New Zealand’s slightly rude place names

I posted a while back about the names of New Zealand’s North and South Islands – which recently gained those terms as official monikers – along with much more interesting official names in Te Reo Maori.

A photo I took a few years back of the Tutaekuri River.

A photo I took a few years back of the Tutaekuri River, not in flood.

The result is that I live in ‘Te Ika-a-Maui’ (‘The Fish of Maui’) – the North Island – while some of my relatives live in ‘Te Wai Pounamu’ (‘The Waters of Greenstone’).

When I posted that news, one of my readers asked me to share some of the more – er – colourful Maori place names in New Zealand…and here they are. They aren’t ‘rude’, any more than English place names like Penistone or Shitterton are rude. Te Reo is a wonderfully expressive language.

1. Urewera. This region is home to Tuhoe, a significant iwi (tribe), and is a national park.  Here’s a review I wrote of the most recent book about the region’s history. In English, ‘wera’ means’ burnt’, and ‘ure’, among other things, means ‘penis’. How the name arrived is moot. Wikipedia has the clean version – a rangitira (chief) was sleeping too close to the fire. Another version is that the rangitira Murakarake was jeered by his son, had a fit and fell into a fire. The more likely story is a gruesome tale of infidelity. A cuckolded husband, seeking utu (revenge), hacked off the offending part of his rival and threw it into the flames. Ewwww.

2. Tutaekuri. This river flows through my home district. In English, ‘kuri’ is dog, and the nearest word to ‘tutae’ is ‘shit’. It’s reference to the colour the water goes after rainfall. Suspended silt from this and other rivers of the district  turned the Heretaunga plains into one of New Zealand’s top horticultural and wine districts. Thanks to rivers that sometimes look like doggy do do.

3. Tikokino. This settler-age town was originally Hampden. However, it was re-dubbed with the old Maori name to avoid confusion with Hampden in the South Island. I’ve heard that the name is a reference to swampland; and it may refer to the way crops grew in the area. Either way, the literal translation is ‘bad shit’.

4. Urenui. A town north of New Plymouth. ‘Nui’ means ‘big’, and I’ve already translated ‘ure’, so go figure – though ‘ure’ also refers to ‘heroic’, and I have heard that ‘Urenui’ therefore means ‘great hero’.

5. Waimimi – near Masterton in the Wairarapa. ‘Waters of urine’. Don’t laugh. Some New Zealand streams go this colour from tannin leaching out of beech trees.

6. Tutaenui – a township near Marton in the Manawatu, named after the stream that runs through it. A glance the lexicon above tells you the translation.

Are there any places near where you live that have, shall we say, colourful names? Keep it seemly, please!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Christmas fun, end-of-year wrap-ups, and more. Watch this space.

5 comments on “New Zealand’s slightly rude place names

  1. KokkieH says:

    Regarding those rivers in #2, 5 and 6…I live next to a river that consists primarily of actual “tutae” and “mimi” due to twenty years’ worth of neglect and mismanagement of sewage treatment plants upstream. It’s name does not reflect this fact as it was named much longer ago.

    One would think in a country where most place names were given by the Dutch there would be some interesting names, but apparently the Dutch who came here were the polite ones.

    • Some of the British names in New Zealand have to be seen to be believed too – there are hills named after prostitutes, among other things. Not very polite at all! A couple of the major cities were named in an effort to curry favour with investors, or because the founder owed money to someone (‘Wellington’ is named after Arthur Wellesley, for instance). Maori were largely practical; and often their names reflected the story of the land in some way.

  2. One that comes to mind is Mahtomedi – A Native American word meaning Bear Medicine. Or for that matter, Minneapolis means City of Lakes. There are a lot of Native American place names in Minnesota from a variety of tribes.

    • Were there ever instances where the settlers imposed names, then reverted to the former indigenous ones? That’s been happening here in New Zealand – and fairly consistently – for 150 years. Some of the very earliest British names never stuck. Others did, and since then there’s been a trend to return to the indigenous name in any case. Some of the Maori names have been re-spelt,thanks to early phonetic mistakes by the first settlers. The controversial one is ‘Wanganui’ vs ‘Whanganui’. There is a subtle but clear pronounciation difference – it was always there, but the original settlers never picked it up properly. I find it intriguing how all this played out.

      • I can’t say for sure but I would assume changing names has happened in some areas. However, the Native American influence has traditionally been very strong and stable here throughout the State’s history. The reservations are large and have not moved since they were established. Besides, with it being so cold all the time, everything moves slowly here. ;-)

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