Story: English language in New Zealand

Page 3. The development of New Zealand English

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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.

  1. Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand. Golden Press: Auckland, 1975, pp.131–132 (originally published in 1845). Back
How to cite this page:

Dianne Bardsley, 'English language in New Zealand - The development of New Zealand English', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Dianne Bardsley, published 5 Sep 2013