Story: Rural language

New Zealand’s farming heritage has always been a rich source of colourful language. Ewes are sometimes referred to as dollies, grannies and career girls; dogs as powder puffs and flea taxis; and musterers as mutton punchers, dog-wallopers and scree-scramblers.

Story by Dianne Bardsley
Main image: ‘The colonial adjective’

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

From the early days of European settlement, rural New Zealanders developed a distinctive vocabulary. New Zealand’s landscapes, plants and animals were very different from Britain’s. Settlers needed new words to describe them, and to talk about life in their new home.

Māori words

Settlers often used Māori words, sometimes pronouncing and spelling them in an English way, or changing the meanings:

  • mōkihi (a raft made of flax or raupō) was changed to moki or moggy
  • piripiri (a plant with sticky seeds) became biddy-bid or bidi-bidi
  • whata (a storehouse on posts) became futtah
  • taipo (a goblin or devil) came to mean a difficult horse – or a dangerous river.

Huts and shelters were often called whare (the Māori word for house).

Settling the land

The rush to settle the land led to the terms land boom, earth hunger, land fever and run-hunting.

Thick forest was called bush, and led to many terms, like bushman (who worked in the bush) and bush telegraph (passing on information by word of mouth). Bush was cleared by burning, so farm fields were sometimes known as burns.

Farmers were sometimes called cattle kings, flockmasters and mutton lords. They ruled over butterdoms, sheepdoms, and kingdoms in the hills.

Problems

Farming problems led to new words, such as:

  • kea’d – a sheep attacked by kea (native mountain parrots)
  • Spaniards and wild Irishmen – prickly plants
  • tutu’d – poisoned by tutu, a toxic plant.

Farmers talk about weather in understated ways – calling a drought ‘the big dry’, or a flood ‘the big wet’. Sheep can be so wet that ‘frogs jump out of the wool’, and land can be so dry that ‘rabbits have to take a cut lunch’.

Farming jobs

Dairy farmers are often called cow-cockies, from the Australian word cocky (short for cockatoo), or gumbooters after their rubber boots.

Musterers, who herd sheep in the high country, are known as hill men, dog-wallopers, mutton punchers and tussock jumpers.

Shearers who shear roughly are called butchers or smallgoods men.

Animals

Sheep are called many different names. Ewes are known by friendly names like auntie, career girl, dolly, granny or mamma mia. Sheep with sticky wool are snags, glue pots and gummies.

Sheepdogs can be called eye dogs (which control sheep by staring), powder puffs (noisy, useless dogs) or Sunday dogs (lazy workers). They are also called flea taxis and thistle peepers.

How to cite this page:

Dianne Bardsley, 'Rural language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rural-language (accessed 25 September 2018)

Story by Dianne Bardsley, published 24 Nov 2008