When every word counts

By David Larsen

Lexicographer Dianne Bardsley tells David Larsen about her love affair with words

Wellington writer and academic Dianne Bardsley.
Wellington writer and academic Dianne Bardsley.

This sentence is unofficial. So, linguistically speaking, is this magazine. English, it turns out, is not an official language of New Zealand. "Perhaps surprisingly," notes Dianne Bardsley in the introduction to Book of New Zealand Words, her new lexicon of Kiwi language use, "Maori and New Zealand Sign Language are the two official languages declared for use in Parliament and the courts, with the status of English in New Zealand remaining that of a de facto official language."

New Zealand English: a majority language so sure of itself it doesn't need legal existence? Well, she'll be right, I expect. "A common phrase that preceded 'no worries' in New Zealand; often shortened to 'she's right', and often accompanied by the term 'mate'." And, in its literal application, useful when talking language with Bardsley, a professional lexicographer who knows her stuff.

What exactly is a lexicographer? Among other things, it's the right person to ask for a word definition: "A lexicographer is someone who compiles dictionaries, basically.

It involves the study of words, but to qualify you've got to gather them into a lexicon."

It is, Bardsley says with enthusiasm, the best job in the world. She's had others. Her first was as a bacteriologist, working in a hospital lab. "I'd wanted to do medicine, but my father said no, that level of education was for the boys."

This was the 60s. But growing up, Bardsley had always loved language. "I read well before I went to school and I was always interested in words. I used to go off up the hill with a pad and pen - we lived on a farm - and write poetry.

"I was very conscious of the phonaesthetic aspects of words ... the lovely sound of them.

There's just a warmth about the sound of some words, a rhythmical resonance, if you like."

She left the lab to go into secondary school teaching, first as a science teacher, and then, as soon as a vacancy came up, English.

"Teaching literature was an absolute joy." She worked as head of English in a number of schools and it was during these years that her professional interest in lexicography began to come into focus, by way of the exercises on word origins and word meanings she devised for classroom use. Academia and a PhD in lexicography followed.

She had been startled to realise that a lot of people from town and city backgrounds were baffled by some of the vocabulary she grew up taking for granted - "the difference between tupping and crutching, for example". She did her PhD on aspects of rural language, a field which still fascinates her, and eventually became director of the New Zealand Dictionary Centre, where she was invited to consider producing a new scholarly lexicon of New Zealand words.

"The idea actually came from Oxford University Press, who used to part-fund the centre. The director of OUP Australia-New Zealand came to me and suggested that we do the book, perhaps working with our national museum, because the Australian National Dictionary Centre had done that with theirs. But the Australians had done these funny little paperback cartoon books. When I went to Te Papa Press and said, we're really interested in working with you, they took one look at the cartoon books and said, nope, it would need to be something more elegant. Which was absolutely the right approach to take."

Bardsley's Book of New Zealand Words - she had wanted a more academic title, but Te Papa persuaded her simplicity was in the project's best interests - is indeed an elegant volume. A beautifully designed hardback, with the cover and 26 art-works by John Reynolds, it includes a substantial introduction detailing Bardsley's sources and approach, and more than 1500 word and phrase entries, arranged dictionary-style.

There could easily have been more. The process of compiling a dictionary never ends, it just stops. Bardsley laughs as she says this, but her laugh has an edge. "The biggest problem for a lexicographer is knowing when to stop. I'm not kidding, it's a really serious problem. You always have to draw a line somewhere, and it's always a bit arbitrary. In the end, you only have so many pages - dictionary publishers learn to be very strict about that. So you have to make your selections very carefully because every word you let in pushes some other word out."

That is one reason why Bardsley has not included word origin information, which would have made every entry longer and brought the total word coverage down. But not the main reason. "Doing origins takes an incredible amount of time - and a book like this takes years to begin with. It has the gestation period of an elephant - and I tell you what, you have to be so careful. With a lot of New Zealand terms, the best you'll ever get is still well in the realm of folk etymology.

You can never be absolutely sure you've got it right. And if you're not going to be sure of an origin it's best to leave it out, because it only muddies the waters - and that's not scholarly."

The New Zealand Dictionary Centre lost its OUP funding last December, after OUP-Australia-New Zealand was closed, part of a worldwide wave of such closures. "It's because hard copies of dictionaries are not selling as they used to. There are so many free dictionaries out there online now. Even the OED Online is really only subscribed to by schools, universities, libraries and so on. And these free dictionaries are not well edited. Looking ahead, it's actually not good."

But if information technology is threatening dictionary scholarship it's also proving a boon. Electronic databases such as the National Library's Papers Past - which gives researchers instant access to millions of pages of 19th and 20th-century newspapers - have made the business of checking when words appear to have entered the language much easier.

"You'll know of Harry Orsman's great Dictionary of New Zealand English ... in the field we just call the book Harry, I often say to my husband, I'm off to bed with Harry. I've been working for a while now on ante-dating the usage database Harry established. He didn't have at his fingertips all these wonderful electronic treasures we have now. I'm going through and getting the earliest citations for those words, earlier than Harry could. It's a huge project. I'm not being paid to work on it now, but I'm still doing it in my spare time, because I think it's significant. And also it's part of this thing we have with the Australian National Dictionary Centre. We're good friends, but they're always trying to claim first citation - to show that words turn up first there, not here. Pushing back the dating as far as possible is always worth the effort."

Book of New Zealand Words (Te Papa Press $44.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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