It’s a phunny old world

Wars, famines, disasters, climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity.

These are the biggest things wrecking our planet and racking our brains at the moment.

While millions of people around the world agonise over the plight of so many, and over the damage we have done and continue to do to Earth, it is good to know that in New Zealand we can still get hot under the collar about matters which, let’s be honest, could seem a little more inconsequential.

To be fair, though, it is not just a Kiwi thing. It is part of the human psyche to worry about and focus on the seemingly more trivial concerns, probably because, when they are at grassroots level, we have more chance of being able to do something about them.

This week we were given an unexpected lesson in European history and abstruse spelling with news that one of the South Island’s tourist meccas, the South Westland township of Franz Josef, was possibly in line for a name change to rectify a mistake which has crept in during the past century and a-half.

It all comes down to one letter, or two, depending how you look at it.

The New Zealand Geographic Board is consulting whether to change the small "f" of Franz Josef to a "ph", after a member of the public informed it that German-born explorer and geologist Julius von Haast named the now-shrinking glacier after Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I in 1866.

Over the years, the "ph" has morphed into an "f". The township of Waiho (itself corrupted from Waiau) officially became Franz Josef Glacier in 1981, and then Franz Josef Waiau as part of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 17 years later.

Westland Mayor Helen Lash told RNZ the repercussions of such a change in terms of the costs to tourism operators and the council made the proposal unreasonable.

She said the idea had been met with widespread disbelief by locals and questioned how many other places around New Zealand might have a similar problem when there were bigger things to worry about.

Given the somewhat acidic response to the idea, it is ironic that "pH" is actually a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a substance.

If the board is going to change Franz Josef, why wouldn’t it be to its Māori name?

As Te Rūnanga of Makaawhio chairman Paul Madgwick said, von Haast’s naming superseded Waiau, which had been in place for many hundreds of years.

The whole thing seems rather phinicky to us.

Even phastidious or phuss-budgety.

Franz Josef. Photo: RNZ
Franz Josef. Photo: RNZ
Certainly, it seems like a fenomenal thing to do.

Some of you might even exclaim "fooey!".

It also raises the question of the spelling of Fiordland, which seems to be a very New Zealand way of writing it.

Should it be Fjordland?

Or maybe even Phjordland?

Millers Phlat? Waipori Phalls? Phranz Joseph anyone?

Phor goodness’ sake.

And another thing ...

Playing out in an Auckland court this week is a hearing of potentially monumental importance to academic freedom, to what universities stand for, and to science and science communication.

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles has taken her employer to court, alleging it did not do enough to physically protect her, and protect her right as an academic to speak out as a critic and conscience of society, during the peak of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Assoc Prof Wiles became well-known during 2020-21 as one of the faces of the pandemic.

However, her messaging about the importance of vaccinations and the way the virus worked was not welcomed by all.

She told the Employment Court, sitting at the Auckland District Court, she had been the target of misogyny and increasingly abusive and violent threats, including that she had been put on a "citizens arrest" list amid calls for her execution.

The university’s defence lawyer has suggested that Assoc Prof Wiles and other colleagues may have misinterpreted the institution’s urgings to cut back on their public communications.

Academics and scientists around the country will be watching the outcome of the case with a huge amount of interest.