Looking west, late afternoon, low tide

I was recently asked to give a floor talk at the Adam Art Gallery about John Reynolds’ work, Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Tide (2007). Fortunately the talk was about the content of the work, not a chance to fake being an art historian!

The work is made up of 1,174 small canvases, each with a word or phrase of Māori origin taken from the late Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997). It’s an impressive work, and one that certainly has the wow factor.

But what to say about it?

It seemed like a good opportunity to rehearse the history of the Māori lexical presence in NZ EnglishLooking west 3, and to draw on illustrative examples from the work. Pa, for example, is a good demonstration of a Māori word that entered English at the beginning of contact between the two languages, and their speakers. You can imagine how pa were a distinctive feature of the landscape that Cook and his crew were encountering in 1769, and how they needed to know the name for these fortified structures.

But other examples meant drawing on the resources of the NZ Dictionary Centre. Whaler’s Māori, as one example, was the jargon learned by whalers who, when European settlement began to take off, proved invaluable linguistic bridges between monolingual communities, in the process introducing Māori words into English speakers’ lexicons.

And preparing this talk also gave me new opportunities to learn. One word, for instance, had leapt out at me. Nookie. Surely not a Māori word? Had John Reynolds made a mistake?

But nookie, it turns out, comes from noke, meaning small. And so it came to be used in NZE as a nickname for short – or perhaps tall! – people.

Such are the delightful discoveries found through exploring a dictionary based on historical principles.

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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