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.
On 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 around, being 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.