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English language in New Zealand

by Dianne Bardsley

JAFAs taking a tiki tour to the bach, wearing jandals and sitting under a pōhutukawa eating lollies and feeling a box of birds – New Zealand English has developed its own distinctive usages, reflecting every facet of life and operating at all levels of formality.

Characteristics of New Zealand English

Despite the mass of published glossaries of New Zealand slang, and the popular notion that New Zealand English is merely a collection of slang and colloquial expressions, New Zealand English reflects every facet of life. It operates in a range of occupational and cultural contexts, and at all levels of formality.


In other countries, an under-runner is a term for misplaced text at the foot of a page, or a cricket term for a batsman with few runs. In New Zealand it means a sinkhole, tomo or underground stream, which can endanger stock or humans if it caves in.

What informs New Zealand English?

English, te reo Māori (the Māori language) and New Zealand Sign Language are the official languages of New Zealand. New Zealand English (NZE) is informed by New Zealand culture, institutions and inhabitants, geographical characteristics and native plants and animals. Some words are eponyms (based on a personal name), such as Captain Cooker (wild boar). Some are toponyms (words based on a place), such as Remuera tractor (four-wheel-drive vehicle used in urban settings). Governments generate distinctive terms such as sickness benefit. Māori terms like rimu and tarakihi name flora and fauna. The term Pākehā, and the Samoan words palagi (European) and afakasi (half-caste), are names given to groups of people in New Zealand.

Multi-tasking words

‘Unit’ has several meanings in New Zealand English: a house or apartment, a farming property, an electric fence system, a stock carrier, an electric train and a section of study. ‘Section’ is also versatile – it means an area of urban land, a period of time spent in the classroom as a training teacher and a designated part of a journey by bus or train.

Being informal

A distinctive way of making new terms is by shortening or dividing words and adding an ending of -ie or -o, a feature common in both Australian and New Zealand English. This feature, known as hypocorism, was first demonstrated by early New Zealand whalers and brings informality to usage. One example is good-o.

Place names and vocational and personal names can be made informal – for instance, Dunners (Dunedin), scarfie (student) and the Naki (Taranaki).

Something borrowed

A host of terms have been taken from other forms of English and given new meanings in New Zealand English. Some of the most common are berm (a strip of lawn bordering a road and footpath or bordering a footpath in front of a building, originally a narrow ledge), creek (a stream, in the UK a coastal inlet) and paddock (a piece of land fenced or defined by natural boundaries, in the UK a small field). Adaptations are made, such as Paintergate (referring to a 2002 incident involving then-prime minister Helen Clark) from Watergate.

A hard-working word

Crook has many meanings in New Zealand English, including angry, bad, broken, inadequate, empty, ill, used-up, unproductive and weak. If a person is as crook as a dog, she or he is really ill. Crook is also used for a dishonest person or dodgy deal, as it is in Australia. A crook cheque is one that bounces (is dishonoured).

New Zealand servicemen made a contribution to the New Zealand lexis while serving overseas, bringing back with them terms which lasted for some years, including blue duck (a baseless rumour), a term used by First World War servicemen. Servicemen named the Benghazi boiler (thermette) after the Libyan coastal town of Benghazi during the Second World War.

Cutting corners

Since the late 20th century many new words have been generated in the form of abbreviations. These include acronyms such as ERMA (Environmental Risk Management Authority), JAFA (just another fucking Aucklander) and MOTAT (Museum of Transport and Technology) and initialisms such as DPB (Domestic Purposes Benefit), EQC (Earthquake Commission) and NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement). Since the 1960s young New Zealanders travelling overseas have been said to be ‘on their OE’ (overseas experience), an abbreviation known to all.

Building words

Compounding two existing words is an easy way of generating a new term, and usually the meaning is clear, with the new term containing elements of both words. New Zealand examples are cattle-stop and woolshed. Iwi tea as a café menu item is a large, shared teapot. A blend from 2009 is bikoi (bike and hīkoi – a Māori word for a march), generated when motorcyclists protested about ACC levy increases.

Taking a tiki

New words are created by ellipsis, by shortening or abbreviating compound terms. Tiki tour means a look-around, drive or trip (and was originally derived from an old New Zealand tourist company of the same name). A verb, to tiki, and a noun, tiki, both shortened forms of tiki tour and with the same meaning, have come from this.

Permissible uses

Globally, communication has become less standardised and more informal. The Broadcasting Standards and Advertising Standards authorities determine what New Zealand terms are acceptable for use in the media. Pommy git, sheep shagger and bugger have been ruled acceptable.

Overseas and over here

As well as importing terms from other varieties of English, some New Zealand words and phrases have been exported. New Zealand terms like haka and jet-boat are used universally. But in no other nation do people feel a box of birds (in a good mood), join the business waka (the business world, its assets and those involved), approach a government department known as DOC (the Department of Conservation) or wear a Swanndri (woollen shirt) or jandals (rubber thongs) at the bach (holiday home). New Zealand slang terms include howlybag (whinger) and puckerooed (broken, from the Māori word ‘pakaru’).

Some regional differences within New Zealand are evident – a holiday home is a bach in the North Island and a crib in the South Island.

Studying New Zealand English

Despite New Zealand’s geographical distance from Europe, and the considerable differences between Britain and a small South Pacific island nation with a rugged landscape, volcanic peaks and indigenous population, New Zealand and its citizens were expected to develop a variety of English not dissimilar to that of its northern ‘motherland’. In fact, little notice was taken of New Zealand English, and systematic research and scholarship into this language variety developed only late in the 20th century.

Studying the language

In the early 1890s James Murray, editor of the New English dictionary, precursor to the Oxford English dictionary, solicited words and usages peculiar to Australia and New Zealand.

Edward Ellis Morris of the University of Melbourne took up the challenge and sought New Zealand terms and evidence of their usage in written citations. Advertising widely in New Zealand newspapers for assistance, he gathered sufficient terms to publish an independent dictionary. In 1898 his comprehensive publication Austral English: a dictionary of Australasian words, phrases and usages went almost unheralded in New Zealand, while it was greeted with considerable criticism in Australia.

Later scholarship

It was not until 1943 that the distinctiveness of New Zealand English was described, when Jack Bennett, a New Zealander at Oxford University in England, wrote about ‘English as it is spoken in New Zealand’ in the journal American Speech.

Mutilated Māori

In 1943 New Zealander Jack Bennett criticised the way Pākehā pronounced and wrote Māori words. He mentioned careless and corrupt pronunciation and mutilated spelling. However, he noted that ‘in recent years, as a result of instruction in schools and on the radio, there has been a noticeable improvement … [and] school-children have been encouraged to use Maori words for indigenous trees and plants.’1

Bennett claimed that New Zealand English of the time was rich in slang, and strongly influenced by terms from rural life. He argued that local usages of bach, morning tea, shower (a food cover), smoke-oh (or smoko, a tea break for workers), lollies, blackballs (sweets) and service cars (vehicles for hire) were distinctive to New Zealand in the 1940s. To Bennett, there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that New Zealand and Australia had individual forms of English.

Victoria University of Wellington became an important centre of New Zealand English scholarship under Professor Ian Gordon, who taught there from 1937 to 1974. His student and fellow lecturer Harry Orsman edited the first dictionary dedicated to New Zealand English, which was published in 1997 after more than 40 years of research. The New Zealand Dictionary Centre was established at Victoria University in 1997 to maintain a database of New Zealand English words, to conduct research and to produce dictionaries and other educational publications.

    • J. A. W. Bennett, ‘English as it is spoken in New Zealand,’ American Speech 18, no. 2 (1943), p. 94. Back

The development of New Zealand English

Naming species

Eighteenth-century British explorer James Cook and botanist Joseph Banks were among the first English speakers to give names to New Zealand environmental features. Many of these were terms which already existed in the English language, but were often tagged with Māori, New Zealand, native or wild.

Cook’s journal

James Cook recorded Māori words in his journal, spelling the words as he heard them. In 1769 he wrote of being invited to visit a ‘heppah’ () and seeing people whose bodies were adorned with ‘amoco’ (moko or tattoo).

Examples are Māori cabbage (rauriki or puha), New Zealand ash (tītoki), native flax (harakeke) and wild mint (hioi). Cook and his men gave the name tea-tree to mānuka when they discovered that its leaves could be used to make tea, and the name fantail to the bird Māori called pīwakawaka or tīwakawaka.

Some things acquired several names – the kererū has been called the bush pigeon, kuku, kūkupa, native pigeon, New Zealand pigeon, white breaster, wild pigeon and wood pigeon. Other birds, such as the kōkako and muttonbird, and many plants have a similar number of alternative names.


Following Cook, the whalers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries introduced a form of slang known as whaler’s Māori, which mixed Māori words with English words and slang. In 1845 Edward Jerningham Wakefield wrote of the whalers:

Their whole language is in fact an argot, or slang, almost unintelligible to a stranger … every article of trade with the natives has its slang term – in order that they may converse with each other respecting a purchase without initiating the native into their calculations. Thus pigs and potatoes were respectively represented by ‘grunters’ and ‘spuds’; guns, powder, blankets, pipes, and tobacco, by ‘shooting-sticks, dust, spreaders, steamers,’ and ‘weed.’ A chief was called a ‘nob’; a slave, a ‘doctor’; a woman, a ‘heifer’; a girl, a ‘titter’; and a child, a ‘squeaker.’ 1

Whalers also applied the informal term beacher to a sealer or whaler who settled on the New Zealand coast raising a family with a Māori wife.

Rural life

The importance of the rural sector to New Zealand’s history, culture and economy is reflected in New Zealand English. Rural people borrowed words from te reo Māori, added new meanings to existing English words and coined new words and phrases. For instance, cattle-stop is the New Zealand term for a barred pit to prevent stock passing at an entrance.

Other contributors

Nineteenth-century workers from other occupational groups also introduced new terms. Beachcomber came from gold mining, and line (meaning road) from land surveying. Gum-dust, originally the dry scrapings from kauri gum, came to mean something dry and of little consequence. Associated with the Dalmatian gum diggers and vintners are the words Maslars (the English) and Dally Alley, a term for a Henderson road.

Australian and American influence

New Zealand and Australia share many words and word uses, and it can be hard to be sure where certain words common to both originated. Some words used in New Zealand, such as coo-ee (come here), have a verified Australian origin, but others, like pavlova, have long been argued about. Americanisms, such as ‘like’ used as an adverb, are evident in the speech of young New Zealanders.

Obsolete words

In her 1870s memoirs of life in New Zealand, Mary Anne Barker recorded early usages that did not survive into the 20th century. Among these is the use of ‘a bush’ as a singular noun for a forested area, and kōrari for flax plants rather than flax stalks. Samuel Butler also recorded terms of the 1860s, many of them colloquial. Only some, such as ‘no fear’ (certainly not) and ‘going eyes out’ (going fast), were heard in the next century.


After the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Christchurch was christened Shakeytown by some. The Rebuilding Shakeytown blog was one Christchurch resident’s response to life in the seismically active city.

God’s Own Country

New Zealand has had a large number of nicknames, including Fernland, Fullers Earth, Godzone (an abbreviation of God’s Own Country), Kiwiland, Maoriland, Moaland, Pig Island, Quaky Isles, Shaky Isles, the Shakies and Wowserland. These contrast with the more stately Aotearoa and Britain of the South Seas.

    • Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand. Golden Press: Auckland, 1975, pp.131–132 (originally published in 1845). Back

Words from the Māori language

The incorporation of Māori words – borrowings, blends and compounds – into New Zealand English is one of its most distinctive features, distinguishing it from all other forms of English.

New Zealanders use terms like mana and taonga (treasure) without glossing them. Kea crossing (patrolled pedestrian crossing outside schools) and kaumātua flat (accommodation for Māori pensioners) are common compounds, while huiette (small-scale meeting) is a hybrid form.

Global terms like couch potato and tall poppy are adapted into couch kūmara and tall ponga. Adaptations have been made in both languages, often in transliteration, as in the case of kawenata (covenant) and biddy-bid (piripiri – a creeping plant with burrs).

Language colonist

The 19th-century letters of early colonist William Colenso show early blends, compounds and anglicisation using the word Māori, terms which were thought to have been of more recent origin. Among these were à la Māori, Maoricize, Maorified, and pseudo-Māori.

Early adoption from Māori

Printer and missionary William Colenso was one of the first colonists to use te reo Māori fluently, and he introduced many Māori words into New Zealand English. From as early as 1843 he commonly interspersed Māori and English, using terms such as kapai (good) and anglicising others, such as tangiing (crying). He took care to explain the various meanings associated with Māori vocabulary, showing that the term Māori itself meant ubiquitous and common, and not merely indigenous, especially when applied to flora and fauna. He distinguished, therefore, a native tree from a Māori tree.

The early use of the term Māori for common or ubiquitous in Māori–English compounds often caused confusion. Māori clearing, Māori pass and Māori track pertained to Māori use or origin – but Māori cabbage and Māori parsnip meant these plants were common and grew wild.

Early borrowing

One of the first terms borrowed from Māori material culture was mōkihi or mōki (a raft made from kōrari or flax stalks), a word that was used widely by surveyors and land-seeking colonists. In the South Island it was often written as mogihi or mogi.

Early borrowings from the Māori language into English generated a range of pronunciations and spellings. Kōwhai, for example, was spelled co-eye, kowai, kowhy, goai, ghoai, goa, goi and ghoa.

Borrowing stops

By the 1860s there were more Europeans than Māori in New Zealand, because of increased European migration and Māori mortality due to introduced diseases for which Māori had little immunity. The New Zealand wars of the 1860s enforced separation between Māori and Europeans. As a result, few Māori words came into New Zealand English from then until around 1970. However, many transliterations from English entered te reo Māori.

Borrowing resumes

From the 1970s Māori words started to re-enter New Zealand English. Three major factors contributed to this change.

  • Efforts were made to revitalise te reo Māori.
  • The post-Second World War urban migration of Māori was completed, and the geographic gap between Māori and Europeans closed.
  • New Zealand looked less to Britain and began to forge an identity as a Pacific nation.

New words

The main domains or sources which contribute the most new words to New Zealand English, in addition to te reo Māori, are politics, sport, crime, farming and the environment.

Nek minnit

In 2011 a short clip posted to the video-sharing website YouTube propelled the New Zealand slang term ‘nek minnit’ (next minute) into linguistic stardom as the clip went viral. Dunedin skateboarder Levi Hawken appeared in the video, in which he says, ‘Left my scooter outside the dairy. Nek minnit …’ before the camera pans down to record a destroyed scooter.1 The clip was all pretence, but that did not stop the term, which is used when something unexpected happens, entering New Zealand English and becoming the sixth-biggest rising search on in 2011.


There is a distinctive New Zealand vocabulary based on political parties, and the policies and legislation of various governments. New Zealand First (a political party), Rogernomics (nickname for the economic philosophy and policies of the fourth Labour government, named after Minister of Finance Roger Douglas), ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation), fiscal envelope (unsuccessful government proposal to limit the monetary value of Treaty of Waitangi claim settlements), Think Big (former prime minister Robert Muldoon’s heavy-industry programme) and Working for Families (income support for families in paid employment) are all common terms distinctive to New Zealand English.


New Zealand’s traditional adventure tourism contributes many terms, including black-water rafting, cave-tubing and dam-dropping, to the national vocabulary. Yikebikes, zorbs and zorbing have generated global use, while fitness programmes such as Sport New Zealand’s Push Play are better known locally. Rugby’s Ranfurly Shield is commonly known as the log o’ wood, the old log, or simply The Shield.


Criminals, needing to create a code that will not be understood by eavesdroppers and law-enforcers, develop inventive forms of slang and alternative nouns. A 2001 study found that Māori terms and names of animals are commonly used to generate prison slang (known as boobslang). A kupenga (net) is code for a solitary-confinement cell, while someone who borrows money and goods without repaying is a hyena.

Many names associated with illegal drugs have a distinctive New Zealand use. Coromandel green and electric puha are cannabis, while a tinny is cannabis wrapped in tinfoil and a tinny house is a place where cannabis is purchased. New Zealand also has its own name for methamphetamine, P, which is manufactured in P labs (laboratories), known elsewhere as clan labs and meth labs.


With increased awareness of the need for nature conservation comes an expanded vocabulary with intriguing local terms, such as bush corridor (linked stands of native forest which allow birds and other fauna to travel) kiwi crèche (predator-free nursery for young kiwi), mainland island (mainland wildlife sanctuary) and tuatarium (tuatara enclosure). Geographic tags function to identify specific native fauna and flora. Examples are the Banks Peninsula jewelled gecko, Castlepoint daisy and Wellington barking gecko.

Weather words

Terms to describe particular weather conditions or their effects have come into general use from the tramping, climbing and farming domains. Terms for weather include barber, blizz or blizzy, blue duck, buckley, buffy-guffy, clag in, clag up, cockatoo’s weather, crud, a day for the king or queen, derision, dirty weather, earthquake weather, ECW (extremely cold weather), Elingamite weather, gym-shoe lambing, heatwave knot, hogback or hogsback, Hughie, Māori summer, Nelson weather, nor’west arch, open winter, salube or salubrium, southerly buster, Taieri pet, Taranaki sunshine, Uenuku, Wahine storm or weather, Wanganella weather and wharfie’s sunshine.


In the rural world, new processes, new technology and new plant and animal breeds generate new terms, such as calfetaria or lambitaria (artificial feeding systems for calves and lambs), hoof and tooth (pasture management) and the Cormo (sheep), Carpetmaster (sheep) and Kiko (goat). Only in New Zealand is the annual move to new dairy farms known as gypsy day, while earlier in the dairying season, staff attend drying-off parties.

Canterbury earthquakes

The Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 have focused national attention on words that relate to certain events. New Zealanders connected the existing terms munted (broken) and muntage (destruction) with the devastation of the quakes. Liquefaction as a process became better known as liquefaction the product, the silty deposit that was unearthed. The Farmy Army and the SVA (Student Volunteer Army) became known everywhere, the landmark Shag Rock became Shag Pile after it collapsed, and the heavy snow of 2011 was called the icing on the quake. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority was known nationally as CERA.

    • ‘Nek Minnit skater video goes viral on YouTube.’ New Zealand Herald, 25 September 2011, (last accessed 10 December 2012). Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Dianne Bardsley, 'English language in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 August 2020)

Story by Dianne Bardsley, published 5 Sep 2013