Friday, January 9, 2009

They're stealing our language

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 6.)

In recent weeks the Americanisms “cookie”, “race car” and “airplane” have appeared in local news and sport stories. These are alien words.

Speakers of New Zealand English would say “biscuit”, “racing car” and “plane” (or “aeroplane” if you want to be pedantic, as pilots tend to be). But like noxious introduced weeds, American terms are invading the linguistic landscape and threatening to render our distinctive form of English extinct.

We surrendered long ago to the silly term “swim meet” – “track meet” can’t be far behind – and I noted that a recent news report about an injured tramper said she had been pinned under a rock on the “trail”. Whatever happened to that good old Kiwi word “track”?

Television is often blamed for the Americanisation of New Zealand English, but I wonder if this latest aberration can be attributed to the popularity of mountain biking.

Off-road biking originated in California, where people ride on trails. As the activity gained a following in New Zealand, mountain bikers adopted American terminology. And because there’s a degree of crossover between mountain biking and tramping, particularly where they use the same routes, the word “trail” now seems to be spreading into the latter activity.

It’s probably only a matter of time before “trampers” become “hikers”, and another Kiwi-ism will have been lost.

Some Americanisms are now so embedded in the language that further resistance is futile. Hardly anyone goes to the pictures any more, still less the flicks; the conquest of the American word “movies” is total. And we may have passed the point where “G’day” could be rescued from the inexorable advance of the meaningless “Hi”.

To take a slightly more obscure example of how the language is changing, no one gets “rooked” any more by a greedy or unscrupulous business person (otherwise known as a “shyster”). No, you get ripped off – another Americanism.

But it’s not too late to salvage some of the threatened expressions that make New Zealand English so distinctive. “Dunny”, originally a Scottish word, seems safely off the endangered list, while “shag”, that evocative old term for sexual congress which I always assumed to be Australasian (though the dictionaries don’t confirm this), has been embraced internationally. “Crikey” is another comeback word, now securely ensconced as the name of a popular Australian media website.

Columnist Steve Braunias has revived that great old Kiwi word “rooster” – as in, “he’s an odd sort of rooster” – while TV host John Campbell has single-handedly done great work in making “bugger” acceptable. In Campbellese, “you silly buggers” is a term of endearment.

Perhaps we should institute a new award: Hero of Kiwi English First Class, perhaps, or Companion of the Honourable Order of Harry Orsman, in memory of the late, indefatigable collector of New Zealand slang.

* * *

THERE’S some very muddled thinking around which I can only attribute to over-indulgence during the holiday period.

Take the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. The usual voices are being raised in outrage and I heard an overwrought radio talkback host, his voice quavering with anger, comparing Israel with Nazi Germany. Talk about emotion triumphing over reason.

I’m no cheerleader for the Israeli government, but there’s a brutal logic in what it is doing. It’s saying to the Hamas fanatics: as long as you continue to fire rockets at our civilian population, we will respond one hundredfold.

What’s happening in Gaza, as with every situation in which innocent civilians are made to suffer for the actions of warmongers, is a tragedy. Hamas, however, could stop the bombs falling tomorrow if it abandoned its own attacks. It’s that simple.

Hamas chooses to continue, despicably using civilians to shelter its murderous terrorists, because it knows that thumb-sucking, hand-wringing sympathisers in the West – such as our radio talkback host – will assign all the responsibility for the carnage to Israel.

To paraphrase a famous line, the Hamas leaders are either extraordinarily thick or they are extraordinarily wicked, and I don’t think they are thick.

* * *

MUDDLED thinking Part II: the news media are under attack for highlighting the fact that Christchurch murder victim Mellory Manning (or “Mallory”, as female radio and TV reporters insist on calling her, in their squeaky, little-girl voices) was a prostitute. Journalists are being judgmental, the complainants say; Ms Manning’s occupation is irrelevant.

In fact Ms Manning’s occupation was as pertinent to the manner of her death as that of a pilot killed in a plane crash or a fisherman drowned at sea.

I don’t detect any suggestion by the media that her life was worth less because she earned her living on the street, and neither should there be. But the fact remains that if Ms Manning were a hairdresser, a service station attendant or a teacher, she would be alive today. Heaven protect the media from people who want the world reported as they think it should be, rather than as it is.


Ayrdale said...

"Thumb sucking hand wringers" are unfortunately in the ascendency as far as most of the media go. I agree, persistent Hamas rockets need to be treated like persistent nazi V1's and 2's. Massive response required.
Alternating between you, Chris Trotter and the lunatics at Tumeke almost seems like reading the DomPost again...

Anonymous said...

One "race car" related Americanism I hope we don't get as find it really annoying:

"Straight Away", or is it "Straightaway", instead of straight

kassto said...

Am fighting a never-ending war with my kids over the word ``cookie.'' I tell them they're not going to get one unless they use the proper word.
Another example is the ``candy'' bar at the movie theatre; and journalists here have taken to using the expression ``camp ground'' instead of ``camping ground.''