Story: Place names

Page 7. Māori and Pākehā names

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A distinctive aspect of New Zealand place naming is the interplay of Māori and non-Māori names. European naming displaced Māori names. This was little discussed by Pākehā at the time. Māori continued to use their own place names as well as new names. New names were often for new features, like towns. Many features which Māori had named, such as eel weirs or fishing grounds, were unfamiliar to Europeans, or were obliterated in the course of settlement.

Fading heroes of Empire

Pātea and Waitara in Taranaki had their names changed by the government to Carlyle and Raleigh. But the locals preferred their original names and they quickly reverted.

Māori names

Māori names survived European settlement mostly in places with significant Māori populations in the central North Island and Northland.

In some areas European place names reverted to the original Māori names – sometimes on account of duplication of European names, which became evident once a national postal system was established in the 1870s. Usually the more recent North Island name was abandoned. Sometimes there was a simple readiness by Europeans to use the Māori name, independent of their attitudes to local Māori and despite pressure from the authorities. Places like Taihape, Ohakune, Raetihi, Taumarunui, Rotorua, Taupō, Whakatāne, Tauranga, Te Kūiti, Te Awamutu and Ngāruawāhia had European names only fleetingly.

Official policy

Joseph Ward successfully moved an amendment to the Designation of Districts Act 1894 which specified that any future naming or name alterations would give preference to original Māori names. Where Māori names had been corrupted or misspelt they could be altered by proclamation, though this was not often done – Kurow in North Otago was not changed back to Kohurau. James Herries Beattie complained that the Post Office and Railways were ‘clapping on manufactured Maori names to places where we have no record of Maoris having ever lived.’ 1 Manui (in Rangitīkei), a name made from Masterton and Tīnui small farms association, was an example. Kononi, the Māori word for twisted, replaced Corkscrew Road in South Otago.

The New Zealand Geographic Board set up in 1946 was required to have two Māori members out of a board of seven, headed by the surveyor general. They collected Māori place names and determined which ‘alien’ names appearing on official maps should be replaced by Māori or ‘British’ names.


Major rivers throughout New Zealand were often given European names but later reverted to earlier Māori names. Thames gave a name to town and district but the river has reverted to Waihou. In Hawke's Bay the Ngaruroro and Tukituki, and in Canterbury the Rakaia, Waimakariri and Rangitātā all reverted to their Māori names. The only major rivers with non-Māori names are the Clarence, Buller, Grey and Clutha.

Up the ’Naki

Colloquialisms in New Zealand English from Māori include ‘the heke’ (Waiheke), ’Naki (Taranaki), ’Kato (Waikato), Paraparam’ or P’ram’ (Paraparaumu) and ‘Piecock’ (Paekākāriki). Māori names are often mispronounced. ‘Waikikamukau’ is a name which puns on this mispronunciation (‘why kick a moo cow’).


Some Māori names were transliterations of European names, such as Pōneke for Port Nicholson or Ākarana for Auckland. Missionary Richard Taylor named settlements along the Whanganui River Ātene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Hiruhārama (Jerusalem) and Rānana (London). Red Rocks near Wellington is distinctive in being the European version of a Māori name (Pariwhero). Names mixing Māori and Scottish words include Gleniti near Timaru and Glenomaru near Balclutha.

Suburbs and streets

Suburb names vary from one part of the country to another. Christchurch has about 80 suburb names of which perhaps five are Māori. Auckland has a higher percentage, including Kohimarama, Ōrākei, Remuera and Takapuna.

A clutch of Māori names recur in street names, most often birds or trees: tūī, kākā, korimako and kererū, and tōtara, tītoki, karamū, mataī, karaka and kōwhai. In most cities such names appear in clusters.

Less common are references to Māori individuals. Taupō has Heuheu and Tamamutu streets, Rotorua has Arawa, Tūtānekai and Hinemoa streets, and Hutt Valley has the suburb Epuni (Te Puni).

New towns

Towns built for mill or forestry workers in the 1960s – Tokoroa, Murupara, Kawerau – were given Māori names. But private developers tend to eschew Māori in favour of ‘stately’ English names, often with suffixes like Gardens, Park or Heights.

Double naming

In the 1990s and early 2000s some places were given an official double name – in both English and Māori – for example Matiu/Somes Island, and Mt Taranaki or Egmont. Those decisions were both made by the Geographic Board, but others came through legislation. Government reparation for Māori tribal claims has included restoring place names. One settlement with South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu specified 96 place name alterations. Most acquired double names in English and Māori and these now appear on maps. Aotearoa New Zealand is also often heard.

The Geographic Board, also now known as Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa, is explicitly required to encourage the use of original Māori place names on official maps and has protocols for that purpose. However the Board is precluded from changing the name of the country.

  1. James Herries Beattie, European place-names in southern New Zealand. Gore: Mataura Ensign, 1912, p. 5. › Back
How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Place names - Māori and Pākehā names', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 24 Nov 2008