From the early days of European settlement, rural-dwelling New Zealanders developed a distinctive vocabulary. They created new terms, borrowed words from the Māori language, and gave new uses to existing English words.
There was an early belief that New Zealanders had simply adopted Australia’s rural vocabulary – but in fact many shared terms were first recorded in New Zealand, and were exported to Australia and elsewhere. Many terms remain specific to New Zealand.
Vocabulary evolves to reflect changes in farming, and a farmer of 1900 would puzzle to understand the following from the Dominion Post in the early 2000s: ‘As well as being a finishing farm for 40,000 lambs, it has room for 900 finishing deer, a pine plantation and a 720-cow milking platform.’ 1 Finishing means fattening animals for slaughter, while the milking platform is the grazing space for cows, although it can also mean the milking area in a cowshed.
Coming from a gentle landscape of glades, copses, dells and dingles, early settlers from Britain had to generate words to describe New Zealand’s more rugged topography. The country’s ecology also presented naming challenges: the native vegetation was quite different to that of Britain, and the pests, pitfalls and diseases were unfamiliar.
The land’s agricultural potential was unknown and untested, and settlers had to develop appropriate farming methods and equipment. While the language of other occupations, such as commerce, did not need to be changed, farming in New Zealand required new or adapted words.
The historic importance of farming to New Zealand’s economy, and New Zealanders’ fondness for the countryside, mean that many rural expressions are also used by city dwellers.
The development of a distinctive vocabulary was influenced by:
The Māori language was also a strong influence.
New styles in speaking and vocabulary were noticeable. Early writers referred to the colonial adjective, colonial dialect, colonial language, colonial phrase, colonial phraseology, colonial tongue, and station language. In 1896 William Hodgson, a farmer turned school inspector, wrote disapprovingly of the new terms used for the rugged landscape:
Vale, brook, and grove, to poet dear,
Here changing name and dress,
As gully, creek and scrub appear,
In conscious ugliness. 2
The new speech was not always polite, suggests C. R. Thatcher’s humorous 1862 poem:
If nice expressions you would learn
Colonial and new
Some bullock driver who is bogged
Is just the man for you. 3
Language is constantly evolving – some phrases become obsolete, and new ones are coined, sometimes by joining or compounding words. In the early 2000s, the rural vocabulary had preserved a number of expressions for rural icons, including:
Although the rural population is small, New Zealand’s rural vocabulary remains lively, distinctive and diverse.
During the first phase of European settlement, the Māori language strongly influenced rural vocabulary.
The letters, diaries and published accounts of early British land-seekers in New Zealand show their wide use of Māori nouns, including:
Explorers and settlers adopted verbs as well. In 1851 J. C. Richmond recorded, ‘His grass is very low and he has sent his 52 ewes and 56 lambs to “kai” [eat] our grass.’ 1
Settlers often modified Māori pronunciation, and spelt words as they heard or pronounced them, for instance:
Farmers adapted Māori terms for their own uses.
The Māori word for sledge is kōneke. Europeans used the modified term konaki to describe a wheeled sledge, usually horse-drawn.
Nati, spelled variously as ngati, naaiti and naati, was used by settlers to describe a brumby breed of horse. This term was borrowed from the Ngāti Porou tribe, who called their horses nāti. Taipo (goblin or devil in Māori) came to mean a temperamental horse.
Māori words have been used to name new cultivars and breeds of plants, including:
Tama, a type of ryegrass (tama means son or uncle)
Kawa, a poplar used in land conservation (kawa means ceremony)
Huia, a type of white clover (the huia was a greatly prized bird, now extinct).
Some words, such as whare (often pronounced ‘warry’), proved particularly versatile. On farms, the term was first used for a small hut used as an outstation or shelter – often called a back whare or out-whare. Later, around the homestead, there could be a front whare, shearers’ whare, or swaggers’ whare. With itinerant plough and harvest camps came the portable iron whare and mill whare. The large communal accommodation building for single shepherds and station hands was called the station whare, and its inhabitants were whare boys.
The rush for land generated its own informal terms such as land boom, earth hunger, land fever, land hunger, land seeking and run-hunting.
Regulations and regulatory bodies were developed to control land acquisition, and an administrative vocabulary evolved. Land Boards were set up to investigate and register claims to Crown land. Waste Lands Boards administered the sale or lease of unoccupied and unimproved Crown lands. A pre-emptive right was an occupant’s right of preferential purchase of public land at a low or nominal price, on condition that they improved it.
Shady practices were common. Dummying was hiring an agent to acquire Crown land on behalf of one not entitled to do so. It was similar to stuffing – applying for a land ballot for a family member. Gridironing involved buying strips of land in a way that prevented anyone else from making practical use of the areas between. Spoiling or spotting meant to improve and freehold the best parts of a leasehold run, such as waterholes, so adjacent areas were valueless without access to these areas. Land jobbing and land sharking described unscrupulous speculation, often in Māori-owned land.
People involved in such activities acquired a variety of names. Squatters occupied rural Māori or Crown land without legal title. Runholders with large land holdings were also known as squatters or broad-acre men. Land rings were groups of land speculators – sometimes called land grabbers if they were particularly greedy. Grass thieves deliberately grazed their sheep on another person’s run.
The importance of hard labour for clearing land and developing farms is suggested by the number of words formed from the verb ‘snig’, meaning to drag. In some areas, loads for dragging were called snigs. A snig track was a path where a load could be dragged, and a snig chain was a heavy metal chain used for pulling objects.
Before they established their farms, new settlers often lived in bark or raupō whares (huts made of bark or bulrush), or V-huts (dwellings shaped like an inverted V).
North Island farmers often had to contend with thick forest, known as bush, which had to be cleared. A vast number of terms developed around the word ‘bush’ – including bushman (a logger of native forest) and bush shirt (a woollen shirt, often worn by forest workers).
In some areas, fields were called burns – a term that derived from the burning of bush before developing pasture. A farm might have fields called the back burn or the new burn.
The new farmers soon acquired status and influence. Early writings are littered with terms such as cattle barons, cattle kings, fleece kings, flockmasters, land barons, mutton lords, sheep lords, shepherd kings, wool kings, wool lords and wool barons. Farmers were described as reigning over their butterdoms, cow kingdoms, dairydoms, ferndoms, sheepdoms, shepherd dynasties, tussockdoms and kingdoms in the hills.
Scab was a troublesome 19th-century sheep disease, spread by a mite that caused skin irritation. It gave rise to some distinctive terms – such as the verb ‘to scab’ (to inspect sheep for scab). The need to control the disease led to the terms clean certificate (which confirmed a property’s freedom from scab), travelling certificate (required before the farmer could drove a flock), and scab inspector or sheep inspector (officials who inspected flocks for signs of the disease).
Some place names are associated with washing sheep – including Dipton, Washdyke, Washpool, Washpen and Woolwash.
Sheep also developed bentleg or bowie (extreme outward bowing of the front legs), crutching cramp (a muscular disorder) and hairy shaker disease (a disorder of newborn lambs). Bush sickness was a condition where stock wasted away because of a lack of cobalt in the soil. It was also known as the skinnies, a graphic description of the symptoms, and Hope disease, Morton Mains disease and Tauranga disease, after locations in Nelson, Southland, and the Bay of Plenty where it occurred.
Other diseases are named after the area where they were first found or became common. These include Mairoa dopiness (a sheep disease caused by lime deficiency in soil), Southland pneumonia, Waihī disease (a cattle disease caused by phosphate deficiency) and Winton disease (a stock disease due to ragwort poisoning).
The kea, a native mountain parrot, often attacked sheep, pecking at the fat around their kidneys. Its ravages spawned the terms ‘kea’d’ and ‘to kea’, as well as ‘flag’ and ‘flagged’ (a flagged sheep has torn, flapping wool pulled from its back). People were employed to hunt and kill keas, using a shotgun modified for the purpose, known as a kea gun.
Some weed names related to places. Waikato dandruff is a colloquial term for pasture weeds. A plant poisonous to stock, Pimelea prostrata, is known as Strathmore weed after the place in Taranaki where it first became a problem. The origins of other names are more obscure. Mother Cameron’s weed is another name for St John’s wort, also poisonous to some livestock. Tutu, another toxic plant, gave rise to a new verb, to tutu, and the adjective tutu’d, meaning poisoned. Farmers also coined terms for the crushing and eating of fern and other weeds by farm stock – including fern-crushing, hoof-and-tooth treatment, mob-stocking, and stuff-and-starve.
An 1889 poem by George P. Williams titillated readers with its suggestive references to some well-known prickly plants:
Let no Spaniard, ruthless, fierce,
Through her dainty stockings pierce,
Nor the crooked Irishman
Who will prick her if he can. 1
Farmers and travellers were challenged by thorny, pasture-inhibiting plants such as black scrub, tea-tree scrub (mānuka) or wild Irishman (matagouri), and the prickly Spaniard, taramea.
New settlers would have been intrigued by Lady Barker’s comments in her book Station amusements in New Zealand (1873): ‘Especially detrimental to riding habits were wild Irishmen …’, and ‘From time to time we fell into and over Spaniards, and what was left of our clothes and our flesh the wild Irishman devoured.’ 2
Weather has often been a source of hardship for farmers, who talk about it in terms that suggest a wry and stoic outlook. Understatements, such as the big dry, the big wet or the big snow, are used to describe droughts, floods and snowstorms. Sheep can be so wet that ‘frogs jump out of the wool’, land can be so dry that ‘rabbits have to take a cut lunch’, or stock simply have to ‘survive on stones and scenery’.
In the 19th century sheep farming dominated agriculture, and with it, conversation. Not surprisingly, a wide vocabulary relating to sheep farming emerged.
High country farms – usually large sheep runs in the South Island’s mountainous tussock country – are distinctive to New Zealand. The vocabulary which evolved within and around the high country has helped to maintain its iconic status, which is similar to that of the Australian outback or the Canadian prairies.
Some high-altitude landforms acquired vivid names, including:
A paddock is usually a lowland area used for breeding animals, as opposed to higher-altitude ‘hills’ or ‘blocks’, where store stock (stock ready for fattening) are grazed. Paddock shepherds and hill shepherds have distinct roles – one former musterer explained: ‘[T]he paddock men mustered paddocks, the hill men like me mustered hill country.’ 1 High-country farmers usually speak of being on or off the hill – rather than going up or down the slopes.
Run plans or retirement plans are conservation plans for large properties, especially where the land is leased from the Crown. In the late 20th century, high-country landholders were encouraged to develop these plans for their land.
Hill country farms (on mainly hilly or steep land) are found throughout New Zealand. Their terrain might include gullies (small, deep, steeply-sided valleys), pakihis (wet, poorly-drained land) and taipos (dangerous rivers – from a Māori word meaning goblin or demon).
The challenges of this type of terrain led to the invention of implements such as the hustler (a type of harrow, dragged over soil to break it down), the hillsider or hillside plough (a single furrow reversible plough), the swamp plough (designed to deal with sloping or heavy ground), and the tree-dozer (a bulldozer that could knock down trees and push the debris into a stack).
New Zealand dairy farmers have long been known as cow-cockies, a term with Australian origins. Cocky is short for cockatoo, a name for a small farmer – and earlier for a convict. Dairy farmers are also known as gumbooters after their rubber boots.
The dairying areas of Taranaki and Southland lend their names to some terms. A Taranaki gate is a widely used makeshift gate, while the Taranaki salute means the shaking of dung from gumboots and Taranaki topdressing is dung. Gumboots are sometimes called Southland slippers.
More than 20 alternatives have been recorded for the word ‘muster’, which was first used to describe stock-gathering in 1841. There are a variety of vivid terms to describe musterers, including dog driver, hill man, dog-walloper and mutton puncher.
The terms scree-scrambler and tussock jumper allude to the physical obstacles facing musterers in their pursuit of sheep, while gullyraker refers to the need to search gullies and awkward places for lost animals.
The tool of the trade is the mustering-stick, otherwise referred to as a hillpole, hill-stick, dog-flogger, or rākau (Māori for stick). Mutton chops, the usual breakfast fare, are known as hockey sticks, a reference to their shape, or 365s, because of their constant presence on the menu.
In recent years, heli-mustering (using a helicopter to herd sheep) often replaces the hard labour of mustering on horseback.
Musterers from the Nelson or Golden Bay area were called sandyhookers after Sandyhook, a nickname for the sickle-shaped Farewell Spit.
High country mustering has generated many words and phrases. Musterers occupy a bottom, middle or top beat, a reference to the altitude of the area they work on. On a top beat, they might be on marrowbone country – areas too steep for horses. Amongst various dangers, musterers must avoid a smother of sheep, where the animals suffocate in a panicking mob.
High country musterers can be thwarted by weather conditions such as fog-belts (low fog) and blue ducks (days when rain or fog prevents mustering). They must watch out for storms signalled by distinctively shaped hogsback or nor’west arch clouds. They wear protective lammies (raincoats, usually sleeveless), skins or snow leggings (oilskin leggings), and swannies (short for Swanndri, a heavy woollen knee-length shirt). These outdoor garments are especially welcome when snow-raking (rescuing stock from snowdrifts).
In early days, shearing was carried out in a bough shed (a makeshift shelter of tree branches). Shearers who shear roughly, cutting the sheep, are dubbed butchers or smallgoods men (smallgoods are meat byproducts). Those who clip so closely that the skin can be seen through the wool are described as pinkers. If they shear far from the skin, they are said to work ‘up in the branches’ and are told to get ‘closer to the roots’.
Shearers object strongly when sheep are shandygaffed – when sheep with wet wool are mixed with others with dry wool. Shandygaff was a combination of beer and ginger beer, and the name was applied to any unsatisfactory mixture.
Hand blades have a variety of names, including jingling johnnies (perhaps describing the way the blades jingled as itinerant shearers walked from farm to farm) and tongs (probably from the scissor action shared by tongs and shears). High country sheep are still shorn with blades, or with machine snow combs or cover combs, which leave sufficient wool as protection against the elements. A blade gang is a team of shearers who shear with hand blades.
Snags, glue pots and gummies (sheep with sticky wool) are difficult to shear. They are likely to be the last animals shorn from a pen, so they are known as cobblers (a punning reference to a cobbler’s last, a shoemaker’s pattern). The last sheep shorn is also called a snob (a slang term for a cobbler) or kapara (a Māori transliteration of cobbler).
Cows were first milked in the field or, later, in a walk-through cowshed. In time, types of cowsheds evolved with names such as herringbone (where the milker works centrally between two queues of cows) and angle-park (where the cows stand at an angle to the milker). Dairy farmers are sometimes called herringboners.
The cream stand was a stand, usually at the farm gate, holding cream cans for collection.
Farm animals feature in expressions referring to human experiences. ‘As black as the inside of a cow’ describes something that is very dark, while to be ‘as crook as a dog’ is to be very sick. ‘As lonely as a hermit sheep in scrub’ recalls the solitary habits of a sheep away from the mob. Anything difficult or hindering progress is ‘a fair cow’.
Over 150 terms have been recorded for sheep. Ewes have been known by affectionate or familiar names such as auntie, career girl, dolly, granny, jinny, mamma mia, or old girl.
Before effective fences were built, many sheep escaped the watchful eyes of boundary shepherds who patrolled sheep run boundaries to keep stock from straying off a property, often watching from crow’s nests (platforms on poles or up cabbage trees). Over time, some stray sheep bred in the wild and developed distinctive characteristics. They were named after the areas where they lived: Arapawas, Diggers Hills, Hokonuis, Mohakas and Omahakis.
From the 19th century, distinctive New Zealand sheep breeds were developed. Some were named after the geneticists and researchers who bred them – the Coopdale, Coopworth, Drysdale and Perendale were named for Ian Coop, F. W. Dry and Geoffrey Peren. The Corriedale and Tukidale are named after the place of breeding – Corriedale was an estate in North Otago, and Tukituki in Hawke’s Bay was the place where the Tukidale originated. Some are combinations of existing breed names – Borderdales are a cross between Border Leicester and Corriedale sheep, while Romdales are crosses of Romneys and Perendales. The Carpetmaster and Growbulk breeds have names that describe the type of wool produced.
Some terms have very different meanings for farmers and city dwellers. On the farm, a double-decker is a sheep that has missed at least one shearing, a station line is a station-bred group of livestock of the same age and breed, and a straight black is a pure-bred Aberdeen Angus cattle beast. Diamonds and crowns are diamond-shaped stock yards with a race at each end and four pens opening from the centre.
There are more than 150 terms for New Zealand sheepdogs. An eye dog, sometimes called a heading dog, controls sheep by a stare. Colloquial terms for dogs include thistle peeper, flea taxi and gravel-scraper (a dog which makes a lot of noise but has little effect). A powder puff is a flighty, noisy, ineffectual dog, often a huntaway. Problem dogs include the chiseller, which worries sheep, and the Sunday dog, a lazy worker. Boundary dogs, also known as dog shepherds, fence dogs and gate dogs, are chained on the boundary of a run to prevent sheep straying.
Sheepdog trials have become a tradition, with many specialised terms. Heading dog competitions are called long heads, and the course itself is the heading hill. The competing shepherd stands in a position known as the casting pole, and sends the dog out from an area called the quad. The sheep are herded back there, or into a hook, an open enclosure on the field. Slippers are officials who release the sheep. The shepherd directs the dog towards the string, the place where the sheep stand, and attempts to avoid a blowout, where the sheep move completely outside the course. When the competition is over, the sheep are kept in the spent pen until it is time to send them to their home property.
On hill-country farms, animals were often contained by fences – in early days, made from whatever material was available. A dog-legged fence was made of sticks and branches held together by their own crookedness. Ponga fences were made of the native tree fern. Stab, stick and stake fences consisted of upright stakes lashed together.
Now most fences are made of wood and wire. These need support, sometimes provided in hill country by a bedlog or deadman (a half-post dug into the ground to support a strainer or corner fencepost). Pigtails (fence standards with a curled top to hold a wire or tape), treadins (narrow graduated metal fence posts used in temporary fencing) and tumblewheels (wheel-like devices for feeding out electric fences) are labour-saving New Zealand inventions. Cattle stops (wooden or metal bars over a pit at a gate) are another way to contain stock.
From early days, arrangements were developed for hiring stock and paying for land. Thirds was a system of flock-sharing where an owner put his sheep into the care of a station owner who received a third of the wool and lambs in lieu of rent for grazing. Sharemilking was working another person’s dairy farm for a share of the profits, sometimes owning part of the herd. Grass money was paid to Māori for the right to graze sheep on their land, while thistle money was a government allowance claimed by settlers developing land in some regions.
Blocks of farmland large enough to be a viable business proposition became known as economic units. Those that failed to make a profit were referred to as being on marginal country or marginal land.
Diversification into agri-tourism (attracting travellers to farming areas), farmstays (providing accommodation and farm experience to tourists) and farm forestry (combining livestock grazing and forestry) are recent economic ventures. Farming wives can often no longer act as just jobbers (on-call farm helpers) but must earn an income off-farm.
The Kiko goat was bred in New Zealand in the 1980s for meat production. The Māori word kiko means flesh or meat.
Changes in farming have led to new types of work; increasingly there are advertisements for herd managers (who manage large dairy herds), farm technicians (who record and analyse production data) and equity managers (sharemilkers on corporate dairy properties). However some farm jobs have remained the same over time. For instance, positions continue to be advertised for single shepherds, shepherds-general (who also do fencing and tractor work), married men (labourers who live with their wives in married accommodation), and head shepherds (stock managers next in line to the farm manager).
Farmers are still collectively referred to as the backbone of the country, alluding to their importance as economic producers.
In the 19th century, lamb was one of the few meats available, and was sometimes rolled, stuffed and called colonial goose to suggest variety. Overseas market expectations and concern for healthy diets have been responsible for rebranding a fat lamb (a lamb in peak condition ready for slaughter) as a prime lamb. Although a report in the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture predicted in 1984 that the words ‘fat lamb’ were likely to become very unpopular with farmers, the expression is still used, along with the terms prime and finished. Prime cows and sheep are still known simply as fats, and overfats (overweight animals) are presented for sale in saleyards.
A significant date in the New Zealand rural calendar is Gypsy Day – 1 June, the day that many dairy farm staff and herds move to new properties.
Farmers have used initiative and ingenuity to develop products with inventive names. Shoof is a blend of shoe and hoof, meaning a protective animal slipper; a smitch is an invention that allows an irrigator to be switched on or off by telephone; and a woolover is an animal cover. Cashgora (a blend of fine goat hair and mohair), cervelt (deer down fibre), flax-fur (flax fibre combined with possum fur), and perino (merino wool combined with possum fur) are fibre products. Cervena is a New Zealand term for farmed venison.
Baker, Sidney J. New Zealand slang: a dictionary of colloquialisms. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1941.
Bardsley, Dianne. ‘The rural New Zealand English lexicon 1842–2002.’ PhD diss., Victoria University of Wellington, 2003.
Orsman, H. W., ed. The dictionary of New Zealand English: a dictionary of New Zealandisms on historical principles. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.