Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand, though it seems at first to have been used for the North Island only. Many meanings have been given for the name but with Maori names the true meaning can often be found only in a mythological story or in historical fiction illustrating either how the name was given or something of the ideas which prompted it. Aotearoa is made up of either two or three words, Aotea and roa or Ao tea and roa. Aotea could be the name of one of the canoes of the great migration, the great magellan cloud near the bright star Canopus in summer, a bird or even food; ao is a cloud, dawn, daytime, or world; tea white or clear, perhaps bright, while roa means long or tall.
The most popular and authoritative meaning usually given is “long white cloud”, and there are two stories current to illustrate this. It seems the voyagers to New Zealand were guided during the day by a long white cloud and at night by a long bright cloud. The more usual one tells how, when Kupe was nearing land after his long voyage, the first sign of land was the peculiar cloud hanging over it. Kupe drew attention to it and said “Surely is a point of land”. His wife, Hine-te-aparangi, called out “He ao! He ao!” (a cloud! a cloud!) Later Kupe decided to call the land after his wife's greeting to it, and the cloud which welcomed them. The name Aotea was given both to the Great Barrier and to the North Island, but the latter became Aotearoa, presumably because of its length.
According to certain authorities, the other meanings are: big glaring light (Hochstetter); continuously clear light, or land of abiding day (Stowell); long white world (Wilson); long bright world, long daylight, long lingering day, or long bright land (Cowan); and long bright day (Tregear). A good case could probably be made out for the land of abiding day, or similar names. Maui, who is closely connected with New Zealand in mythology, once snared the sun and beat him to make him travel more slowly across the sky. Perhaps Maui achieved the same end when he sailed south to fish up New Zealand where there is longer day with long twilight, particularly in the south.
by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.