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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The New Zealand Vocabulary

Words that Maori gave us, and America took away

According to word-guru Max Cryer, in 2001 an Australian journalist visiting New Zealand wrote with surprise that he needed a dictionary to read the daily newspaper -- so many Maori words were in everyday use.

Some of those Maori words are even becoming known worldwide -- haka (the warlike performance made famous by the All Blacks rugby team), kia ora (words of goodwill), moko (facial tattoo), whanau (extended family), haere mai (welcome), hangi (feast cooked in an underground oven).

But I guess you have to be a New Zealander to feel comfortable with kohanga reo, powhiri, koru, karakia, tangata whenua, kuia, iwi, hikoi, tangi, and mana.

Other words -- or so Cryer tells us -- came with settlers from China, India, the Netherlands, Poland, Croatia, Fiji, Samoa, Hungary and Russia.  Others came with returning Kiwis -- such as "plonk" or cheap wine, from "vin blanc."   In fact, a lot of these words were to do with food and drink -- avocado, yam, rocket, bok choy, yum cha, aubergine, mango, pizza, sushi.

And there are words that have been taken away, mostly because of American marketing.  Thus, poultry, fowls, hens, pullets all became "chickens," no matter how banquet-sized they were.

"Hitch-hikers" became "back-packers."  "Flats" became "apartments."  "Footpath" is rapidly becoming "sidewalk."  And now we never go to the toilet or the lavatory -- it is the much more demure retreat to the bathroom.  In tall buildings the ground floor is now the first floor.  It may confuse New Zealanders who persist in believing that the first floor is the one above the ground floor, but it has relieved American visitors who push buttons in elevators (once "lifts") because to them the "G" button meant going to the garage.

Even death is different, because of Americanization of Kiwi talk. Our common or garden undertakers are now funeral directors, and our coffins are caskets.

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