely Borrowed from Australia.
A K Grant is a Christchurch writer and barrister.