The database of citations for New Zealand terms and usages that is held at the New Zealand Dictionary Centre at Victoria University, Wellington, reveals more than a mere collection of words and the way in which they are used over time. We refer to our 45,000 term-strong database as a pataka of social and historical data, for each of the dated citations tells us much about contemporary attitudes, values, and customs as much as vocabulary usage.
As an example, consider the word raupo, first cited for us in 1817. The database records a host of information collected over more than 187 years. In addition, we have a range of early variant spellings, including rapo, rapoo, rapou, rappeo, rappo, rappoo, raupu, and rapu, and it seems the common pronunciation was “rapoo”.
In 1817, raupo was described as “flaggy grass”, and later during the 1820s as “a reed of a soft and spungy nature” and “a rush”. The uses to which raupo was made are many and varied. Williams’ Early Journals of 1833 describes a person constructing a canoe of raupo, Polack in 1838 describes a sail for a ship being made of raupo, while Markham’s New Zealand, published in 1834 describes its use as thatch, claiming “Rappoo is a flag or marsh reed”. Later, in 1842, it was identified as a reed-mace and was also known as coopers’ flag and coopers sedge, for coopers in England used reed or coarse sedge to put between staves of casks. There are several items of the 1830s and 1840s citing the use of raupo as a building material for whares and huts and later, Von Tempsky, during the warring years of the 1860s, recorded:
The troops had hutted themselves for the winter in huts built of a sapling framework, walls of raupu (a species of rush in New Zealand swamps) and roofs of long grass.
Raupo appears to have been used in building in conjunction with mangemange, toetoe, and totara bark, and in addition to huts and canoes, was used to make hurdles and rafts. In 1851, raupo made an appearance in the classified section of the Lyttleton Times:
Raupo!Raupo!!Raupo!!! The undersigned is prepared to supply the Inhabitants of the town with this invaluable article. It can be warranted free from maggots, &c. &c. A bed made from this article will be found a colonial substitute for goose’s down. There are several early citations introducing us to pungapunga, the pollen of raupo, which was used to make pua or bread. According to Morris, who compiled a dictionary of Austral English in 1898, its use as a foodstuff did not stop there:
The leaves are used for building native houses. The pollen, called pungapunga was collected and made into bread called pua. The root was also eaten.
Raupo was also used in poi-making, according to Zimmerman in 1946:
The poi is an egg-shaped thing, made of the pith from a swamp plant covered with a woven cover of raupo, somewhat like the leaves of the cattail.
We find, from Miller”s Early Victorian New Zealand (1958) that raupo’s involvement in our history has not always been a happy one:
Although the Maoris had burned only “a few bundles of raupo”, this was made the occasion of an armed expedition proceeding to the Wairau to arrest the chiefs on a charge of arson. And earlier, in Campbell”s Po‑enamo of 1881, we find that:
Had they shown the same assiduity in raupo-ing the walls of the house as they did in smoking their pipes, we should have no cause to grumble… Raupo has also had a figurative or literary function (Listener March 13 1999: 45):
A shadow would sometimes darken those eyes coloured light brown, like the velvety heads of raupo.
Raupo has been as versatile linguistically as it has in other domains, changing word class as a verb for the collecting of raupo and, in addition, becoming the noun raupoing rather than raupo (just as we refer to fencing materials as fencing.) We have compounded forms where lakes and ponds are raupo-fringed, dairy farms are raupo-ridden, raupo bread is golden brown, raupo pollen is sought, and raupo swamps, raupo huts, and raupo whares abound.
Perhaps the final citation should go to the writer in the New Zealand Observer of August 1813 with the Blackadder touch:
Then you build a tin hut or a wattle and daub dumpy or a raupo whare and call it an hotel.