Saturday, May 14, 2011

Words, Words, Words

While culturally I have found few major differences between the United States and New Zealand, linguistically I may as well be speaking a foreign language here. When I was teaching English in France, I co-taught with a woman from England (a dear friend now), and once one of the students asked us if we spoke the same language. We just laughed. Here, not a day goes by that I do not learn a new word.

The woman who so graciously allowed me to stay with her upon my arrival (only for 3 weeks longer than she had originally planned), and who will soon be gracing the United States (specifically Iowa) with her presence, let me borrow a book called A Kiwi-American dictionary. It was slightly, okay very, outdated, but it was hilarious. I reckon the time has come for me to share some of what I have learned – the top 10 kiwi words and phrases!

1.     Reckon – there is nothing inherently funny about the word reckon, but notice it in the sentence above. To an American, saying “I reckon” sounds a wee bit more proper than we would like. It sounds like Jon Stewart making fun of Queen Elizabeth. In kiwiland, I heard an 8-year-old say it . . . with a straight face!!
2.     Wee – wee simply means small here, as in “a wee bit.” Here, it seems everyone says it all the time. And they say it without the use of “bit” after it. Thus, a wee nap is a proper use of the word.
3.     Kiwi / kiwi / kiwifruit – now this just gets confusing. To an American, a kiwi is something you eat. Here, that would get you put in prison, either for killing an endangered bird or for cannibalism. A Kiwi is a person who lives here, a nickname of sorts for the folks who live in New Zealand. At first I was embarrassed to use it, but people here actually do use the word. Cool, eh? A kiwi is a small flightless bird. New Zealand used to be full of flightless birds because there were no predator mammals (the only native mammal in New Zealand is one species of bat). The kiwi is now incredibly endangered, and most people can only see them in wildlife reserves – my parents saw some when they were here. The kiwifruit? Well, that’s the fruit. They are gorgeous here (and by gorgeous I mean the taste, not the sight – that’s a kiwism as well). See my problem? It just gets so confusing!!
4.     Zed – Ok, ok, it’s not really a word, but it is the last letter of the alphabet. The friendly friends to the north of the United States understand this one, but to those of us from that middle country of North America, this is an odd way to end the alphabet, especially when banks are called ANZ (pronounced A-N-Zed) and when you say X-Y-Z (pronounced X-Y-Zed). We knew we had been spending too much time in the Future Partners Forum when I was talking and said X-Y-Zed and shortly thereafter one of our kiwi friends said X-Y-Zee. None of us knew where we were, which I guess was sort of the point of the partnership – finding new ways to get along. Let’s start with the last letter of the alphabet and move forward from there.
5.     False friends – rooting and rubber. These may not be good in a Top 10 list, but they must be mentioned. Luckily I had been forewarned. In New Zealand, rooting means something very different than in the States. It means sex. Thus, you do not root for a team, and you certainly do not root around in your trunk for something you lost, especially because here, the trunk of a car is called the boot. And a rubber? Well, that is just an eraser, but something we must all warn the kiwis not to request in general public in the United States.  
6.     Sweet as! – used as an exclamation, as in “Sweet as!” There are simply no words to explain this. It just is . . . sweet as!
7.     Sorted – “Have you got your flatting situation sorted?” Does this make any sense to an American? Try that being one of the first things you hear upon entering a country. I thought I did not understand French when I got there, but then I came to a country where they do not speak American. Sorted is just “to sort out,” but they use it here far more frequently. You get parking tickets sorted and plans sorted, etc. Luckily, I have met amazing people here, so my flatting situation is sorted until the end of my time here.
8.     Cheers – often used in conjunction with “mate,” as in “cheers, mate.” Of course, mate it often saved for one’s actual mates. Thus, cheers can simply mean thanks. What a wonderful word that never ceases to make me smile.
9.     Keen – This is a verb, as in “I’m keen to go on a hike out to the Peninsula.” In fact, my actual response was, “I’m hella keen.” I figure it’s time to meld some phrasing while I’m here. And yes, everyone says it here, just like reckon. They do not, however, say hella – but I can hope, right?
10. Good on you! – this is, by far, my favorite kiwi phrase. Oh, does it appear everywhere meaning “good for you,” sort of. It just seems to work for all situations where you want to tell someone that they are doing a good thing for the world.

So, do we speak the same language? I have begun to understand kiwi English, and what is scarier, I have begun to speak like them. I reckon that will help me fit in better here, but it will be difficult to get my life sorted when I get back to the States if I forget how to talk like a Yankee. There are far more words I can share, but for now, that will do. 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. enjoyed the Kiwi lesson, and yes the people, and the flightless bird, were both great.

  2. The way I had "sweet as" explained to me is that you shorten "sweet as hell" or something - it works for all sorts of expressions, like "mad as...", "hot as...". :)

    My favorite was when I mispronounced the name of the biggest bookstore chain in Australia, Dymocks (I said die-mocks, it's dim-micks) and my friends looked confused and then laughed. I said, "Oh geez, what did I do now?" Many more things like that happened over the months :)

  3. Haha classic! What a great post :-) Choice as.