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Dictionary of New Zealand English

Issue date: 
Thursday, 17 July 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Mr Orsman, Mr Samson of Oxford University Press, Vice-Chancellor Holborow, to all you distinguished guests here this evening: tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa, and a very warm welcome to Government House.

The stated purpose of this evening is, of course, to officially launch The Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English. But that's a very bald, clinical way of putting it. For what we are really here for, is to celebrate something so far unstated, a huge accomplishment, the offspring of a forty six-year labour of love. Or, perhaps, some other nouns might be chosen - perhaps the editor's family, for instance, choose to think of it as the culmination of a forty six-year sentence, or a forty six-year obsession, because as Harry Orsman wrote, in the Dictionary's Introduction, he began this work in 1951.

It all started as a Ph. D. topic, he says, supervised by one Professor Ian Gordon. Professor Gordon, as he has once again demonstrated with his recent book, is, with Mr Orsman, another of the great illuminators of New Zealand letters, if that adjective does not sound too manuscriptural. From that beginning, the work has grown to monumental proportions: 965 pages altogether; nearly 8,000 headword entries; 47,000 quotations: and they are only a quarter or a third of what had been collected. The work is almost breathtaking in its detail and its comprehensiveness.

Just ten days ago, Time Magazine's cover story was about the fate of many of the world's languages, how languages only spoken by small populations were in danger of dying out. But there was an associated article that said that "By ... 2,000, an estimated one-and-a-half billion people - a quarter of the world's population - will speak English." But, "as the language spreads," the article continued, English "will invariably be transformed ... to suit local needs. Local vocabulary, slang and pronunciation will displace existing British and English usages ... Dictionaries of Asian, Australian, Caribbean and South African English ... have already been published." If not for the new dictionary tonight, that last sentence might have rankled.

But instead, what New Zealand now has, is a new taonga; itself a word in New Zealand English of course, its listing to be found upon page 813.

As enduring as Harry Orsman's commitment to this extraordinary project has been, he could not have completed it all on his own. There is a very long list of people in the editorial team given at the beginning of the Dictionary, and other acknowledgments - staff at Victoria University, librarians from many of our major libraries, a remarkable number of Orsmans too, I noticed, hence my earlier surmise about this projects family reputation. What is the family going to do with itself now, one wonders, although perhaps Professor Holborow will have some ideas for them, in his remarks - although, after all these years spent on the Dictionary already, perhaps his news will seem more a threat than a promise.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are other speakers to follow me, who will each, I am sure, have their own stories about how this outstanding volume came into being, how the entries have been accumulated so patiently over the years, how so much care has gone into collecting quotations of New Zealand English as she is spoke, who some of the people were who aided Mr Orsman through the years, what the future might hold for this truly marvellous work of lexicography.

But before they tell these stories, I would like to urge everyone who cares about language, to hurry and obtain their own copy of this work. Just because we live out in the global wop wops, geographically-speaking - both derivation and historical usage are given on page 923, by the way - or perhaps because we do live more than a thousand kilometres from our nearest English-speaking neighbours who, too, have evolved their own form of the tongue - we have developed our own ways of describing things, talking together, sharing our observations and views.

The Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English records, therefore, an important part of our nation's heritage. It is a living heritage to be sure, and bound to keep altering to portray who we really are. But even in our short history, the way we think and communicate, has begun to reflect our own social, natural and economic environments. Which is why this book is so illuminating.

We are about to hear from the Dictionary's principals some of what was involved in all the years of work that have led to this event, but there is one minor bit of business that must be completed, so that they can tell these tales. And it is for me, with great pleasure because of the extraordinary merit of this volume, to declare that The Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English is, so very, very many years after its keel was first laid, officially launched.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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