When you travel to a new country, you and the place enter into an unspoken agreement. Yes, there are new words to learn (even if the language is the same one you speak at home!) - but if you make the effort and treat them with the respect they deserve, you’ll learn a new concept that enriches your visit no end. That’s the deal, right?
But if you’re heading to New Zealand (as we’re doing in March and April next year) you’ll find something different. This country, for some ridiculously tangled reasons, is so obsessed with one word that it uses it everywhere. And since the same word is used in the most bafflingly different ways, it can look like a traveller’s worst nightmare...
Yet the whole story is worth learning, since it has much to say about New Zealand’s national pride as a whole.
This, then, is what “kiwi” means.
We start with the definition that’s the most technically correct - and probably the least-used in everyday conversation. It’s a Māori word - more formally Te Reo Māori, the language of the indigenous mainland New Zealanders - which itself probably derives from a proto-Polynesian language that was used in this part of the world up to three thousand years ago.
(There’s something mindblowing to consider here. Before the 20th Century, Māori didn’t have a writing system - it was carried between the generations through speech and via a series of carved, woven and knotted symbols that conveyed what we now think of as “stories”. If proto-Polynesian was the same, this means that writing has a serious rival in the most effective method of transmitting language - and maybe our modern ways of communicating have a lot to learn.)
The word is onomatopoeic - meaning, it sounds like what it’s referring to. And that thing is the call of a small, brown, flightless bird about the size of a chicken.
If you’re lucky on your trip to New Zealand, you’ll see a kiwi(-bird) in the wild - regarded by Māori as the sacred bird of Tāne, the God of the forest. There aren’t as many as there once were: of the five recognised species, four have Vulnerable status, and the fifth is Near-Threatened. But if various initiatives in reserves and national parks do their work, kiwi numbers should keep growing for the foreseeable future.
(By the way, in Māori it’s “kiwi” for the plural as well as the singular. “Kiwis” is the anglicized version, in all cases.)
But where you’ll first see a kiwi (bird) in New Zealand is on a flag, probably moments after stepping off the plane. Or on a coin. Or a stamp. Or a rugby shirt. Or basically anywhere.
The kiwi became a national symbol for New Zealand at the end of the 19th Century, when it featured in regimental badges on soldiers. And when the First World War started and those soldiers went abroad to fight alongside other nationalities, the inevitable happened: the New Zealanders started getting called “Kiwis”.
(A few other things that hastened this international transformation along: in 1904, the New Zealand Free Lance newspaper ran a popular cartoon of a kiwi-bird transforming into a moa, to celebrate the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team’s first test match win against Britain. And then there’s the introduction in 1906 of Kiwi Shoe Polish, still going today. When I was in the British Air Cadets in the 1990s, I used a can of it to buff my boots into a shine I could see my face in.)
So when the “Kiwi” troops went home, they took the nickname with them. Sometimes these kinds of nicknames carry faintly negative connotations (like “Jocks” for Scottish soldiers) and faily to take hold in the homeland. But not so here. New Zealand quickly and proudly went kiwi-mad, using the name and the silhouette of the bird with liberal abandon.
(For example: when the New Zealand dollar was introduced in 1967, it quickly became informally known as the Kiwi - and when the bird was featured on the 1991 version of the coin, there was no going back. In modern international trading circles, you’re as likely to see “Kiwi” as “New Zealand Dollar.”)
All this is, of course, a bit absurd. Unless you’re from New Zealand, in which case I’m sure it sounds entirely rational and sensible.
But if all that wasn’t mad enough - along came the Chinese Gooseberry, an edible berry that originated in south & east China. If you see one in its just-picked state, you’ll see it’s covered in a kind of dense fur, maybe (if you squint) looking a little like the feathers of a bird…
So when it started being cultivated in New Zealand in earnest in the decades after the Great War, you can guess what nickname it picked up.
The sweet, compact “kiwifruit” was a big hit with servicemen fighting abroad during the Second World War, and when New Zealand started exporting it in huge quantities to Britain and California in the 1960s, the name became indelible. It is unclear what China thinks of all this - especially since it’s currently the world’s leading producer of kiwifruit. Perhaps not enormously impressed?
So the next time you pay a kiwi a couple of kiwis for a bag of kiwis before heading off to eyeball some wild kiwis, just remember: this is what travel’s all about. (And it’s also what travel guides are for.)