Top 10 Funny New Zealand Language Blunders - Expats Beware!

By: Rhonda Albom

Recently a mate suggested that I am not just an American expat, I am Kiwi now. Living in New Zealand has changed me. Now I drink piss and eat tea. I wear togs and jandals in the summer, woolies and jumpers in the winter. I ring with the phone and call in person. I holiday at a bach, and if I am awake early enough I enjoy a sparrow fart. Basically, life is good as gold and I am happy as Larry.

Who is Larry? I have no idea, nor do I know why he is happy. I do know that my inability to speak the language started immediately upon disembarking in New Zealand. As an American expat, I made the all too common assumption that I would easily understand Kiwi English. Ten years later certain New Zealand words and colloquialisms continue to make me laugh.

In America I park my car in the parking lot, walk on the sidewalk and ride in an elevator; now I use a carpark, a footpath and a lift. In New Zealand, kids use a rubber to erase their mistakes and a baby sleeps in a cot. If "I am shattered," Kiwi's hear tired. And should I be angry and announce, "I am pissed," well, no one will pay attention to the ramblings of a drunk. In New Zealand piss is beer, pissed is drunk, a piss-up is a party with alcohol, piss around is to waste time, pissing down refers to a rain storm, piss off implies go away and finally pissed off is angry – for an adult. Angry kids don't get pissed off or have tantrums, but rather throw a wobbly.

I dropped two words from my vocabulary: fanny (trust me, don't say it) and root (to have sex). On the bright side I can now say "blow me down" (expression of surprise), I know bugger all (not much), or rattle your dags (hurry up).

Kiwi speak includes many Maori words. In the language of the indigenous people the letter combination "WH" makes the sound "F." No problem for words like Whānau (extended family), however I still laugh at the popular Whakarewarewa Forest and the New Zealand ski field called "Whakapapa" (fak-a-papa).

Here's an interesting tidbit; Whakapapa is on Mt. Ruapehu, an active volcano. Kiwis ski here anyway. Thousands of them every year without worry, which brings me to the next oddity:

"She'll be right mate."

In this case it's not the words themselves, but rather the cultural phenomena that goes with it. Sometimes I see it as a wonderfully relaxed way to go through life.  Things have a way of working themselves out. "No worries. She'll be right mate." At other times I roll my eyes in wonder. Question someone who is skiing on a volcano, climbing an unstable tree, jumping on a trampoline on the driveway without safety nets, the answer will probably be, "No worries. She'll be right mate."

Then there is food, or more specifically, tea. If I invite someone for tea, they expect dinner. Morning tea is a coffee. Afternoon tea is a snack. If I just want a cup of tea, it's a cuppa.  Although, sometimes morning tea is a snack and a cuppa is coffee, usually served with a bikkie, which I used to call a cookie. When I am asked to "bring a plate," it is assumed there will be food on it to share, and if that food is to be "pudding," well then any dessert will do. However, if it is the American style pudding they want, they would have asked me to bring a mousse.

Confused? If not completely baffled yet, simply try and order that cup of coffee. I had thought Starbucks was difficult before I became an expat. Now if I want black coffee, I can either get filter coffee (as in the type made with a Mr. Coffee look-alike), an espresso, or a "long black" which is an espresso served with a side of boiling water. Personally, I prefer milk, so my options are macchiato, flat white, cappuccino, café latte, mochaccino, or a latte macchiato. And should I accidentally defer to my Americanisms and ask for cream rather than milk, I will get a strange look, followed by a dollop of whipped cream. Before adding it to my coffee, I would add sugar, as New Zealand "cream" is simply whipped, no sugar added.

Good luck finding plain "sugar" on a typical grocery shelf. Just from New Zealand's largest sugar company, Chelsea, I found: raw sugar, white sugar, caster sugar, icing sugar, soft brown sugar, coffee crystals, demerara sugar, organic sugar and dark cane sugar.  What's the difference? I used to wonder until it was simplified for me; caster sugar is closest to American sugar, icing sugar mirrors powdered sugar and brown sugar seems to translate across cultures.

It's not always complicated. Just don't violate the unwritten food rules:
•    Sandwiches have a required layer of fat – mayonnaise, butter or margarine. Therefore, a peanut butter sandwich has butter, not jelly. (Jelly is actually American jello and can be served with ice cream.)
•    Baked beans can be served cold and eaten with a fork straight from the tin, or if heated, they go on toast with a fried egg on top.
•    Sausage is served on one slice of buttered white bread, folded over like a bun.
•    Hamburgers don't come with pickles, but rather a slice of beetroot. (by including "beet" this becomes a family friendly use of the word root).

And don't even get me started on that vile spread Kiwis call Marmite.  

Just in case you are still confused, here are my tips to avoid the top 10 common funny New Zealand language blunders:

1.    If you are told to bring a plate, be sure it has food on it to share.
2.    If you are angry, remember to say you are "pissed off" (not just pissed).
3.    Remember to cheer for your favorite team, not root for them.
4.    If it's pissing down, bring an umbrella.
5.    Don't go to the shops looking for woolies (like I did). When they tell you to put your woolies on, it refers to any warm layers.
6.    If your mate tells you about someone pushing up the daisies, look sad; they are talking about someone who is dead and buried.
7.    Don't worry about what you will do with a box of fluffy ducks. It's just a happy expression and completely bird-free.
8.    That guy walking down the street wearing tiny shorts that are too tight – that's a New Zealand fashion called stubbies.
9.    A sparrow fart is just an early morning sunrise.
10.    If you give a kiwi kid a choice of two foods, their polite answer will undoubtedly be "I don't mind." Just accept it and make your own choice.

No worries mate, you'll be right now that it's all sorted. Good on you for giving it a go!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingRhonda Albom is an American expat living in New Zealand. Blog description: Where travel and adventure meet fun. We are American expats laughing at the lighter side of both expat living in New Zealand and family travel.
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Contest Comments » There are 70 comments

Susanna Duffy wrote 10 years ago:

Fair crack of the whip, Rhonda! Some Kiwi expressions may be weird to you but at least you give it a burl. She'll be sweet, mate, Bob's your uncle

Sandee wrote 10 years ago:

Funnier than heck Rhonda. I'd be in big trouble the first sentence. I loved this. Have a fabulous day. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh wrote 10 years ago:

Pissed off is not a problem - I use that now. First time I'd ever heard root translated that way though. Crossing that word off my list right now. (Except around my wife.) Brown sugar is brown sugar huh? I wonder if yellow snow translates the same...

Jessica Voigts wrote 10 years ago:

I just love these kind of verbal differences - and it seems like in New Zealand, you've got plenty to choose from! What fun - thanks for sharing!

Lynne wrote 10 years ago:

How else do you eat baked beans? And then there is the accent to deal 'wuth' as 'wull'

Joyce wrote 10 years ago:

There are quite a lot of language discrepancies, aren't there? I would love to meet you in New Zealand and go for tea or perhaps even get pissed.

Rose Hala wrote 10 years ago:

Ohh, Rhonda - Marmite is not 'vile stuff' it's in our DNA. The Marmite n' Chip sammy is a school lunch box Legend. Now, peanut butter and jelly - Dunno Jello - that sounds a bit dodgy too me - like mixing Satay & Dessert between slices of bread...! Hugs, see you for a coffee soon, Rose

Stefanie wrote 10 years ago:

I had to think about #3 on your list - but then I remembered what you said "root" means and I really laughed hard! I think I would have made that #1 on the list - the whole post is VERY funny!! Not even sure it would be safe for me to visit New Zealand - I would be sure to blunder.

Lisa Howard wrote 10 years ago:

I had to read to the end just to find out what a sparrow fart was. Thanks for educating me! I'll be sure to reference this again if I ever make it to New Zealand.

Carole Connolly-Shaw wrote 10 years ago:

This is adorable! Funny, informative, clever, done with love and respect. Nicely done!

PAUL SACHS wrote 10 years ago:

Loved it! (American) I don't what that means in Kiwi!

Mike wrote 10 years ago:

That's funny. some terms we use here, but I never heard the term of sparrow fart before. I'll never look at a sunrise the same way again.

Lisa Love wrote 10 years ago:

Great to hear you are mastering the lingo Rhonda. Great blog!!

Lisa wrote 10 years ago:

Ha I said "Happy as Larry" today. I probably said a whole lot of other things you mention to. I often say to Sean "Do people in America say...?" I really admire your writing ability and motivation

Julie wrote 10 years ago:

This was so much fun Rhonda! It's hard to ever feel sad when life is just a box of fluffy ducks! Thanks for the funny, and informative lesson on lingo Rhonda!

Stevebethere wrote 10 years ago:

Hahaha! Good humourous post, I see it funny from another point of view being British we use the same words as they do in New Zealand (except Sparrow fart. Don't worry Rhonda I am sure you will eventually get the hang of it LOL. Good Luck ;-)

Art Of RetroCollage wrote 10 years ago:

Very interesting! I didn't find several of the expressions surprising, as I've used them myself: "pissed off" is standard for "angry" here in the NE US; "pushing up daisies" has been in my vocabulary for years. "Happy as Larry" is also used in Australia, & I know it through my reading (& love it!). But I'll stick to my peanut butter & jam sandwiches, thank you very much.... Thanks for a fun & informative language post!

Louanne wrote 10 years ago:

You took me right back to when I first moved to New Zealand from the UK, I remember us turning up to a get together with an empty plate (we thought it was just one of those strange 'colonial customs') - never did that again!!

YAM wrote 10 years ago:

Hari OM In my Aussie capacity it is all very familiar - yet there are still distinct differences and of course you forgot to mention the number sex... As an expat Scot (now repatriating) and having come via two years in India, one of the things that has both dumbfounded and caused embarassment is the different usages of the same words. Context is everything. All adding to the spice of life!! YAM xx

Ellen wrote 10 years ago:

Fantastic post Rhonda! As a fellow American expat in NZ, I can completely relate! I hadn't heard sparrow fart before, but have now added it to my vocabulary and plan on using it regularly - priceless!

Hilary wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Rhonda - I can see the differences and can quite understand ... in England and SA we always knocked up before playing our squash matched ... not a good idea to say that in the States - a not nice version of 'root', while fanny packs keep on being featured in long distance runs - an Americanism .. as you say a good one to drop .. So many just minor differences, but enough to set us off on a giggle sessions .. cheers Hilary

Cindi Hartman wrote 10 years ago:

You forgot one of my favorites: "How are you going?" The first time I visited NZ, and someone asked me this question, I was very puzzled, wondering where they thought I was traveling, especially as I'd just arrived. I didn't realize they were making the pleasant inquiry for which we would typically say, "How are you" or "how are you doing?" I made the "fanny" mistake when I referred to the object I wore while walking my dogs as a "fanny pack" rather than as a "bum bag." :)

Shere wrote 10 years ago:

I loved the post! Being an expat puts you in a lot of funny situations. I met a Mexican and we still have to ask each other "what do you mean?"

Robyn Engel wrote 10 years ago:

This was a fun lesson. Thank you, Rhonda. I doubt I'll remember it all, when and if I visit New Zealand. I'll do my best not to root for anything, though. That one seems most important to retain.

Dena wrote 10 years ago:

Well, now that you've set me right, I'll be sure to contact you as interpreter if ever lucky enough to visit! And if you ever come back to suburbia I promise I can translate for your girls!

Ai Sakura wrote 10 years ago:

so very funny!!! I used to study in Aust and the language used there is quite similar to what you've written about NZ.. ahhhh fond memories :) Ai @ Sakura Haruka

Melissa wrote 10 years ago:

This is really funny! I personally love beetroot on everything, not just burgers.

Steve B wrote 10 years ago:

Aren't the differences between our language and the Americans interesting. The whole tumble of eating and drinking words is hilarious!

Jeff wrote 10 years ago:

I like the Maori pronunciation differences. Guess it makes it easy to tell who's native and who's foreign by the smirks on the faces:-)

Sukhmandir Kaur wrote 10 years ago:

Demerara sugar is a new one for me, I've heard most of the rest, don't ask me how I haven't a clue. :)

Helen wrote 10 years ago:

A brilliant article on the kiwi's version of the English language. Very funny. Choice!

Leanne Martell wrote 10 years ago:

So funny - I could TOTALLY identify!! After my two most embarrassing word events - I learned very quickly that you don't EVER fall on your fanny, or have a fur muff!!! And if you DO - you don't tell ANYONE!!

Rose-Mary Read wrote 10 years ago:

Well fair dinkum that's a lot of stuff to talk about!!! Kiwi ah!!

Arline Sachs wrote 10 years ago:

Love it. Never realized there was such a difference in the language.

Deb wrote 10 years ago:

Brilliant, Rhonda! Another one is knackered. Tired. My American friend heard it as "nekkid." She thought it was "naked!" Imagine the hilarity the first time she said she was naked thinking she was expressing tiredness!

Anna Pallares wrote 10 years ago:

Very interesting and very true, Rhonda! I have also experienced a few misunderstandings and also embarrassing situations with these kiwi expressions.

Christina Morley wrote 10 years ago:

From an American living 18 years in South Africa, many of those expressions are the same here. And, we have some of our own Afrikaans and African sayings too. However, brown sugar in America is treacle sugar in South Africa. Although, I think some of your Kiwi ones would be harder for me to get used to saying. I wasn't allowed to say words like fart or pissed when growing up. :)

Sarah wrote 10 years ago:

What a funny post! I especially enjoyed the sparrow fart comment- beautiful to watch the sunrise in the morning air.

Carolyn Minnee wrote 10 years ago:

Great article Rhonda! I could relate to it having Dutch immigrant parents and their confusion at times with the language.Keep up the good work :-)

Karlene wrote 10 years ago:

Omg, that was GOLD!!! And reading through the comments, was even more of a chuckle! Had a giggle when I came to the one about the marmite and chip sammies, do you or anyone else remember marmite and lettuce sammies?? They were my most favourite lunches as a kid!!! Now where's that plate....hehehe. And who could forget marmite and cheese sammies???? And another favourite of mine was marmite and plum jam on toast, oh to die for! Well, in a nutshell for ya, Marmite is KIWIANA all the way, whilst Vegemite, is an Australian take off lol.

BrnoChris wrote 10 years ago:

I loved this article. Well done! One of my dear friends in Czech Republic is a Kiwi expat and I've had to learn some of this vocabulary in Europe. Great job!

Kristi wrote 10 years ago:

I love the phrases "Throw a wobbly" and "I'm shattered". Who would have guessed these would translate to having a tantrum and being tired. I've heard people refer to being "pissed" as drunk....Great post. Made me laugh out loud - translation - "laugh out loud".

Tony Payne wrote 10 years ago:

You picked up a lot Rhonda, almost qualified to become an official Kiwi now lol :) I went through a similar language learning curve when I moved to the USA in the 90's, and after 15 years I was still learning new words. I did spend 9 months in Auckland in the late 80's, but many of the Kiwi'isms are the same as in England, so they came naturally. Breakfast (or any light meal really) that consists of Beans on Toast is a way of life for me, as is eating Marmite, which I love. I grew up with Breakfast, Dinner and Tea too, but there are a lot of words and phrases in New Zealand that are different to those in the UK. I found it a whole lot of fun learning a whole new side to the English language. Pleased you are enjoying it too.

Harry France wrote 10 years ago:

This is really funny. I haven't laughed this hard in a long while!

Talon wrote 10 years ago:

These were fun and brought back some good memories. I'm having the same sugar dilemma here in Romania. There are like 50 different types of sugar. Even more fun since the labels are in Romanian. You always think you speak English until you go down under. LOL

Rachel wrote 10 years ago:

Love it! Learned some of these while living in Ireland (I learned fairly quickly to ask for a lift and not to ask someone for a ride ;) which seems to be the equivalent of "root" here! haha, thanks for the heads up! Fun to read!

Natasha wrote 10 years ago:

Being British I always look forward to mince pies at Christmas time but if I forget to add in Christmas mince pies everyone things I was a beef mince pie!!! Love the post too.

Valerie wrote 10 years ago:

You never fail to make me giggle! And how I needed that after today!!! Well played! Hugs! Valerie

Udi wrote 10 years ago:

It took me a long time to understand what "good on you" stand for, and now I am so used to it that when i use it in NYC no body know what #$!#%, is it good for you, your good, good with you or maybe I am just weird... (not to mention looking for capsicum in traders joe) Great post!

Jacquie wrote 10 years ago:

This is Very funny! My Grandma's name was Fanny, so now you have me very curious why we can no longer talk about her. I wouldn't want to find myself speaking I'll of the dead!

Elyn MacInnis wrote 10 years ago:

Very funny! I knew some of these, but not others. I will revisit this list if I ever go to New Zealand! It reminded me about the completely horrified look on our Dutch friends faces when we (US) said we could nuke some bread - meaning that we could put it in the microwave, of course. I was astonished to find out that that was just about the worst word in the language... and not something that made sense when talking about bread! Great Stuff - and good to know!

Nancy Hardin wrote 10 years ago:

I found myself breaking up when I hit the definitions of piss and tea! Who would have thought? The thing I love about the article is that you seem to be thoroughly enjoying New Zealand. Because that comes through so clearly, it's obvious you are not "making fun" of the language, but "having fun" with it. I think it's delightful you're enjoying the country and writing so eloquently about the differences in meanings of words.Good luck!

Carol Ross wrote 10 years ago:

oh MY, what a funny, entertaining AND educational piece all wrapped in one! CHEERS, have a piss and celebrate, Rhonda! What an adventure learning to be a Kiwi! My favorites: that children don't het 'pissed off' but instead 'throw a wobbly' - how funny! sparrow fart? whoever made up that expression must have stayed up all night drinking piss, think? Oh and I wanna see photos of those "stubbies" Always did love kiwis...but blow me down, they ski on volcanos, give children rubbers, and drink piss??? Thanks for sharing this, now I know bugger all. Smiles.

Evelyn Saenz wrote 10 years ago:

Rhonda your writing is always so amusing but I do believe this is the best one yet. I can so relate having lived in Costa Rica trying to learn a new language. Sometimes we think that English is the same everywhere but you have certainly proved that wrong. Someday I hope to visit New Zealand and this article has doubled my interest. Thank you so much for the helpful language tips.

Steph wrote 10 years ago:

This is a hoot! We homeschool so I will be saving this post for the New Zealand study! Also, i used to have a Kakariki for a pet...the most awesome little bird ever :)

Joan Adams wrote 10 years ago:

Oh such a fun read! Your writing is such a delight! I am sure that people who move to our area - in the southern part of the US - are as puzzled by our expressions. And I am also sure that even if I moved "up north" toward New York, I would face that same challenge!

Little Wandering Wren wrote 10 years ago:

Wot a laugh... you know what they say same, same but different!! It is honestly no different for a Brit arriving in Oz except that I know we get up at sparrow fart and I actually like Marmite!!! Good luck with your competition. Wrenx

Steve Thompson wrote 10 years ago:

A fun read and most interesting for this side of the pond. Yesterday I learned to not believe any "porkies" and now with the collection of "Kiwi"isms under my belt, I'm ready to be a world traveler! :-)

Erin Mellor wrote 10 years ago:

So no singing "Root, root, root for the home team" then? When I was small my Dad had a cheery friend called Larry. I was in my 20's before I realised that not everyone could know the same Larry, so "Happy as Larry" was just a phrase not an actual comparison to Uncle Larry.

Diana wrote 10 years ago:

Reading this made me happy as Larry with a box of fluffy ducks. Think I'll take a pass on the stubbies. Still wondering about that word I'm not supposed to say?!

Margaret Brown wrote 10 years ago:

I enjoyed this very much, Rhonda! Who knew? Haha!!!! You gave me a great laugh and I thank you for that.

Karin Carlson-Schmidt wrote 10 years ago:

This is great! Living in a foreign country can be difficult even if you think they speak English! or our interpretation! I have family in Sweden and my parents taught us. They say we are about 50 years behind, haha!

Si @ Man Vs World wrote 10 years ago:

I'm a Kiwi - so I drink piss and eat tea, too! I wrote a similar blog post about the differences between the things that get lost in translation when I was in London. It's funny to hear from an American perspective all the strange things we say. It might be my favourite thing about travel.

Susan Cook wrote 10 years ago:

Must have taken some getting used to. And looks like you are still learning the lingo? Very interesting!

Ator Oper wrote 10 years ago:

This was really insightful and well written. Definitely the kind of stuff newcomers need to know.

CherylsArt wrote 10 years ago:

Funny translations! I wouldn't have never guessed about using root. I have heard of pushing up daisies though.

Ann Hinds wrote 10 years ago:

Probably the clearest example of language difference that I have ever read. I would be in so much trouble there trying to keep up with what not to say. If I ever go there, I will print this out so as not to make a complete fool of myself.

Kim wrote 10 years ago:

Awesome Rhonda, such a hard case. My favourite saying growing up was "I'll have your guts for garters", from my grandma.

S. Katherine Anthony wrote 10 years ago:

Oh my goodness, I enjoyed this so much, Rhonda! How funny and interesting :D

Melissa wrote 10 years ago:

I learned the hard way to not say "fanny" to folks outside of the States… Ha!

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