JANE: Last time you mentioned some uniquely New Zealand slang. I’m particularly intrigued by “tiki tour” and “rattle your dags.” Where do they come from?
ALAN: It’s not clear where the phrase “tiki tour” originated, but one possible explanation (which I’m rather fond of) is that shortly after the end of WWII, the New Zealand government was keen to attract tourists to the country. They felt that tourism could be a big money-spinner and who’s to say they were wrong?
JANE: Uh… “Money-spinner”? I get it in context, but I can’t quite grasp the image. Could you clarify? How does spinning money produce more?
ALAN: It’s an English phrase rather than specifically a New Zealand one, and it’s such second nature to me that your question actually took me by surprise. But when I thought about it, the first thing that sprang to mind was the fairy tale about the miller whose daughter could spin straw into gold. (Rumpelstiltskin saves the day!). The image of turning something almost worthless into something very precious is a powerful one, and even if the saying doesn’t derive directly from the fairy tale, it really should, because that’s exactly what it means.
JANE: I really like that explanation. Thank you! Now, please, go on with tiki tours!
ALAN: Right! So they organised some rather rambling bus tours of the country under the name Tiki Tours. A Tiki is a traditional Maori carving of a rather squat human figure and I suppose the government felt that it was a quintessentially New Zealand symbol.
Of course, being a government-run initiative, it was hopelessly inefficient and never amounted to much. So the phrase entered the language and was used to denote something rambling and ultimately pointless.
JANE: I love that! I think I may start using the term “taking a tiki tour” when I need to fill out various forms… How about “rattle your dags”?
ALAN: “Rattle your dags” is much easier to explain. Dags are the dried clumps of mud and excrement that accumulate around a sheep’s bottom. If the sheep is running fast, it’s easy to imagine that the dags would bang together and make a rattling noise. (In fact they don’t, but why let reality spoil a good story?) So “rattle your dags” means “Hurry up!”
JANE: Australia is also known for sheepherding. Do they use the same term?
ALAN: They do have the phrase, but I think its use is more widespread in New Zealand. Australian sheep tend not to have so many dags because Australian shepherds try hard to keep their sheep’s bottoms clean in order to minimise the possibility of flies burrowing in and laying eggs. Australian flies are much larger and more vicious than New Zealand flies which is why New Zealand shepherds don’t worry as much about dags on their sheep. Actually, most Australian things are much larger and more vicious than their New Zealand counterparts. Including Australians…
JANE: “Dag” also sounds vaguely Scottish. Do you know if the term is another one influenced by the Scottish settlers?
ALAN: I don’t think so. As is so often the case, the origin of the word is obscure. However the Oxford English Dictionary claims it comes from Late Middle English and may possibly be derived from “tag”.
Both Aussies and Kiwis also use “dag” to describe people or things that are amusingly eccentric. If my dog Jake does something particularly cute, I might point it out and say, “What a dag!” or perhaps “He’s a bit of a dag!”
JANE: Here the phrase might be “What a wag!” This would have nothing to do with tails, either. The phrase is a bit old-fashioned, so I can’t even guess at why it was used.
You’re married to an Australian. How did Robin react to your comment: “Most Australian things are much larger and more vicious than their New Zealand counterparts. Including Australians…”?
ALAN: I haven’t shown it to her yet. She’s larger and more vicious than me…
Actually, one of the things that Robin complains about a lot is the extraordinarily large and complex way that Australia is governed. Their mechanisms are not inherently any more vicious than ours, but they are certainly significantly larger. Robin really likes the much simpler model that we follow in New Zealand – she’s worked in this area and she’s seen the advantages and disadvantages first hand.
JANE: What are some of the differences?
ALAN: Australia has a multi-layered system of government. At the top is the federal government which has two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The individual states are self-governing (and also have two debating chambers). There are local government organisations within the states as well. In addition, Australia recognises something they call a Territory which are areas within the country not claimed by a State. Territories can be administered by the government or they can be self-governing.
If you find this confusing, you are not alone…
JANE: Oh, this doesn’t sound confusing at all. This sounds very, very familiar. Very, very, very familiar…
How does New Zealand manage?
ALAN: It’s dead simple. We have local government and national government. End of story. And our national government only has one assembly. We got rid of the second chamber about fifty years ago, and we’ve never missed it.
JANE: I’m sure someone misses it. Probably the people who like to argue, rather than actually getting things done.
ALAN: Certainly, one disadvantage of the Australian model is that the lines of demarcation are blurred and it’s hard to determine just who is responsible for what. This makes it very difficult to assign blame when things go wrong (there’s always someone else to point the finger at). Furthermore, the ponderous nature of this multi-layered bureaucracy means that legislative changes are slow and difficult to implement. The Australian national character is very conservative, in the sense of being resistant to change, and I sometimes wonder if this is a reflection of the way they govern themselves. Though that, of course, is very much a chicken and egg question…
JANE: (whispering) Very, very, very familiar…
ALAN: The simplicity of the New Zealand model means that responsibility and lines of demarcation are very clear and well defined. And the single national assembly means that law changes are relatively quick and easy to put into practice. In complete contrast to Australians, New Zealanders have the reputation of being keen to embrace both social and political change. In the thirty-five years that I’ve lived here I’ve seen many quite radical changes take place.
JANE: I’d love to hear an example or two, especially those that reflect the differences in national character.
ALAN: I could witter on about fiscal policy and similar dull subjects, but I think a good reflection of our national character is in the way we interact with our government. New Zealanders are very much in love with technology. Many governmental functions are now available on the web. I recently renewed my passport – it was quick, painless and easy. I didn’t even have to leave home. I filled in a form on a web site, attached a digital photograph of my face and clicked the submit button. A few days later my new passport arrived in my mailbox. Australians can’t do that – there are on-line forms that they can fill in, but the forms have to be printed out and presented in person at the passport office. We’ve completely eliminated that step.
I applied for my pension on line and I recently claimed a tax refund on line. Literal paperwork is well on the way to disappearing over here.
JANE: Nice, I suppose, although I can see how such procedures would make identity theft and related forgeries much easier.
ALAN: In theory that’s probably correct, but in practice it doesn’t seem to happen. I imagine they have a lot of safeguards in place behind the scenes…
I also think that the make-up of our parliament reflects our national character very well indeed. Our MPs are a very heterogeneous and multiracial bunch (not just Maori and Pakeha). We have members from most of the major religions (as well as self-professed atheists). We have openly gay and transgender MPs and we currently have one who is completely deaf. I’m not sure what (if any) special arrangements have been made for her, but she is very active in debates and more than pulls her weight. None of this raises any eyebrows at all. But I simply can’t imagine any of it happening in Australia.
JANE: Or, sadly, in many parts of the U.S. I have one friend who I think would make an excellent politician. I asked her why she didn’t run for office, and she said she felt her open atheism would make it pointless.
How about a “social” example?
ALAN: OK, here’s a good example. Unlike Australia, we’re almost a completely cashless society, and we’ve been that way for all of this century. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a cheque – indeed, a lot of places now have big signs up saying that they will not accept cheques. Even the smallest shops have EFTPOS terminals, so cash is almost never needed.
JANE: We’re moving that way, too. I still use cash, but only in a few places. Mostly I use my credit card, then pay off the balance each month. This way I don’t pay interest charges, but I also don’t need to worry about my balance as I would with a debit card.
ALAN: Amusingly, when cash is required, New Zealanders and Australians get confused when trying to spend money in each other’s countries. Both countries have $1 and $2 coins. In New Zealand, the $2 coin is larger than the $1 coin, which makes logical sense because it’s a larger denomination. But in Australia, the $2 coin is smaller than the $1 coin, which is just plain weird. Not that any Australian would ever admit that…
JANE: Well, the idea that larger is worth more does seem to make sense…
ALAN: Exactly so. But we seem to have segued into discussing definitions of national characteristics. I have some thoughts about how we can pin that down. Do you want to talk about it next time?
JANE: That sounds fascinating – and challenging. Let’s do it!