Influentials: Uniquely New Zealand phrases

by The Listener / 17 September, 2013
We are deluged by English from America and England and Australia, but a few phrases are our own.
In the coming weeks the Listener will spotlight The Influentials, those people, events and cultural forces that sway our opinions and our very lives. There’s no way any list can be absolutely comprehensive, so we’d love to find out the influences you believe have shaped and continue to shape New Zealand in 2013. Please leave a comment below.

Deep in a Marrakesh souk, we were cornered by a man who had much the energy and persistence of the ex-leper in Life of Brian. “Hello. German? Guten tag … Bonjour? Non? Australian? Gidday.” New Zealand, he was told. “Ah!” he cried triumphantly. “Kia ora!”

Tui: a vocal New Zealander. Photo/Thinkstock

We are deluged by English from America and England and Australia, and seldom get much chance to push back. But a few phrases are uniquely our own. Maori is native to this land, and some of its words are welcome tauiwi to New Zealand English. Dozens of te reo terms have made the move, snuggling down into small gaps of meaning or nudging older, duller words aside. Aroha means more than love, koha more than gift. Whanau has been appropriated and whaangai has been, well, adopted as the local term for a practice that has gone on everywhere, for centuries, from time to time. All of us here, Maori and not, try not to do things half-pai, hightail it to the gym if our puku is getting out of hand, have an idea of our turangawaewae, know how to organise a hui, don't mind a bit of a tiki tour.

But what of words that didn't come from te reo? Phrases that have become so universal they feel ours alone? Maybe even spread beyond these shores?


A pause for thought, an equivocation, perhaps agreement to a negative question somewhat akin to “si” in French. It probably doesn't even deserve a comma, such is the ready stride of the phrase.


A phrase that strikes terror in the hearts of the punctual and punctilious up and down the country.



Never meant literally, as those little signs in Paris do rudely to stop you wearing out the turf with your disgusting foreign shoes, but only ever the equivalent to “Get real!”


The dictionary definition for New Zealand would go on for several columns.


Likewise, a word of many meanings and uses. Taken to heart here more than probably anywhere else.


Attributed to Truby King, founder of Plunket, though he possibly adapted the phrase from an English temperance activist. King's attributed line, in regard to preventing the deaths of infants, was “It is better to put a fence at the top of the cliff than to station an ambulance at the bottom. It is the equivalent of “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

What are your favourite Kiwi terms? Which ones do you hate? Leave a comment below. We'd like to hear from you.
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