“Chur breather,” one Kiwi said to his mate. “I heard you were trying to be skux at that party in the wop wops last night but ended up looking like a sift”.
“That’s a yarn bro,” replied the accused. “I just yakked all night".
Why are those gorgeous, strange and uniquely Kiwi words the way they are? I did some digging on our country's finest slang words to find out.
The origins of classic Kiwi slang words
We have the Howard Morrison Quartet - a Māori musical comedy group led by Sir Howard Morrison - to thank for the diverse ‘chur’. It’s believed they invented the word during their 1961 ‘Showtime Spectacular’ tour.
Specifically, it went along with ‘doy’, meaning boy but changed to start with a ‘D’ because of a ventriloquist that toured with them who - like all other ventriloquists - couldn't pronounce 'b's. Thus ‘Chur doy’ became commonly used amongst the fellas.
One theory I've developed is if you say ‘hey’ in the muffled voice of a ventriloquist, you get a ‘hurr’ sound, thus, 'chur'. Try this at home by saying 'hey' without moving your lips!
According to Audioculture, at one point during the tour, a lady overheard the quartet speaking Te Reo and told them they were “arrogant and rude” for doing so. From there they decided to really adopt this new language, including 'chur'.
Apparently, Kiwis love slapping an ‘S’ on the back of words, hence the word ‘skaks’ or ‘skux’ as it’s now known.
That's right kids, to study is to skux #stayinschool.
‘Breather’ has a myriad of potential origins. The student magazine at the epicentre of all things breather - Otago University’s Critic - reports that the word could simply be ‘brother’ with different vowel sounds.
An urban dictionary account says that the binge-drinking, couch-burning students at Otago “take up too much oxygen breathing my air”, hence the name ‘breather’.
Having been one in a previous lifetime, I can report that at the darkest moments of breatherhood - being too many beers deep in the early hours of the morning at a shithouse flat on Castle Street - all you can do is breathe to keep you sane.
Unlike the previous words in this list, no real reporting has been done on the word ‘sift’. Who better to step up than me?
Sifting, in the real world, basically means isolating the important parts of a thing from the bigger object itself. Archaeologists sift through fields of dirt to find bones, bakers sift flour through a sieve to remove large clumps or particles.
A ‘sift’ or ‘sifter’ in New Zealand culture only sees a hookup as important. They will move through the important parts of a conversation, saying whatever they can to ensure they get to that all-important hook-up.
On a wider scale, they’ll also make their way through every possible sexual partner at a party or in town until they find one who will hook up with them. It’s likely the word is also linked to a ‘shifty’ person i.e. someone whose behaviour is pretty dodgy and weird - source: my brain.
‘Yarn’ being used as another word for ‘chat’ likely comes from old sailors, not for their borderline chat, but rather during a bit of arts and crafts.
One task on long-term sailing boats was twisting lengths of yarn (a thread) into ropes. This was a lengthy process and so the seamen would tell each other stories to pass the time.
Australian aboriginals, and later farmers, would also have ‘yarning circles’, which were custom-built social areas specifically for talking to each other.
‘Wop wops’, meaning a location in the middle of nowhere, likely comes from the term given to people who carried wool around in shearing sheds, named after the sound the fleeces of wool would make as it slapped on their backs.
Shearing sheds are almost always found in farms, which are often specifically built in the middle of nowhere, hence wop wops meaning ages away.
Having a ‘yak’ is slang for spewing your guts out. We call it a yak because that’s the noise you make when you vomit. Listen out for it next time you're neck-deep in a toilet unable to move your body!
Nothing like ending on a bit of onomatopoeia ... Kachow!