Story: Rural language

Page 3. Settling the land

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Acquiring land

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

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.

Clearing the bush

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.

Kings of the land

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.

How to cite this page:

Dianne Bardsley, 'Rural language - Settling the land', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Dianne Bardsley, published 24 Nov 2008