Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 24, July 1980


OUR little country, because of its settlement by largely British stock from counties, and shires, and villages, and fells, each with its own vocabulary and usages, became a melting pot for the English language. Not only did dialects make this so (people from Westmoreland could scarce be understood by people from Norfolk, and neither were comprehensible to Londoners) but each locality also had, as well as its own customs, a quite distinct verbal inheritance from Nordic Germanic and French origins. Each immigrating family brought expressive sayings peculiar to themselves. Yet in one generation their distinctive sayings became lost. When schooldays brought together the first generation of New Zealand children, any peculiarity, especially of speech (whether in dialect or wording) "stuck out like a sore thumb" and to be "different" was to die!

I shall never forget the mortification I suffered at the amused derision which greeted my solemnly naming our playhouse chopping block the "hagstock". I never used that word again! Yet, when I reproached my father with having so cruelly misinformed me regarding this important piece of out-door furniture he too laughed. His explanation dropped a seed - which has taken seventy years to germinate. That word was full to the brim of Westmoreland history which should never have been allowed to be forgotten. Yet I doubt if it would be recognised even in Westmoreland to-day.

(N.B.: A hag is a local name for a witch, very prevalent two hundred years ago in "the North". The test for a witch was "ducking" - the "ducking stool" is to be seen in some old English churches still. If she drowned she was not a witch, if she survived she was a witch and accordingly was executed on a wooden block - hence the "Hagstock".

Another of my father's expressions was "as lief" in place of "I would rather" (do one thing in preference to another). That I think, may be an inheritance from the Nordic. My mother, of Scottish extraction, always referred to the large oval meat plate as an "ashet". This probably had its roots in the 'ganging up' of Scotland with France during the Seventeenth century. (Fr. "Assiette" = plate).

These three words - and I could think of many more - are rooted in history, yet from the time we went to school they were never used outside the family; possibly my children have never even heard them.

Therefore, I suggest that, as an historical society, we should begin a rescue operation for these lost words, if only for their links with our nation's story. Every family must have some word or expression which had been brought here by their grandparents, yet promptly suppressed and forgotten when their children went to school. It is as though we had dived into the bush as so many English, Irish, Welshmen and Scottish and had come out of it all identically the same, as common or garden variety Kiwis!


ASHET (from Fr. Assiette = a plate)

LIEF (old English from "leof" = Dear. Anglo-Saxon according to Chambers Dictionary).

HAG (A witch. Anglo Saxon "hag-tesse") (same authority as above).


"Its toom-breeks to me noo" a widow's lament meaning "It's empty trousers to me now". "toom" from the Icelandic meaning empty.

The "Skriegh of dawn", is break of day.

SCRAICH (Gaelic, sqreach) shriek or to scream.

SCUNNER (Scot: to become nauseating, any fantastic loathing).

SKERRICK (Scot: an infinitismal portion).

FEY (From the Icelandic "feigr" = fated.

A state of being caught up in a fated course, often marked by high spirits even when the fate is death. There is no word in English which seems to have just this shade of meaning found in "fey".

MIDDEN is a word we seem to have retained for the pre-historic rubbish heaps unearthed by archaeologists. According to the Oxford English Dictionary this word is of Scandinavian origin. It was commonly used for the farm-refuse heaps in Westmoreland.

SHIPPON (or Shippen) from the same locality in the North, meaning Cattle shed. We never hear this word now.

GRANGER One in charge of an outlying farm or grange

A HUSBANDMAN (Late Old English Husbanda, householder). P.H. Reaney on page 166 of his book "The Origins of English Surnames" Notes that "In the Village there were usually two Social Classes, the more substantial Husband, who had Houses (FROM HUS. HOUSE) and BONDI, BOUND.

In the 15th Century he was a substantial Farmer holding from 10 to 40 acres. One of the Middle Class Villagers.

In the Middle Ages a Man could keep himself alive by taking work as a Farm Labourer but could not keep a Wife or found a Family unless he had Land. No Land no Marriage. (Hence the terms "HUSBANDMAN" became Husband or Married Man).