Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

What’s in a word?


Since I began posting comments online some five years ago, I have been careful in choosing what words to use. No, it’s not because I use words that are offensive — I’ve never had the urge to use them — it’s because I’m not sure how well I’d be understood if if wrote using my natural language.

Most of the forums and blogs I frequent are either international or American. This is inevitable considering the small size of NZ compared to the rest of the English speaking world. I do post on a few kiwi sites, where I can use language I’m comfortable with, and be reasonably sure I will be understood. However, on other sites I often agonise over what words and expressions to use. English varies from region to region, and while many variations are obvious, others are less so.

One advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your point of view) of coming from a small place such as NZ is that I am probably more aware of how my English differs from the dominant American variant than the typical American is about how his language differs from NZ English.

Now that I have started blogging, I want to be able to express myself in language I’m comfortable with, but if I want to increase readership, I need to use language that the readers are comfortable with. I’m not sure how successful I can be at achieving both objectives.

Many words can be used safely, even if not universally used. For example every English speaker understands railway and railroad even though they are likely to use just one of them. Similarly, while a speaker may use only petrol or gasoline he/she will understand both. If I used the word cattle-stop, you would more than likely guess that it refers to a stock grid or cattle-guard.

chocolate-fishOn the other hand, I’m not going to say that my best mate is a hooker for the All Blacks on a non-NZ forum. I’d say that my best friend plays for our national rugby team. Nor am I likely to say that you deserve a chocolate fish. And I wouldn’t attempt to write that my mate has hired a chippie to fix the bach on his section by the lake that was munted in the shake a fortnight ago.

I know when an American refers to a fanny, he’s referring to the part of the anatomy you sit on, and not what the word means in NZ. And if an American or British visitor asks where the bathroom is, I know he doesn’t really want to know where the bathroom is. He wants to know where the toilet is instead.

If an American wants to know where to find the elevator to the second floor, he actually wants to know where to find the lift to the first floor. If I mention biscuit, he’ll probably think of what I know as a scone, whereas I’m referring to what he calls a cookie. If he asks for jello, he really wants jelly, and if he asks for jelly, he really wants jam.

If an American child makes a spelling mistake, she will likely use an eraser or white-out to correct it. A kiwi kid will use a rubber or twink instead. Our ankle biters like candy-floss and lollies, whereas American children like cotton-candy and candy. Our children like soft drinks, but American children prefer soda or pop.

I know non NZers won’t know what I meant if I decided to join the business waka, or I said I feel a box of birds. I doubt that they would know what I meant if I said I avoided a certain bar because it was chocka. There are many expressions I would like to use, which may be universally understood, but because I’m not sure of that fact I avoid using them.

Would you know what to do if I ask you to boil the jug, mow the berm or rattle your dags? Do you know the difference between being pissed, being pissed aroundbeing pissed off and taking the piss, or the difference between pissing down and pissing up? If I mentioned that someone wasn’t only a bit of a dag, he was the whole sheep’s arse, what would you think of that person?

Do you know what I’m doing if I go tramping? Do you know the difference between bugger, bugger me, bugger off, bugger all, Well I’ll be buggered and I’m buggered?

If I posted a motoring blog, would you know what parts of a car a bonnet, boot, bumper, wing, accelerator and windscreen are? Would you know what I meant by a tar sealed road or a metal road? How about if I top up? You probably know what a roundabout is, but do you know what a give way or a zig-zag are? If I told you that a pavement isn’t for driving on, would you think I’m talking a load of cods wollop?

If I talk politics, would you understand what I mean when I refer to MMP, Rogernomics or waka jumping? How about the beehive or coat-tailing?

Is a unit a house, apartment, a farming property, an electric fence system, a stock carrier, an electric train, or a section of study?

Does crook mean angry, bad, broken, inadequate, empty, ill, used-up, thief, unproductive or weak? If I’m crook as a dog, what am I? If I put you crook, what have I done?

My problem is there are many words and expressions similar those above that I would use if they were correctly understood by most readers. I don’t want to cater just for a New Zealand readership, but I would like to be able to express myself freely without causing confusion.

If I haven’t confused you with strange expressions and you’re not a kiwi, then you deserve a chocolate fish. on the other hand, don’t spit the dummy if it all seems like nonsense. I’ll eventually suss it out, which will make it sweet as.


Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

9 thoughts on “What’s in a word?

  1. I got the meaning of about a third of what you were saying. You know, Barry, I’ve seen some bloggers who type the top half of their post in their native tongue and then type the bottom half in “American” English. Maybe you should consider doing the same thing. Oh, for what it’s worth, I’ve owned a number of British automobiles, including my current Mini Cooper, so I do know what a “bonnet” is what a “boot” is, and what a “windscreen” is. And I think I can glean what “bumper,” “accelerator,” and “wing” are. But maybe not.

    • I’m thinking of ways to be true to myself yet still keep the blog readable. I’ll keep your suggestion in mind.

      I’ll add a list of “translations” shortly so that you can rate your skills in “Nyu Zild” ☺

  2. I’m a huge fan of regional idioms and slang. Although I live in the Deep South in the U.S., my parents and extended family are from “Up North,” and I also lived in Europe for a while. Being exposed to even different parts of the U.S. taught me that although language can be shared, locals have very different ways of expressing themselves. So I know that in the U.S. I should ask where the bathroom is, in England it’s the loo, and elsewhere I need to know where the W.C. is located. Where I live, when someone asks “Do you want a coke?” they’re really asking if you want a “soft drink.” Yes, even Pepsi products are “cokes.” Finally, if someone says “it was so good it made me want to slap my mama,” they’re not really talking about violently assaulting their own mother. They’re talking about really good food.

    Personally, I would think it’s wonderful if you used and explained New Zealand idioms and slang in your posts. The only risk is you might just get your American readers to start talking like kiwis, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. Now I must get going and find me a chocolate fish…

    • There is a practical reason why it’s not appropriate to ask where the bathroom is if you want to use the toilet/loo/w.c. Unlike in American homes, it is uncommon for the bath and toilet to share the same room in NZ. So especially if you’re “in a hurry” it’s wise to “stop beating about the bush” and say exactly what you mean.

      As far as Americans talking like kiwis is concerned, it’ll never happen. Dialect is one thing, accent is another thing altogether!

  3. Ha! Cute post Barry, that’ll get you a sprat. (I looked it up- you can even google NZ slang) If you want the whole chocalate fish, you’re gonna have to write a post using the lingo, not just explaining it. Ha!

    I find it quite interesting that the English language has evolved in NZ the way it has. Here in Canada we have such a huge geographical footprint that we generally speak in a common language with the occassional localized word meaning to each other. Howwever, if you get involved deeply (as in day to day) in a sub-culture, the language gets very specialized. In other words, we sort of speak multiple dialects – ar at least those of us who travel (which is most) do. Even so i have been in remote Newfoundland communities (called outports) where I could not understand their lingo and they could not undersatnd me. I can clearly recall having breakfast one morning and having to point at menu items to make myself understood.

    The same is true of the French spoken here. My ex is Acadian – a brand of French from the Eastern seaboard. She works at Canada Post Head office and is required to speak to French customers from every single tiny town in Canada that speaks French. She was educated in Parisian French and learned Quebec french, they are entirely different lingos and it was amazing to listen to her switch from one dialect to another.

    My experience with written localized languages is that a taste of sub-culture word “seasoning” adds to the flavor of the dialogue. As long as it is explained, it can add greatly to the bond between the writer and the reader. In other words Barry, I personally think you can leverage the dialect to increase reader interest and dedication. Obviously crafting that mixture is going to be a challenge but don’t let anyone tell you that you have to make your word choice so bland that everyone understands everything.

    Great post and interesting topic Barry. Thank you.

  4. There’s probably less regional variation in NZ than elsewhere as English has been the predominant language for not much more than 150 years. Regional differences in the Maori language are more significant than English regional variations as the Maori have been established here for around 800 years.

    My wife’s homeland of Japan has many regional dialects that are unintelligible to others outside the region.

    My daughter spent her senior highschool year in Spain and quickly learnt that regional differences were quite extreme.

    My daughter-in-law grew up in Tahiti, so her native tongue is French. From what I understand, Polynesian French does not differ from “mainland” French as much as Canadian French does.

  5. As a Midwesterner by birth, I grew up with “soft drink” as well. I’d love to be fluent in your English. Like a previous commenter, I knew some and could guess some – maybe up to a half? In any case, I’d give anything to “twink” away my mistakes! That sounds both charming and effective.

    • P.S. And I’m realizing mine wasn’t a very substantive remark, so let me add that I hope you find a solution to your writing dilemma. I think the color imparted is worth a little confusion in the reading, perhaps resolved in glossary form at the end of a piece, if you so chose.

    • Twink is actually a brand name, but here it’s become a generic noun and verb, just as in Britain “to hoover” has become a verb to describe the action of using a vacuum cleaner.

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