When I first moved to New Zealand, I thought it was going to be so much easier than moving to Spain.
As far as I was concerned, NOWHERE ON THE ENTIRE PLANET could have more red tape or be more difficult than Spain. And for the most part, I was right. New Zealand is not exactly a challenging destination, by any means.
First off, they speak English in New Zealand. Hey, I speak English too! How hard could it be?
Sigh. Really, I should know better by now, right?
It all started the first day I did laundry in my new house in Wellington. Or should I say my new “flat” since I am now in the Queen’s territory.
Pulling my clothes out of the washer, I asked my new “flatties,” “flatmates” aka roommates where I could hang them up to dry.
“Downstairs outside there’s a clothesline in the back of the house,” they told me, “and they’re pigs on the ground.”
Blinking, surely I heard them wrong. “Pigs? What do you mean ‘pigs’? Why are there pigs outside?” I asked.
Looking at me like I was insane, “PIGS! You know PIGS that you hang your clothes with. PIGS!” They all said in unison pinching their fingers together in motion.
“Oh my god, you mean PEGS.”
This was just the beginning of what would become a slippery slope downhill of me trying and failing to understand the New Zealand accent, slang and/or vernacular.
In general, I’d like to think I’m pretty apt at understanding other accents and languages. I’ve studied many languages and worked teaching and tutoring English. But sometimes, like with the case of the mysterious pigs in Kelburn Wellington, all understanding completely eludes me.
However, after much pushing and prodding, I finally say down and watched the epic New Zealand classic movie Boy, the other night, when I realized I only understood 2/3rds of what they were saying.
The only complicated thing about the New Zealand accent is the vowels, which I guess is a pretty big complication. They like to swallow the ends of words here, similar to southern Spain, and then of course there is the Great New Zealand Vowel Shift and somehow “e”s have become “i”s.
Ben is pronounced “bin,” “head” becomes “hid,” while “really” and “rarely” sound exactly the same. Talk about confusing.
When I first stepped off the proverbial boat in Auckland, it didn’t take long for me to start to pick up on different structuring and common phrases used throughout New Zealand. Many of them I was aware of as a native English speaker, and while they may not be common or the go-to phrase in America, I understood perfectly what was meant.
For example Kiwis love to say the word “heaps.”
“I’ve got heaps of work to do before I can go home.” “There are heaps of sheep in New Zealand.” “I missed you heaps.” You get the idea.
A little more advanced is “keen.”
“Are you keen to go to the cinema?” I’d hear from friends. “Sure, I feel like going to the movies,” I’d reply, stubborn in my effort to maintain my Americaness (someone has to).
But one of my favorite Kiwi-isms, as I like to call them, is New Zealand’s fondness for the word “ay .”
What, are we in Canada?
Here, they like to just stick it on the end of a sentence here or there, giving it a little life or flavor. Almost like a little question but not quite, opening the dialogue up for a confirmation or reply.
“That’s a really nice hat, ay.” “Wow, that southerly is blowing in strong, ay.”
The other day I caught myself saying “ay” at the end of the sentence. Crap, I’m going native.
Anywho, after months of making mental notes and attempting to compile a list of new kiwi vocabulary in my “hid” — read: head, here are my 20 favorite and most heard New Zealand words and phrases. Enjoy.
1. Sweet as
Quite possibly the most famous of kiwi expressions, “sweet as” means good, ok, cool. Whatever. An expression of affirmation, more or less, usually followed up with “bro.”
Sometimes living in New Zealand I feel like I’m transported to a California surfer town in the 90’s.
Though I absolutely refuse to say “sweet as” because it is grammatically incorrect and makes me want to punch a baby. Sweet as… what? Finish the damn sentence! Sweet as pie? Sweet as candy?
Oh and it doesn’t end there. You can pretty much get away with sticking an “as” at the end of any adjective here in New Zealand. Mean as. Cheap as. Or my personal favorite, beached as – see video below.
2. Kia ora
Kia ora is a Maori greeting that’s common in New Zealand nowadays. Literally meaning “be well,” it’s pretty much synonymous with hello. Though, I still feel like I can’t get away with saying it, no matter how hard I try.
Ha, I nearly died when I heard this one the first time. The wop-wops mean the middle of nowhere. The boonies. Out in the sticks. Try saying that with a straight face.
I feel like I should add that New Zealand gives a whole new meaning to the wop-wops; I am of course referring to the fact that there are no people in New Zealand, well there are 4.4 million people, which is roughly the size of Boston or an apartment building in Shanghai.
I used to think the small town I grew up in Virginia was in the boonies. But noooooo. I mean I came across towns in the South Island, population 5, towns that if you blinked while driving through, you’d miss them.
So maybe wop-wops is more acceptable here.
Kiwi word for the convenience store, i.e. the 24 hour shop on the corner where you can get your milk, eggs, or if you’re me, your midnight craving for a chocolate bar.
5. Chilly bin
Care to hanker a guess?
The chilly bin is a cooler in New Zealand, perfect for your barbies (BBQ’s) on the beach packed with ice cold beer. Favorite.
6. Chocolate fish
A New Zealand staple, the chocolate fish is basically a pink or white marshmallow shaped fish covered in chocolate with ripple-like scales on them.
It’s a pretty common word used for rewarding a kid or someone for doing a good job. And I can vouch they are delicious. Oh, and since it’s New Zealand, we say “fush.”
There is also an amazing cafe in Wellington called the Chocolate Fish Cafe right on the beach in Scorching Bay, which was popular with the Lord of the Rings cast when they lived in Wellington, though now the name’s changed and it’s called Scorch-o-Rama.
7. Book a bach
Bach (pronounced batch) is the kiwi word for holiday home, and pretty much the only affordable way to travel in New Zealand given the absurd costs of hotels, hostels and even some campsites here. Split one with a group of friends and it becomes cheap, and it’s actually a great local way to experience New Zealand.
8. Jandals, togs, and stubbies
Luckily I knew what jandals were before I arrived in New Zealand because my friend Cole’s blog is called Four Jandals. Prepared. Boom. Oh, jandals are flip-flops BTW.
Togs was more complicated. It took me a while to realize that togs mean swimsuit.
And stubbies, which I think I could have lived without NOT knowing or seeing. Short shorts for men in the 70’s, you still see them around town and they are shocking to behold, at least for Americans. We grow up with an appropriate short level in mind for men, which is often put to the test overseas where dudes like to bare more leg than what we yanks are accustomed to seeing.
Even though I don’t see too many short shorts out and about on the street, that does not include going to the gym or the beach where they are still quite popular. Shudder.
9. Chur bro
Another popular kiwi expression, “chur,” which as I’ve taken to understand it means cheers or thanks. Again, commonly followed up with the obligatory “bro.”
First really started hearing this from my tour guide with Haka Tours in the South Island.
10. Yeah nah
Yeah nah yeah nah, which is it GODDAMNIT?!
However, points must be awarded to the Kiwis for inventing a phrase that means both yes and no at the same time. Good on ya, mate! (another common phrase here which I *think* means well done amigo but I could be wrong).
In New Zealand tramping means hiking; it does NOT mean engaging in drunken, slutty illicit behavior as one (ME) might initially be led to believe. You’re welcome for the clarification.
12. Kumara, capsicum, and feijoa
All food words completely stumped me when I first arrived. Nevermind the fact that New Zealand uses many a British word for food like rocket (arugula), chips (fries) and aubergine (eggplant) PLUS having their own words for things. Mildly confusing, especially at restaurants when I had to ask what something was, and I got a look that says are you stupid, you speak English. Ugh.
Kumara means sweet potatoes or yams AND they have purple ones here OMG! I’ve only ever seen orange sweet potatoes before coming to New Zealand. Tangent.
Capsicum means bell peppers while feijoa is a New Zealand fruit that is about the size of a tomato and has a tangy flavor – and feijoa takes amazing in juices and smoothies here, give it a try!
As I am led to believe, skux is an ironic word for a player in New Zealand. As you might have guessed, I have not been able to pull this off in casual conversation so far in Wellington. However, there is still time and I am optimistic.
14. A mare
A mare is short for a nightmare, like “I was on the piss and got into some trouble; I had a bloody mare last night.” You know, because I can pull off saying something like that.
So basically having a bad time or if you end up in a crazy situation.
A New Zealand classic, L&P is a sweet soft drink meaning Lemon & Paeroa, Paeroa being the place where it was manufactured. It only took a day to grow on me, but it tastes like watered down fizzy lemonade, in a good way.
Just trust me on this.
16. Op shops
Thank you Macklemore for clearing this one up, i.e. the New Zealand word for “thriftshop,” extremely popular in Wellington with its thriving hipster culture and love for vintage and record shops .
Doesn’t really mean anything just means some random-ass town in New Zealand that’s pronounced “Why kick a moo cow” which makes me laugh ALL THE TIME.
Sorry, had to share.
18. Pack a sad
Pack a sad means throw a tantrum or become moody in New Zealand. Who knew I’d be so good at this one?
I had pavlova forced on me not long after moving to Wellington, and while I tried to like it, it is far too sweet to take more than a few bites. Basically it’s a meringue cake thing with cream and fruit on it.
However, what is vastly more entertaining is that Kiwis and Aussies fight to the death over the invention and ownership of pavlova. Just bring it up next time you’re around one or the other and see what happens.
20. Spin a yarn
“You’re spinning yarns mate” means you’re lying or exaggerating, or telling a long story.
I will take this opportunity to exert some self control and NOT make a sheep joke.
21. Bum bag
Bum bag means fanny pack.
22. Tu Meke
Tu meke is a Maori word that means “too much.” Nowadays it’s popular among youths as a response to something impressive or awesome.
Again, as I am given to understand Dave is used as one word reply usually to someone being a dick.
Gumboots are rubber rain boots or wellies. First time I saw this was out in the country at a convenience store where there was a sign that said “please leave your muddy gumboots outside.” Good thing there was an illustration.
25. She’ll be right
Things will be fine. Right as rain.
Ok spill. What are some strange words you’ve encountered abroad? Have you been to another country where your native language is spoken – what words did they use differently? Any kiwi lingo I missed? Oh, are you from New Zealand – and if so, who invented pavlova?
**FYI the title Me Talk Kiwi One Day is a play on David Sedaris’ famous book Me Talk Pretty One Day
630 Comments on “Me Talk Kiwi One Day”
This is so far beyond hilarious! Matt from PlanitNZ always hits me with the Sweet As, and I know about Jandals from the blog, but everything else is just plain amazing. I am now surrounded by Brits at work, including a guy from Scotland who always says sex for six, which is awesome since he teaches in classroom six. ILICIT.
It’s so strange the words you learn overseas!
Really enjoyed reading this list, Liz! I’m an American recently transplanted to Brisbane and can definitely relate to the difficulties of understanding fellow English speakers. I was surprised by how Aussies shorten everything…”arvo” instead of afternoon, “Macca’s” instead of McDonalds, “Brizzy” instead of Brisbane…are those words really so long that they need to be shortened??? I’ve also heard the pavlova argument 🙂
Yeah they shorten words here too and like to make it into a diminutive, bizarre but fun!
Just to clear this one up, we (the kiwis) did invent the pavlova. The Aussies are just jealous! And they like winding us up.
Have you watched Flight of the Conchords? Reminded me of this scene: https://youtube.com/watch?v=NRdg1MOYxHo 🙂
I remember ten/tin and pen/pin always throwing me off when I was there. I love the Kiwi accent, but at the same time it felt like they just pick random vowels and switch the way they sound!
hahah love that! Did!
Awww this makes me miss New Zealand so much! I thought I’d be pretty well-prepared for living there, as I lived in Australia for 2 years beforehand and a lot of the sayings are similar (especially “she’ll be right”) but the Kiwi language was a completely different thing. Especially loved the fact that, because I was working in an office full of Kiwis, I basically learnt a whole new way of saying things and still find myself saying ‘ay’ at the end of sentences sometimes.
P.S. Those chocolate fish are amazing! I tried them for the first time in the weirdest place: underground in a cave whilst black water rafting in Waitomo 🙂
yeah! I heard they give out chocolate fish on those tours, though we got brownies instead 😀 I love all the different words here, so fun!
wut about the memphis meltdowns? soooo good!
Haha you’re a funny chick, bit of a dag really….. Look up dag
just thought I’d drop another variation of “Chur bro”
“Chea bol” (pronounced like ‘bow’ but shorter)
an almost abrebiated version of “cheers, bro” that people will hear here and have no idea what it means.
Mee too! Did the climbing/caving thing in Waitomo. Was handed a coffee & a chocolate fish for lunch.
So awesome right? I just wrote about that last week!
with regards to the whole ‘Dave’ thing meaning dick it’s not a rule for the whole country but we have a habit of giving the most regular English names other meaning depending on what the start of the word sounds like…. for example ‘Steve’ means stink, but you really need to emphasise it, more like ‘Steeeeve’ hahaha.. as for skux that was invented in Wellys and is spreading to Aussie. Thank you for promoting it, I have been using it for around 15 years, and when I moved to Dunedin for uni, no one really knew it. I hope to see it in the Oxford dictionary in my lifetime hahaha
yeah I’ve heard that, very confusing for us