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There's a painful aural assault which often comes from having the four-letter prefix added to a name, Dame Catherine Tizard believes.

It comes from the musical South Pacific, and the former Governor-General and Auckland mayor can belt out a pretty good rendition of it.

"Americans burst into song and sing 'There is nothing like a dame, nothing in this world'. And they think they're the first ones to do it."

It's a lighthearted warning to those women deciding whether to add the honorific after Prime Minister John Key instituted a return to knighthoods - a system dropped by Labour in 2000.

Dame Cath said many would find themselves in a quandary about whether to accept.

"I might tell you that I had agonies deciding whether to accept the invitation because I didn't feel like a dame. But I recognised that the honour was about making a visible recognition of women's rights to aspire in local body politics. If I'd turned it down I felt I was snubbing those who had made that gesture."

While she liked sir as a title, Kiwis were a funny lot when it came to using the female equivalent correctly, she said.

"Dame Tizard is very common. So I say, 'well I hope you don't mind me saying but you should use my first name. [And people say] oh, no I wouldn't like that, that's too familiar."

Dame Cath said she thought it was odd National was returning to the old system when Jim Bolger's government had initiated the move away from knighthoods during his tenure as Prime Minister.

But former world champion squash player Dame Susan Devoy welcomes additions to the club.

"If they hadn't brought them back, and God willing I live to a ripe old age, then I'd be close to extinct. I won't feel so odd now."

But she still felt sorry for those caught between eras who would have to make a choice about the title, when the decision around her honour was made by others.

Sir Douglas Graham joked that the perks of titles didn't amount to much.

"What I have found in New Zealand is that tradesmen tend to charge you twice as much."

The Labour Party said it was a move backwards.

"We've been moving away from the British colonial system to one that reflects our independence and values ... I think many people think that bringing back something that has the overtones of the British class system really isn't appropriate for 21st New Zealand," party leader Phil Goff said on Newstalk ZB.

The new system also clarifies honorific for those appointed to the Privy Council.

Mr Key said while no more appointments will be made, New Zealand members will still retain the title The Right Honourable.

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA