Suddenly, New Zealand can’t be mistaken for a Kardashian

Until this week, New Zealand’s North and South islands didn’t have official names. Not even ‘North’ and ‘South’, though that’s what they were always called. Hmmn… ‘North’. Sounds like a celebrity baby name to me. Not sure about ‘South’.

Napier, North Island, New Zealand - winter 2013. I suppose not really likely to be mistaken for a Kardashian.
Napier, North Island, New Zealand – winter 2013. I suppose not really likely to be mistaken for a Kardashian.

This week the New Zealand Geographic Board has given New Zealand’s two largest islands formal monikers following request for public comment. Some 2608 submissions were received, from which the Board decided to call the North Island ‘Te Ika-a-Maui’ (‘The Fish of Maui’) – supported by 64 percent – and the South Island ‘Te Wai Pounamu’ (‘The Waters of Greenstone’), supported by 65 percent.

oldsouthDoubtless there will be nay-sayers who insist the island names are political correctness gone mad, they can’t pronounce Maori, and so on. Well, tough. Fact is that these Maori names draw deeply into legend and heritage, they are important, they are reasonable, and they have been in use for decades, alongside the English ones. Really, it’s  formalising what’s already in place. The decision has to be approved at ministerial level and gazetted – but it’ll happen.

In point of fact, the South Island has had a raft of names, I listed them in the book I wrote on the rise and fall of colonial socio-economic idealism in that island, Old South (Penguin 2009) – now out of print, alas.

Tussock and Echium - Patterson's Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.
Tussock and Echium – Patterson’s Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass. Not too far from Rohan, as movies go.

To the first settlers from Polynesia it was Te Waka o Maui – the canoe of Maui – and Te Waka o Aoraki. Eventually it became Te Wai Pounamu. Maui’s anchor, Te Puka o Te Waka a Maui, became the island of Rakiura, known also as Stewart Island. Such names underscored the vibrancy of Maori culture, contrasting sharply with the uninspiring ‘middle island’ adopted by dour Victorian-age colonists from Britain. Later, in cheerful defiance of northern dominance, it became ‘the mainland’. That stuck, colloqually, though purists may be offended by the fact that ‘Mainland’ cheese – a brand founded in Dunedin in 1955 and long advertised on iconic South Island subculture, is made in the North Island these days.

The place eventually gained the equally utilitarian epithet ‘South Island’.

Locations in the south were more imaginatively served. We find the earthy imprint of settler thought from the sunny beaches and bays of Taitapu to the wide plains of Canterbury and the misty peaks and sounds of Fijordland. Christ’s Church, Erewhon, Mounts Sodom and Gomorrah, even the Bowels of the Earth – a locale just south of Lake Wakitipu – reveal much of the hopes, aims and culture of nineteenth century pakeha.

Personally I think the new island names are fitting. And interesting. The fact that places have more than one name in different languages, gives them human depth. A point well known by J R R Tolkien, whose Middle Earth has become inextricably linked, these days, with New Zealand’s soaring peaks and golden grasslands.

As for the North Island – well, now it’s got its proper name, there’s no danger of the place being confused with a Kardashian. I hope.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


13 thoughts on “Suddenly, New Zealand can’t be mistaken for a Kardashian

  1. Not many people call them North Island or South Island, anyway (except foreigners). They are known as ‘the North Island’, or ‘the South Island’. The word ‘the’ is required. It always jars when I read a travelogue from overseas that talks about how they ‘travelled to North island’, rather than ‘travelled to the North island’.

    I really like how the Maori names for the two islands are now going to be fully gazetted as equal alternatives.. Remember the hoo-hah about Mount Egmont gaining the official alternative name of Mount Taranaki – and how meaningless that controversy now seems. I think Mount Taranaki is now much more common usage than Mount Egmont anyway – and that has been purely voluntary change, not driven by saying one name is more acceptable than the other.


    1. Not to mention the ridiculous debate over Wanganui vs Whanganui. Though it’s caused me a bit of a headache, because a lot of the historical documents I use as sources refer to the former. If I quote from the document, technically I should use the old spelling because it correctly transliterates the original source. But I find, helpful editors keep switching it to the ‘h’ spelling, which is ‘correct’ in current spellings but ‘wrong’ in terms of accurate source rendition. The usual method of solving it by interpolating a ‘sic erat scriptum’ works, but looks clunky.


      1. A lot of history books cover periods or places where spelling or even whole names have changed over time. Some authors set out the alternative spellings/names in either their foreword or afterword, then say that they’ll use one particular spelling/name throughout the book for simplicity.

        Even people can cause the same problem with changed names over time. Bonaparte or Buonoparte, for example. Or Wesley, Wellesley or Wellington.


    1. We Kiwis try not to air our domestic laundry too widely… 🙂 Te Reo Maori itself is a wonderful language – an official language of New Zealand, expressive, filled with metaphor, colour, humour, truth, and a joy to listen to. I should post some stage about what many of the place names here mean. Some of them are incredibly descriptive, often in ways that, well, let’s say aren’t exactly G-rated, but which underscore the history, cultural depth, humanity – and, often, ironic humour – of how a place was named.

      Do a Google search on ‘Urewera’ to see what I mean. This is a scenic district in the north-eastern side of the North Island (‘ure’ and ‘wera’, the latter meaning ;’burnt’), though the Wikipedia version of how the name originated is the ‘clean’ version and I’ve seen another, never published to my knowledge on the internet, that’s probably more credible.


  2. I love the names. And, as you pointed out, most places have many names in different languages. As for the North island, it does not have enough mAss to be considered a Kardashian. 😉


  3. Were the names given by the early Polynesian settlers included for consideration? I think it is wonderful to link the names back to the original Maori legends that tell the story of Aotearoa.


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