This is not America

After episodes of the X Factor screen, I like to go to their Facebook page to see what everyone is complaining about. And there are complaints. After the first bootcamp episode, there were two very New Zealand-specific moans, both involving Stan Walker.

Complaint 1: That Stan says “youse”, which is not proper English

Youse might not be formal English, but there’s nothing improper or incorrect about it. Millions of people around the world use youse, particularly in Ireland, parts of England, New York, Philadelphia, Australia and New Zealand.

English is an imperfect mongrel language and sometimes the “you as singular and plural” thing doesn’t work. If I walk in a room with five people in it and say “I want you to come with me,” do I mean everyone or just one person? If I said “I want y’all/yiz/you lot/yous/you guys/[your local variant goes here],” it would be clear what I meant.

Even though “youse” is in common use in New Zealand, we’re not used to hearing people say it on the telly. It sounds weird, so people think there must be something wrong with it. But it’s just another boring old way of expressing an unambiguous plural of you.

Complaint 2: That a judge sat on a table

Near the end of the second Boot Camp show, the judges were huddled around their table, choosing their favourites. Judge Mel could be seen sitting perched on the table. Oh no! Why didn’t Stan tell her off?

In any other X Factor production, this would not be an issue. But in New Zealand, many people – both Maori and non-Maori – consider sitting on a table to be tapu. It’s considered very bad form to put your bottom on a surface where you could also eat.

In this modern world of Spray n’ Wipe, one could argue that the practical reason for this taboo isn’t an issue anymore. But traditions stick with people and seeing someone on the telly sitting on a table is very upsetting for people who’ve been brought up to believe such an act is wrong.

It’s not the first time a reality show has got in trouble for this. In 2011 MasterChef New Zealand seated some contestants on a table. Since then they’ve put the back row of the masterclass on bar stools.

Maybe both these complaints have more in common than at first glance. They both stem from Stan doing something that violates a strongly held belief of some viewers. It’s wrong to say “youse”. It’s wrong not tell off your fellow judge for sitting on a table. There’s some logic behind both, but it’s more about the discomfort of seeing or hearing a tradition disregarded.

But I feel encouraged by this drama. There’s a concern that TV3 is just using an overseas format to produce cookie-cutter TV that doesn’t capture New Zealand culture. But the uniquely New Zealand friction the X Factor is causing in some viewers is evidence that something very Aotearoan is happening in this TV programme.

Che-che, bro? Chur, mate.

I recently did a bit of research at work to help figure out how to spell the New Zealand slang word chur (and, yeah, that’s the spelling we settled on).

It’s a hard one to look into because it’s the sort of word that’s never used in any sort of formal writing. Online it’s most likely to be found in blogs, forums, social networking websites, but never stuff like newspaper articles or things written by reputable writers.

The first time I heard chur was probably in the mid 1980s, and yet it doesn’t appear to have made it into any Kiwi slang lists. Instead those are chocker with the kind of words that probably only your great-uncle and his cobbers down at the RSA use non-ironically.

So I guess it falls upon me – oh the burden – to get something down in writing. This is what I’ve found – there are two separate words – chur and che.

chur (tʃɜː)

  • Chur is pronounced with the ‘ch’ in ‘chop’ and the long vowel sound in ‘bird’.
  • It could also be spelt cher, but I don’t like this because it’s confusing with Cher the singer (pronounced ‘Sheer’)
  • Use 1. Chur is used appreciatively, in the way that someone might say “awesome” or “excellent”. Eg “They had a two-for-one special on Tim Tams at the supermarket!” “Chur!”
  • Use 2. Chur is used to show thanks. “Do you want this packet of Tim Tams? We bought too many.” “Oh, chur!”
  • Chur is often coupled with a vocative term, eg, “Chur, bro.”
  • The vowel sound in chur can be drawn out to emphasise the appreciation. “Chuuuuur! That’s awesome!”

che (tʃɛ)

  • Che is also pronounced with the ‘ch’ in ‘chop’, but takes the shorter vowel sound in ‘bed’.
  • Che is a shorter-sounding word.
  • Use 1. Che can be used to mean an affirmative, like “OK” or “yep”. Eg “I’m off to the supermarket.” “Che.”
  • Use 2. Che is often doubled as che-che. This used about the same as Use 1 of chur – to show appreciation or praise.

Origins

So where did this interesting word/s come from? I dunno… But I did pick up a few theories:

  • It’s short for cheers.
  • It’s short for choice.
  • It’s short for true.
  • It’s short for Christchurch.
  • There was this guy in Rotorua who had a speech defect and when he tried to say “choice” it came out as “chuuuuu”.
  • Howard Morrison invented it.*

I’m sure that it originates from Maori English, but how it got there is less certain. It seems that chur and che probably have the same root, but it could also be argued that they might be from two separate sources.

As a disclaimer, I should note that I did a couple of first-year linguistics papers and I have vague hobbyist interest in New Zealand English, but that’s about it.

Most of this is speculation. I just want to get what is in my brain out on the interwebs. If anyone has any more information or theories about chur/che, do share!

* Here’s a clip from Eating Media Lunch, where Howard Morrison claims to have invented chur in 1960:

Update: May 2010

I’ve heard a really compelling theory of the origins of chur from Te Rau Kupenga. He says it’s an East Coast term that came about through subtle changes over time and the influence of English on Maori.

In the beginning was parekareka, meaning “sweet as!”. This was shortened to kareka, then mutated into kelega via regional consonants. That then became chalega, which was shortened to cha, and finally turned into chur.

Update: January 2014

Legendary entertainer Toni Williams shared his story of the origin of chur with Sean Plunket on Radio Live. Listen here.

To summarise: in the 1960s, Toni (who was part of Maori showband the Tremellos) was touring with the Howard Morrison Quartet, ventriloquist John Zealando and others. (I think this was hugely popular the Showtime Spectacular tour.) From being on the road together for so long, the lads started to form their own in-jokes and language, particularly a way of closed-jaw speaking that was inspired by the way John Zealando talked doing his ventriloquist act. This led to the birth of “chur” as a stiff-jawed pronunciation of “cool”. Toni says that Howard Morrison Quartet member Gerry Merito was the one who came up with it. This new slang term spread throughout the showband community, eventually coming into common use decades later. This also led to the creation of “chur doy”, with “doy” being the stiff-jawed pronunciation of “boy”. Toni added that musician Carl Doy was called “the original doy”.

As far as theories go, this one sounds very plausible – a bunch of young dudes in bands making up funny slang. It also ties in with Howard Morrison’s claim that he invented chur.

What I’m most interested now is how chur seems to have come into use in East Coast communities – Ngati Porou country – before moving to the rest of New Zealand. If the Toni Williams story is true (or at least truthy), then how did chur move from the showband community to the East Coast? Any ideas? Share them below!