Why the pronunciation of manuka honey has us in a sticky mess

Why the pronunciation of manuka honey has us in a sticky mess

At a pinch, Kiwis can keep the Bledisloe Cup. And Keith Urban. And Phar Lap if push comes to shove. But there’s no way we’ll be sliding our manuka honey across the table. Not after the January coup in the UK’s High Court, the bench ruling against New Zealand’s exclusive dibs on the trademark.

This squabble runs deep. One glance at a body like the NZMHAS (or New Zealand Manuka Honey Appellation Society) affirms this honey furore to be a big deal. Big business too, with market value placing the golden goo at $500 a kilo, up there with Medellin marching powder.

The legal debate might be resolved for now, but what about the phonetics?Credit:Istock

Beyond a breakfast option, manuka honey laces throat sprays and lozenges, eczema and cosmetic creams. Its active powers lie in the UMF (or Unique Manuka Factor), alias methylgloxal, an antibacterial ingredient capable of stimulating collagen and boosting general radiance, or so the literature claims.

Anyhow, that’s the sales pitch. The buzz, if you like. Swarms of antipodean bees are making the good oil, accounting for the trademark battle’s intensity. Similar spats have erupted over other regional labels, such as prosecco and champagne, gorgonzola and stilton, but manuka is a trickier customer to adjudicate.

The sticking point is Leptospermum scoparium, being the manuka tea-tree. A true ANZAC, the plant is native to both nations. Though its name is pure Maori, just to amplify the kerfuffle. For the record, local apiarists established the Australian Manuka Honey Association back in the 1930s. In many ways, the UK ruling helped two rivals realise they shared one asset, one destiny. Though not the same grammar book.

Feel free to accuse Walter Burley Griffin in this regard. When the American architect designed Canberra’s maze in 1914, he included a Manuka in the sprawl, home of the eponymous oval. The venue has seen some fine contests over the years, from Brumbies to Giants, yet none holds a candle to the phonetic showdown surrounding manuka, the word. Does the tree rhyme with snooker or Hanukkah?

The Macquarie dictionary can’t resolve the dilemma, offering both choices, with an emphasis on MAR in the first option, and an elongated NOO in Option 2. Vital to note, there’s no MAN in manuka, as The Canberra Times stipulated in 1927. Yes, that’s how chronic this debate has been.

Queen Elizabeth, the queen of all bees, had her chance to declare the official version in 1954, when scissoring the ribbon to open Manuka Oval, but some pesky kids had been swinging on the wires that day, making the PA kaput. For all that, both oval and suburb seem to sit apart from the tree and its byproduct. As does an Australian knack of saying a Maori word, running counter to the endemic utterance in Aotearoa.

Every Kiwi site I visited this week, from radio to TV news, from honey industry to dictionary, made MAR the main star, with N integral to the middle syllable, and the internal u more schwa in nature. In some settings, this default has seen a macron appear over the first a, a short horizontal line denoting a lengthened sound, as opposed to a short French President snubbed by an Australian subclause.

So where does this sticky mess leave us, soundwise? Context is the safest bet. Most people I vox-popped consider the location to echo Hanukkah, while the honey is a handy rhyme for snooker. Distinct from most Kiwis, who like MAR (never MAN) for all scenarios. In the bee tradition, I suggest you pick a preference, and call it your keeper.

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