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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Maori Place Names

As many Maori place names possess either historical or mythological significance, it is usually misleading to guess at their meanings merely by translating the component parts. Notwithstanding this limitation, Maori place names fall into seven broad groupings: (a) Names bestowed by the early Polynesian voyagers to New Zealand or commemorating incidents in their visits; (b) traditional names deriving from Hawaiki – the legendary Maori homeland – or commemorating mythical personages; (c) names commemorating places or incidents during the migration or historical incidents since; (d) names that are descriptive of the places or features they represent; (e) names that are Maori versions of European names or words; (f) names bestowed, officially or unofficially, in European times to commemorate some Maori chief or an incident in the locality; and (g) careless European contractions of original Maori names. In this connection it may be noted that the Maoris themselves often contracted their place names.

(a) Names Deriving from the Early Voyagers

According to tradition, the early Maori voyagers, Kupe, Ngahue, and Toi, named many of New Zealand's coastal features. Examples of such names are Taonui-o-Kupe (now Cape Jackson) and Te Mana-o-Kupe-ki-Aotearoa, which has been contracted to Mana. Motu-Kairangi, the old Maori name for Miramar, and Whanga-nui-a-Tara both date from the Toi migration.

(b) Names from Hawaiki and Polynesian Mythology

A few Maori names of places in Hawaiki have survived. Two of these are Maketu, in the Bay of Plenty, and Mount Moehau, a small peak in the Coromandel Range. Names connected with Polynesian mythology are more plentiful. Among these may be cited Aorangi (Mount Cook) and the various versions and attributes of Tane, the forest god; for instance, Otane and Taneatua. Mythical persons are represented by Maui in Te Ika-a-Maui, the Maori name for the North Island.

(c) Places and Incidents During the Migration and Historical Incidents

The ports of call of the canoes of the so-called Great Migration have often been commemorated in New Zealand landmarks. Examples of these are Raratoka (Rarotonga) and Tawhiti (Tahiti), while Taiporohenui, near Hawera, is the name of a place in Tahiti. The name Whakatane commemorates an incident during the landing of the Mataatua canoe, and Nga Rangi-e-toto-ia-a-Tamate Kapua, “the days that Tamate Kapua bled”, is now shortened to Rangitoto. Maori names commemorating historical incidents are quite common, although their significance has often been forgotten. Some of these incidents were extremely mundane and it is unwise to probe too deeply into meanings. Examples of these are Taupo-nui-a-Tia (now shortened to Taupo), Rukumoana, Urewera, Ngongotaha, and Tikitapu.

(d) Descriptive Names

These are often extremely fanciful allusions to the place or feature described. Certain components appear in many names of this class, and those recurring most frequently are set out as follows:

Maori Prefix/Suffix Meaning Common Examples
Ara path, road Aratiki, Aranui, Arapuni, Arapito
Awa river, valley Awapuni, Awanui, Awamangu, Awakino
Manga, Ma stream Mangaweka, Manganui, Mangahuia, Makauri, Makikihi, Makerikeri
Maunga mountain Maunganui, Maungatautari Maungataniwha
Moana sea, large lake Te Moana, Moanataiari, Waikaremoana
Motu island, isolated bush clump Motueka, Motupipi, Motuhora, Motutapu, Ngamotu
Papa flat, open, level area Papatoetoe, Papamoa, Papanui
Puke hill Puketitiri, Pukemiro, Pukeatua, Pukerua, Ruapuke
Puna spring of water Te Puna, Punakitere, Punakaiki
Roto lake Rotorua, Rotoaira, Rotokawa
Wai water Wainui, Wairoa, Waikato
Whanga bay, bight, stretch of water Whanganui, Whangaehu

In addition to these, the prefix “O” usually indicates that the name is an attribute of, or “belongs” to a person, while “Te” usually indicates that the word following is descriptive; for example, Te Akau and Te Iwituaroa.

(e) Maori Versions of European Names

Names of this group often appear quaint to Europeans' ears. Hiruharama (Jerusalem), Petane (Bethany), and Hamaria (Samaria) are of Biblical origin, while Ranana (London), Atene (Athens), and Karaponia (California) represent foreign places. The Apitihama (Opposition) block and Winiata (Wynyard) are Maori adaptations of other European words. Poneke is the Maori corruption of Port Nicholson.

(f) Recent Maori Names

These have been bestowed in recent years to commemorate some Maori chief associated with a district, or some historical incident. Waharoa is named after the celebrated Ngati Haua chief, Te Waharoa, while Hongi's Track commemorates Hongi Hika's Rotorua expedition. Unofficial examples of this type are: Te turu-o-te-Maki, “Mackay's stool”, in Marlborough, and Te Kooti's Clearing, near Te Wera, in the Urewera Country. More recently, Maori words, especially the names of native flora, have proved popular as street names.

(g) Careless European Usage

Early colonists often experienced difficulty in mastering the intricacies of spoken Maori. As a result of this and careless pronunciations, many Maori place names have passed into current usage in corrupt forms, such as Amuri (Haumuri), Petone (Pito-one), Mangahao (Mangahou), and “The Nunneries” (Te Nganaire).