Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Up the Boohai

I went to write a reply to someone on FB recently, saying that something was all up the boohai, then needed to stop and find out how to spell it. I was struck at how difficult it was to find the spelling in Google: I had assumed "booai", but found - at last - that it was actually written "boohai".

That made me consider where the phrase had come from. I had assumed that it was an international term, but it turns out that I was wrong. New Zealand etymologist, Max Cryer, notes that boohai means "A long way from cities and business districts, out of the mainstream. During the 19th century immigrants arrived in Auckland from the region of Czechoslovakia then known as Bohemia and almost all settled to the north at the then distant rural district of Puhoi. The name came to mean faraway, the back of beyond, and the pronunciation altered to Booai. The up came a little later, in such silly phrases as 'up the booai for the rhubarb season'" (2006, p. 176). So why is this odd? Rhubarb does not really have a ‘season’ in the north of New Zealand.

Further, it appears that the passengers of the Auckland coastal ferry, which sailed Puhoi estuary, renamed Puhoi, "The Bohoi", because of the Bohemian community (happylovejoy, 21 January 2009). This may also have been referencing perceived cultural difference; perhaps strangeness. Linguistic shift may then have moved Bohoi to boohai.

However, the meaning noted by Cryer (2006) is not the meaning that I would attach to the phrase "up the boohai". I understood it to mean something dysfunctional, odd or wasteful with a hint of unpredictability about it. zbeckabee said that "out of the way, remote or non existent place, often in 'up the boohai' to mean lost [...] possibly in the head." BlueDruid related "I recall that my Dad sometimes used the expression 'Up the Boohai' to describe poor reasoning or irrational behaviour. He was a WW I vet and he told me that the term was used by the troops to describe some of the officers' decisions, as in 'These are the orders but they're all up the boohai'" (21 January 2019).

So there we have it: up the boohai: irrational behaviour; lost in the head.


  • Cryer, M. (2006). The Godzone Dictionary of favourite New Zealand words and phrases. Auckland, New Zealand: Exisle Publishing Limited.
  • BlueDruid, happylovejoy & zbeckabee (21 January 2009). What does "up the boohai" mean in New Zealand? Retrieved from


  1. The irrational behaviour meaning is the one I've always known. I think I inherited the saying from my mother's family. But then we live in Dunedin, and I'd never heard of Puhoi until I started checking out the meaning of the phrase today.

    1. Thanks, Mike: glad you enjoyed the post :-)

  2. "Up the boohai shooting geese with a long handed shovel" was what my father referred to as a bit of a load of nonsense

    1. Ha, ha: that is EXCELLENT! Thanks for sharing that one :-D


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