As a lover of language and romantic teenager, I was somewhat underwhelmed when I first arrived in New Zealand and discovered some of the prosaic (dare I say boring?) names which the European settlers had bestowed on our fair country. Were “North Island” and “South Island” really the best that they could come up with? Was it necessary for so many of our place names to be Southern Hemisphere duplicates of European locations? And why on earth should our name acknowledge the fact that the first European to sight our shores was the Dutchman Abel Tasman, when we have no particular links with The Netherlands?
So I was entranced when I discovered that the vast majority of places have traditional Māori names. These names drew me through the looking glass into a world of lore and myth, where the North Island was a fish and the South Island a canoe, and where mountains were cloud piercers. Having not been introduced to them as a child at school, I immersed myself in storybooks about Maui slowing down the sun, and fishing up the North Island with his magic hook carved from his grandmother’s jawbone.
However, as the years went by, and as my ears became attuned to the sound of Te Reo, I started taking the history that surrounds us for granted. Papanui was the name of the suburb where I worked, not the ‘platform in a tree from which birds are snared’ which gave its name to the native bush which still occupied some 200 acres of the area in 1856.
Then recently I came across Ti Kōuka Whenua, one of the library’s digital resources, and the commonplace became remarkable once more. Ti Kōuka highlights sites of significance found throughout Ōtautahi (Christchurch City), Horomaka (Banks Peninsula) and the wider Canterbury region, and has fascinating snippets of information. Who knew that Motukārara meant island of lizards? Or that Pūtaringamotu, the Māori name for Deans Bush, can be translated as either ‘the place of an echo’ or the more gruesome-sounding “the severed ear”?
My favourite placename, however, is Castle Rock’s traditional name, Te Tihi o Kahukura, which means “the pinnacle of the rainbow”.
Why not browse through Ti Kōuka and share what gems or quirky facts you discover about places of interest to you?
*In case you are wondering, “rōhi” is the Māori for “rose”.
Great post Vanessa. I like Horomaka (the island of treacherous rock) and Te Pōhue – not for the name itself, but for the idea that it was one of the legendary homes of the patupaiarehe … creatures who would descend from the mist.
Hi Richard, thanks for this comment. I didn’t know about patupaiarehe – TKW is really a treasure trove of information.
Confusingly enough for English speakers, in te reo, “tuna” means “eel”. Here’s an eel weir (pa tuna) on the Wanganui, photographed in 1918.
Love the photo, Rachael. You have inspired me to have another look at CCL’s image collection. The photos of Cathedral Square are particularly poignant,
Yikes, the pictures of the cathedral under construction look eerily similar!
Brought up as an Englishwoman in Australia, I feel right at home in New Zealand but agree with your observation about the unimaginative names the European settlers came up with . My favourite is the Maori name Nga Makawe o raukatauri (hair of the goddess of music) for the “Hanging Spleen Wort” – a beautiful fern that graces our native forests.
Hi Lucy, what a fantastic example! It’s amazing how the same plant could be described so differently by different people.
Another one: Tapuwae kotuku (foot print of the sacred White Heron) for the Umbrella Fern. I suppose it all depends on what’s important to the observer.
Hi again Lucy, I like your phrase – it does all depend on what is important to the observer. This is why preserving languages like Te Reo is so important – they are so much more than collections of words; they are an integral element of culture (oops, little hobby horse of mine – I’ll get off now!).
I just love language – it’s a good hobbby horse to be on. We would lose so much of New Zealand’s character if we lost Te Reo, but like all cultures it also has to evolve to survive. English only survived because it could adapt and incorporate other ideas. Things like preserving names (and all the associated history) is a great way to keep a language alive.
Fascinating stuff Vanessa. Vangioni’s publication on place names around Akaroa that we have a digitised copy of in our collection is great, but has some of the discussion on interpretations – does Onawe mean covered with scars? Or was Nawe a chief? A.W. Reed has it as “the place set on fire”.
Takamatua – rest after a journey – seems a beautiful name. Otutahanga – stand up naked. Raumataki – sit and watch. All rather poetic and expressive compared to places named after people.
Hi Donna, yes, Vangioni’s booklet is a gem. I love the different interpretations – it adds to the mystique of it all. (I’m afraid I’m still a romantic!)
I’m enjoying the tv weather with place names in Maori. My favourite is Piopiotahi – Milford Sound. Just for the sound of it…
Hi Marion, Piopiotahi does sound nice. It makes me think of rain and birds – which I assume is quite appropriate…
It means ‘a single thrush’ and commemorates the bird (among others)
that Maui-the-navigator brought with him.
Just incidentally, piopio is supposed to be extinct in the South.
I’ve heard it call (it’s call is like it’s name.) Like the orange-wattled ‘crow’
(S.I kokako) it may very well be hanging on here in South Westland…
May I suggest (from info my olds gave me) that ‘birds Maui brought with him’ can also mean ‘birds that were especially reguarded, for one reason or another’?
They tend to have a sacral aura from way back – like one of my ancestresses: Motoitoi is a bird name, and that of a very especial bird indeed. Many of my olds have bird-names alternated with mountain & star names (as do living members of my whanau, self included.)
Thank you so much – just incidentally! -for having this most wonderful site available to us all. Cheers! n/n Keri
Hello Keri, thank you for explaining the meaning of Piopiotahi and for sharing information about the practice of bird-, mountain- and star- names. It really highlights the link that tangata whenua have with Aotearoa.
Thank you also, on behalf of all my colleagues, for the kind feedback about Ti Kōuka Whenua. And, thank you personally from me for writing The Bone People. I read it in my teens and it affected me greatly.
It’s a very cold thunderstormed blustery day here but – I feel very warm from your comments, Vanessaci! Thank you.
And truly – this site is a joy for backblocks readers (who may not be in the forefront of posters’ minds) – cheers me ka mihi mahana ki a koe, ki a tatou katoa- n/n Keri