Words from the land of the long white cloud: New Zealand English additions to the OED

Words from the land of the long white cloud: New Zealand English additions to the OED

In its latest update, the OED is putting the spotlight on the country that its first inhabitants, the Māori people, originally called Aotearoa—the land of the long white cloud—as the dictionary deepens its coverage of New Zealand English by adding 47 new entries.

This batch of new words includes Kiwi expressions of general usage such as after-ball (first recorded in 1883), a noun referring to an event, especially a party, that takes place after a ball, later specifically a party arranged and attended by students following a ball that has been officially organized by their school; chur (1997), an interjection similar to ‘cheers!’, used colloquially to express good wishes on meeting or departing, or to express thanks, approval, etc.; flat stick (1970), an adverb applied to actions done as quickly as possible or at top speed; and Kiwiness (1967), a noun signifying the quality or fact of being from New Zealand and to characteristics regarded as typical of New Zealand or New Zealanders.

However, most of the words in this latest update are borrowings from Māori – or te reo – one of New Zealand’s official languages. The Māori renaissance that began in the 1970s has seen Māori language and culture moving from the margins to the centre of national life in New Zealand, and this is reflected in the substantial number of Māori words that have become part of the vocabulary of both Māori and Pakeha (non-Māori) speakers of English, several of which are now making it into the OED for the first time.

The oldest word of Māori origin in this update is whenua: land or a piece of land, especially a Māori person’s or group’s native land. Its use in English can be traced back to the late 18th century, being first attested in Captain James Cook’s journals in an entry dated 31 January 1770. A few other words in this batch are similarly used in Māori contexts to denote concepts relating to Māori land ownership, autonomy, and sovereignty. A rohe (seen earliest in 1942)is a Māori tribal area or tribal boundary. Rangatiratanga (1845) originally meant chieftainship or nobility, but it later also came to signify self-determination and the right of Māori people to rule themselves. Tino rangatiratanga (1860) also refers to this right to self-governance and to political control by Māori people over Māori affairs. The expression comes from a combination of the Māori words tino ‘true, real, best’ and rangatiratanga ‘self-government’.

The word turangawaewae, first attested in 1968, and its English equivalent, standing place, seen earliest in 2000, means ‘a place where one belongs or has established right of residence; a foothold, a home base’; as well as the sense of identity and independence associated with such a place. Kaupapa, recorded earliest in 1847, originally referred to a Māori canoe, but that sense is long obsolete. The word has been used since at least 1983 to mean a policy or philosophy, and also a proposal, plan, or programme based on Māori principles.

In 2021, the OED published an entry for kaitiakitanga, a loanword from Māori that was originally used in Māori contexts but has now entered general usage, particularly in discussions of the legal obligation of states to protect the environment. It means guardianship or management, especially of the natural resources of a place or area. It can also mean environmental stewardship considered as a duty of the inhabitants of an area. Kaitiakitanga is now joined in the OED by a related word, kaitiaki (first attested 1906), which refers to a guardian or steward, especially of the natural resources of an environment or place.

This responsibility of care guides the way that Māori relate to the environment and motivates them to take steps to preserve ecological systems, with such practices as rahui (seen earliest 1832), a formal or ritualized prohibition against entering an area or undertaking an activity, typically enacted temporarily in order to protect a resource.

Several nouns in this current OED update refer to Māori beliefs and customs, and to Māori concepts of community and kinship:

  • kaumatua (1835) – a senior member of the community, an elder; (more generally) any older person, a senior citizen.
  • iwi (first attested in 1843) – an extended Māori kinship group or community, sharing distant common ancestors.
  • kehua (1839) – the spirit of a dead person; a ghost.
  • kuia (1855) – an elderly woman, especially one who is regarded as a senior member of a family or community; (also) one’s grandmother (frequently as a familiar or affectionate form of address).
  • maunga (1890) – a mountain, especially viewed as a site of cultural and spiritual significance.
  • moko kauae (1926) – a traditional Māori chin tattoo worn by women as a symbol of rank and status; (also) a pattern used in such a tattoo.
  • pepeha (1863) – a statement by which a Māori group or tribe declares its identity and association with a particular place and ancestral people; (now also) such a statement used to introduce oneself, typically including one’s name, place of origin, and tribal connections.
  • powhiri (1867) – a Māori welcoming ceremony.
  • rangatahi (1971) – young people collectively; youth.
  • tamaiti (1857) – a child.
  • tamariki (1814) – children.
  • tuakana (1843) – a boy or man’s elder brother, or a girl or woman’s elder sister; also: a cousin of the same gender from a more senior branch of a person’s family; (in extended use) a mentor or guide.
  • wahine toa (1902) – a female warrior; (in extended use) any strong or brave woman.
  • whanau (1917) – a family or community of related families, typically living together in the same area; (in extended use) any group regarded as a community, or as having shared interests.
  • wairua (1819) – a person’s soul or spirit; (also as a mass noun) spirituality.
  • e hoa (1880) – as a form of address: friend, mate.
  • e hoa ma (1881) – as a form of address to a group of people: friends, mates.

Other New Zealand English expressions of Māori origin included in the current update are waka ama‘(originally) a Māori outrigger canoe; (later) a canoe of this type used for recreation or sport; (also) the sport itself; outrigger canoe racing’; koha, ‘a gift; an offering, donation, or contribution’; wharekai,‘the building in a Māori settlement or community in which food is served and eaten; a dining hall’; and wharenui, ‘a large central building, usually carved and decorated, where assemblies take place’.

It is not just nouns that have been absorbed from Māori into English. Ae (1832)is an adverb used to indicate assent, equivalent to yes. English borrowed the Māori word korero not only as a noun, meaning a talk, conversation, or discussion, but also as a verb, used intransitively with the sense ‘to talk, to speak, or to hold a discussion’, as well as transitively with the meaning ‘to speak the Māori language’. The word taihoa (first recorded in 1842) was initially borrowed as an interjection expressing that someone should be patient or that something will occur in due course, like ‘wait a moment!’ or ‘hang on!’, but it subsequently developed a noun usage in the sense ‘delay, postponement, or procrastination’ and an intransitive verb usage in the sense ‘to delay or postpone action; to procrastinate or wait; to proceed carefully’.

A close look at the quotations that illustrate the words in this update shows the ways in which Māori elements have become integrated into New Zealand English vocabulary. In the case of the word koha, for instance, the earliest evidence that OED editors could find of its usage in English was in Keri Hulme’s 1984 novel The Bone People, a work known for its liberal use of Māori words and phrases. Just a little over ten years later, the Wellington Evening Post informed its readers that admission to a museum was ‘by koha’. This use of the word without italicization or an accompanying translation indicates that koha in the sense of a voluntary donation was a word of sufficient currency among the paper’s general readership even in 1995.

Māori words borrowed into English also take on some of the receiving language’s morphological features, like the verb korero, which as early as 1909 was already being used with the –ed past-tense suffix—something that continues in current New Zealand English. More than a hundred years later, in September 2012, Twitter user @SeanPatrick posted the rueful tweet, ‘I shouldn’t have koreroed so much in Māori class’.

Several quotations in this batch include multiple Māori expressions, such as a quotation in the entry for e hoa, taken from the 20 May 2021 issue of the New Zealand Herald, which cites a note sent by Finance Minister Grant Robertson to Labour MP Kiri Allan: “Kia ora e hoa, we are missing you here today but I can feel your wairua and aroha from here”.

It is clear that te reo has had a profound and lasting impact on English in New Zealand. The OED will record even more Māori contributions to the lexicon as it continues to monitor the evolution of English in this part of the world.

The OED is grateful to Prof John Macalister of Victoria University of Wellington for his work as the dictionary’s consultant on the etymology of Māori words used in New Zealand English.

To learn more about New Zealand English in the OED, visit the New Zealand page of the OED World English Hub. There you can read the blog post, ‘Introduction to New Zealand English’ by Dr Elizabeth Gordon, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury. You can also read this blog post by Dr Matthew Moreland, the OED’s Senior Consultant Phonetics Editor, on describing the pronunciation of Māori-origin words in New Zealand English.

View a list of New Zealand words added to the OED in the March 2023 update here.

View a list of newly revised New Zealand English entries in the March 2023 update here.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.