Obituary — Harry Orsman

Harry Orsman (1928 – 2002)

In his fine eulogy at Harry Orsman’s funeral, Stuart Johnston considered the meanings we might take from “character”. He unravelled the word so that it extended far beyond the way we usually use it, and as  we tend to use it in speaking of Harry – the “one off” personality, who had the flair and the gall not to be confined, as most of us are, by taste or expectation. The Harry of the numerous anecdotes about him, some factual, some dubiously so, some blatant mythic tributes to the vitality and the subversiveness that he exuded.

Stuart indeed acknowledged the diversionary charm of Harry the dag, Harry the extraordinary ordinary bloke. As his colleague for over 40 years, he would know all about that. But he knew as well that this was far from capturing the entire man, an entirety Harry himself was more than adroit at concealing when at times it was more fun, or more challenging, to make complacency shuffle and self-regard think twice. The “character” in that sense went back, I suspect, to Harry’s diminutive schooldays, to the “wee Harold Orsman”, as I heard the publican in Canvastown once describe him, the master of pre-emptive clowning, the wit that best protects.

What Stuart so effectively recalled was not another Harry, but the more complete one, the man of rock-solid moral perspectives, whose benchmarks were decency, modesty, intellectual rigour, good humour, kindness – a “character” as the word’s Greek origin demands, with its sense of an enduring mark, a defining design, a deep impression. Those of us who knew Harry in his illness, as well as in his constantly diverting heyday, might remember the French writer who said that at our death it is as though a seal, bearing the shape of an entire life, is at last made clear.

There is an irony, and what a resonant one, in the fact that the man who talked so tirelessly also happened to be as expert a listener as we’re likely to find. However much lexicography is a skill that declares itself in the defining solidity of the page, a great deal of it has to do with being alert to language as a spoken exchange. Behind every definition, there is the babble of innumerable occasions, as a living phrase finds its way towards the monumentality of print. Harry the raconteur, the outspoken detector of pretentiousness and muddle, the considerate friend and the warm student adviser, was also the scholar immersing himself in the community he lived in and loved, in its oddball backwaters and dodgy side-currents quite as much as in its main stream.

You could not be with Harry for long without that coming home to you. In one typical afternoon, I remember, there was the camaraderie of meeting up with Sir Thaddeus McCarthy, with whom he had worked on Royal Commissions; then, within half an hour, meeting up with the towering Maori radical who, after several rounds in De Bretts, and what journalists refer to as a “frank exchange”, said he was inclined to break Harry in half, had there been enough of him.

It was the combination of this vastly open sociability, and behind it the long devotion of the necessarily lone scholar, that explains so much about Harry’s rich humanity. His Dictionary of New Zealand English is one of the few great books to have come out of Victoria University of Wellington. It stands among the dozen or so we might think of as indispensable for understanding what this country is. He was rightly and widely honoured for it, as were his friends in knowing the character that produced it. But it was the book not just of one man, but of a community understood with as much care and  affection as it ever received. When I need to look something up in his dictionary, I prefer to think I am still asking Harry a question. There is no chance his answer will run out of words.

Harvest Home

Peregrinistic wordslide,
Asyndeton’s rush,
Lewd parabasic utterances
From rugby’s push,
Cacology and portmanteau,
Catachresis crush,

All our lingo sung or mumbled,
Foreign import, local bloom,
Twitch or kahikatea
Rooted here, at home,
Take lexicographic purchase
In Harry’s tome.

Here “cobber” and “joker” and “taihoa”,
“Dag” and “crim” and “sport”,
“Sheila” and “greaser” and “cut the keg”,
“Box of birds” and “rort”,
“Electric puha” and “bible-banger”,
In academe’s grave court.

Here is apocopic “New Ziln”
Set out nice as pie,
Accent and date and usage,
Jeez! In corker format lie.
“He cast a warm eye on talk, text,
Orsman passed by.”


Vincent O’Sullivan

(This poem was included in Of Pavlova, Poetry and Paradigms: Essays in honour of Harry Orsman (1993).)

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Obituaries
Search the archive
Search by category