(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 17.)
Some of the silliest things get on my nerves. Words, for example.Reading my paper the other day, I came across the word “lorry”. The story in question – about Greenpeace activists who used a truck to get access to Britain’s tallest building, which they then climbed to protest against oil exploration in the Arctic – was sourced from a British newspaper, The Times.
In The Times, “lorry” is perfectly acceptable. It’s a word peculiar to the version of English spoken in Britain, so would be familiar to that paper’s readers. But what on earth was it doing in a New Zealand publication?I vaguely recall occasionally hearing, as a child, people of my parents’ generation speaking of lorries, but even then it was rare. Today it seems as archaic as the once-common practice of referring to Britain as “home”.
It must be decades since I heard the word used in conversation. Many younger New Zealanders probably have no idea that a lorry is what we call a truck. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary (which is actually quite long) tells me it originally meant a low, flat wagon with no sides, although the word’s origins are obscure.My point is that “lorry” has no place in a New Zealand newspaper and should automatically be substituted with the local equivalent, which everyone knows and understands.
After harrumphing about this to my wife, who stoically endures my frequent rants about the misuse of the language, I turned the page of my paper and was immediately confronted by another word alien to New Zealand English: airplanes.This report came from the Washington Post. “Airplanes” is an American term, and just as out of place in a New Zealand paper as lorry. There are several alternatives: aircraft, airliner, plane or even aeroplane (which pedantic aviation types seem to prefer), all of which are in common New Zealand usage.
Either the subeditors who prepared these stories for publication couldn’t be bothered spending a few seconds making the necessary changes, or it just didn’t seem important enough to worry about. Perhaps it didn’t even occur to them that these are not words that New Zealanders use.Such indifference to language, by journalists of all people, bothers me.
Readers of this column may well think there are far more important things to get riled about than the appearance of non-New Zealand words in our news media, and of course they are right.But I could say the same about rugby fans who indulge in heated debates about whether Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett should be groomed as Dan Carter’s successor, or people who tweet their favourite cupcake recipes. We all have our little obsessions.
My excuse is that language is a vital expression of culture. That’s well recognised; just look at the millions of taxpayer dollars being spent each year in an attempt to ensure the survival of te reo Maori.Over the past 150 years, New Zealand has developed its own rich, colourful and often highly inventive vocabulary – a variant of the English language that’s uniquely ours.
I was reminded of this last week when I bought a copy of noted lexicographer Dianne Bardsley’s new book New Zealand Words. It includes expressions such as “away laughing”, “mates’ rates”, “pack a sad”, “perf”, “number eight wire”, “clobbering machine”, “Tiki tour” and “box of fluffies”.Many of these expressions would mystify outsiders but are instantly understood by us. Our language is one of the things that marks us as different, even from our near-neighbours the Australians (with whom we share many slang terms while simultaneously having an idiosyncratic vocabulary of our own).
If we value this distinctiveness, we should be prepared to man the barricades against linguistic intrusions from other variants of English; hence my chagrin at the use of words such as lorry and airplane.Interlopers like these are appearing more frequently, aided by globalisation and technology. We are being exposed more than ever to pervasive forms of English used elsewhere, such as in America.
Unfortunately, journalists are aiding and abetting this process. I cringe when I hear or read Americanisms such as “race car”, “swim meet”, “oftentimes” or “sail boat” used in local news media.I fear that the honourable word “track” – as in Milford Track – is at risk from the imported “trail”. Similarly, it may be only a matter of time before “tramper” becomes “hiker” to conform to American usage.
I worry that “cookies” and the ghastly “buddies” are making headway too, when “biscuits” and “mates” serve perfectly well.It’s not just Americanisms that irritate me. The English term “lads” – increasingly seen and heard locally, often in a sporting context – gets on my nerves too.
Why we seem so eager to adopt such terms, when there are long-established local equivalents, is a bit of a mystery. Presumably it has something to do with the desire to be seen as trend-setting.The French have been grappling with this problem for centuries. They even have an official institution, the Academie Francaise, whose function is to resist the advance of English.
This involves creating French equivalents of invasive English words such as email, software, chat and networking (note how many are related to the digital revolution). But it seems to be a losing battle, which serves to remind us how contagious language can be.In the meantime, of course, common-sense English is also under constant assault from silly neologisms. One of the most baffling – heard every time you fly – is the term “power off”, as in “please power off your electronic devices”. For heaven’s sake, what’s wrong with “switch”?
I know of teachers who work with severely disabled children whom they are instructed to refer to as “clients”. Similarly, it seems the word “pupils” is on the way out; schoolchildren are now routinely referred to as “students” regardless of age.It doesn’t help that dictionaries, which once laid down the law on proper English usage, are now descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words they simply reflect common usage, whether it’s right or wrong.
So there’s no authority to counteract the abusers of English; they are free to vandalise the language to their hearts’ content. But it would help if journalists, who should be protectors of the language, were not complicit in the process.