Story: English language in New Zealand

Page 1. Characteristics of New Zealand English

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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 is the predominant and de facto official language of New Zealand. Te reo Māori (the Māori language) and New Zealand Sign Language are recognised as official languages. 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 Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) levy increases.

Taking a tiki tour

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 all 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 much of the South Island.

How to cite this page:

Dianne Bardsley, 'English language in New Zealand - Characteristics of New Zealand English', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Dianne Bardsley, published 5 Sep 2013