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What’s in a name

By Trevor Amundsen

I was born in Waitangi. I wonder how many of you know where I was born? I’ll explain later. The reason I mention this is that there is a growing angst about the apparent renaming of New Zealand towns and locations; an angst probably fuelled by Government TV more than anything else. I thought I would do the brave and nerve wracking thing and offer a view point.

Renaming of locations has always been something we do. The first name for our country as a country was Nouvelle Zelande, named by Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. When the English settlement started, they renamed the country New Zealand, an anglicised version of the original because they didn’t like those foreign words. The Maori at this time used the name, Nu Tereni in the 1835 Maori Declaration of Independence and this was later used in the Maori language version of the Treaty of Waitangi. The first known use of the word Aotearoa, to describe New Zealand as a country, was in a Polynesian History written by George Grey in 1855. What is the name of our country? We have had two European names and two Maori ones. Modern times have narrowed that down to two names and I personally find it regretful that the English were first to use both to describe our country. Nu Tereni anyone?

The English place names are generally names of people, to honour those people. That is why we have a number of towns named after second grade accountants, the odd murderer, political nobodies and so on. Maori place names differ in that they are often descriptive of the location’s purpose or history. As examples of purpose, just consider how often you come across a place called Kai Iwi or rivers called Wairoa. These names are a bit confusing, and their use does not offer any explanation as to whereabouts. For example the town of Wairoa is in northern Hawkes Bay, yet Dargaville is the main town in the Wairoa region. If you live in Wairoa, where are you? Maybe we should rename Dargaville to Wairoa and Wairoa to Dargaville.

Names that describe a location’s history are more defined and therefore more useful. The North Island now has two official names, one being Te Ika-a-Maui (the fish of Maui) and the other being North. One is too long; the other too insipid. Therefore I personally have grown to like the shortened version of the Maori name; Te Ikaroa.

The historical names get longer, Wellington has a number of names including Te Upoko o Te Ika-a-Maui (the head of the fish of Maui) and eventually we can get to the big daddy of place names Taumatawhakatangi¬hangakoauauotamatea¬turipukakapikimaunga¬horonukupokaiwhen-uakitanatahu. I haven’t got enough room to tell you the full story but it involves killing and flute playing on a small hill in Central Hawkes Bay.

The point I am trying to get across is that while place names that are small stories are interesting and definitive, they are not very practical and therefore will struggle to get everyday acceptance. The other challenge for acceptance is names that are meaningful to settlers and settler history should also be preserved. For example; the Norwegian Settler’s town of Mellemskov should be given its name back, this having been stolen by the English Government who renamed it Eketahuna to appease Maori.

I do not see us changing from the path we are on in Nu Tereni but do believe the names that will become most commonly used are the ones that are easier to use and identify a specific location. Oh; and before I forget, I was born in the Waitangi on the island of Rekohu. Meaning “Misty Sun,” Rekohu is the Moriori name for the Chatham Islands. Did you get that right?

Abel Tasman had charted only the western coastline of New Zealand, from about Punakaiki to the North Cape, and left open the possibility that the land was part of a great, unknown southern continent. The English explorer James Cook established that the land Tasman had discovered was in fact two large islands. The remarkably accurate map Cook drew of New Zealand after his first circumnavigation of the islands in 1769–70 was a marvel of cartography.


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