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Colenso's vocabulary under study
Multi-tongued: William Colenso yields a formidable lexical legacy in both
English and Maori.
By DIANNE BARDSLEY
director of the New Zealand
Dictionary Centre at Victoria
University's school of linguistics
and applied language studies.
The opportunity to research and
analyse the vocabulary of a par-
ticular individual in history is
rare, given that there is usually
insufficient data available.
But in the case of significant
pioneering New Zealander and
Colenso, influential botanist,
missionary, printer, and poli-
tician, an extremely comprehen-
sive record of both personal and
public written material has been
made available for study.
From his arrival in New Zea-
land with the Church Mission-
ary Society in 1834 until his
death in 1899, Colenso was
dedicated to letter-writing with
friends and acquaintances,
writing to newspaper editors on
publishing scholarly essays
about his wide-ranging areas of
Consequently, there is an
opportunity to learn a consider-
able amount about the man and
his social and cultural context as
well as his language.
At the New Zealand Diction-
ary Centre during the summer,
a graduate research student was
employed in scouring and
recording terms and usages from
these papers to help us build a
profile of Colenso and his
In November this year, a
conference will be held to mark
the 200th anniversary of the
birth of this complex, gifted, and
often troubled individual.
Within a short time of his
arrival in the country, Colenso
commanded a surprising under-
standing of, and fluency in, te
reo Maori, and for the rest of his
life he had a concern for the sur-
vival of the language.
In a speech in 1888, Colenso
asked of his fellow members of
the Hawke's Bay Philosophical
Institute, situated as we are
here in New Zealand -- in
Maoriland -- what have we done
to conserve their language or to
preserve those fast fleeting
relics of the past?''
Colenso did much to conserve
the Maori language, and in his
personal letters where he
incorporates uncommonly used
Maori terms, such as heke, kite,
ope, and riri without glossing, it
is shown that friends and
colleagues were also fluent to an
extent and in contexts that were
not widely realised, adding
weight to the idea that pioneers
adopted a range of Maori terms
other than those for flora and
Interested in several conten-
tious issues and involved in
some fiery personal and political
relationships, Colenso used
colourful terms characteristic of
the English with which he had
been brought up in Cornwall.
Colenso did not suffer fools. His
usage shows that he took and
In one of his frequent letters
to the Hawke's Bay Herald as
early as 1858, he showed intoler-
ance for grooms, duffies,
toadies, touters, sycophants,
lickspittles, or expectants''.
His expressions for nonsense
or rubbish showed similar
colour. He used flapdoodle and
synonyms for nonsense, the lat-
ter a term used with the sense of
a white lie. Flapdoodle is an
English term that appeared fre-
quently in 19th century New
Incidentally, in the Grey River
Argus (1872) we find a lovely
citation condemning the content
of one of our longest-running
papers: The Lyttelton Times
speaks of the Otago Daily Times
as a paper that once had
principles, politics, and distinct
aims, but which now dispenses
doses of the mildest flapdoodle''.
We have no evidence of its
recent use but flapdoodle
appeared in our papers as late
as the 1940s.
So what has replaced it?
bunkum, and claptrap are still
in use; codswallop, hogwash,
piffle, and poppycock are still
heard; tommyrot and twaddle
have lasted longer than
flapdoodle and tarradiddle.
These are all polysyllabic,
expressive, and mostly polite.
Gobbledegook, humbug, and
jiggery-pokery are still used
with a distinctive sense of rub-
bish, certainly with connotations
of dishonesty and pretentious-
In the Antipodean context
where we used to be known as
bullswool is a common and con-
textually appropriate excla-
mation for disbelief or rubbish.
There is much to learn about
how and when words, nonsensi-
cal or not, came into and out of
use and just as much to learn of
those who used them.
William Colenso was a colour-
ful individual who provided a
formidable lexical legacy for us
to analyse. And that's neither
tarradiddle nor bullswool.
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