Orsman, Harry

Orsman, Harry

In Brief

Harry Orsman was the pre-eminent lexicographer of New Zealand English. A prodigious reader of local literature and a lifetime collector of usages, for many years he contributed to major dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The culmination of Orsman’s scholarly career was The Dictionary of New Zealand English, which established a New Zealand lexicon with full commentaries. The Dictionary of New Zealand English received the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction and the History and Biography Award at the 1998 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Orsman was a member of the Komiti Arohi of the Ngata English–Maori Dictionary and a national committee member of PEN New Zealand. He also published popular, light-hearted books such as the New Zealand Slang Dictionary and Quotable New Zealanders.

FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE

Orsman, Harry or H.W. (Harold William) (1928– 2002), was the pre-eminent lexicographer of New Zealand English. Prodigious reading in local literature and a lifetime collection of usages made him for many years contributor to major dictionaries of English such as the Oxford English Dictionary.

He began to publish under his own name with the Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary (ed., 1979, 1989), the Macquarie Dictionary (contrib. ed., 1981) and the Penguin Tasman Dictionary (consulting ed., 1986). All these are dictionaries of general English with New Zealand (and in some cases Australian) usages specially included.

The first fully dedicated to the New Zealand variety of English is The New Zealand Dictionary (ed. Elizabeth and Harry Orsman, New House, 1994). The culmination of Orsman’s scholarly career is The Dictionary of New Zealand English (Oxford University Press, 1997), a major compilation by a team of researchers establishing exclusively or significantly New Zealand lexical terms on historical principles with full commentaries and citations. He was also a member of the Komiti Arohi of the Ngata English–Maori Dictionary (1994).

His work in and on behalf of literature goes beyond this lexicographic research. He co-edited the first Dictionary of New Zealand Quotations (1988), and the quarterly Comment in the late 1960s–70s, when it was host to some significant poetry and review articles.

He was a national committee member of PEN (NZ) in the same period. He has also published small popular books, light-hearted but useful extracts from his scholarly materials, the New Zealand Slang Dictionary and Quotable New Zealanders (both with Des Hurley, 1992). A roguishly provocative wit tends also to emerge at unexpected moments in his scholarly writing or when his expert comment is being sought by media interviewers.

Orsman was lecturer, then reader in English at Victoria University 1960–93, after a miscellaneous early career. He was born in Havelock and educated there, at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, and at Victoria University. The several sides of his accomplishment were acknowledged in a festschrift for his 65th birthday, Of Pavlovas, Poetry and Paradigms (ed. Laurie Bauer and Christine Franzen, 1993), which included original scholarly and literary work from many of his New Zealand and overseas friends.

RR

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Updated January 2017.