Kurow, birthplace of All Blacks legend Richie McCaw, might sound like a Māori name - but it's definitely not.

The word came to be from the mispronunciation of the original name, Te Kohurau, a great rangatira (chief) who turned into a mountain in the Waitaki Valley.

And the South Island town is not alone, the country is littered with both mispronounced and completely altered Māori place names.

Wellington's affluent suburb of Karori, was once Kaharore, from "te kaha o ngā rore", or the place of many bird snares.

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Sonny Ngatai has been on a mission to ensure these names, and their whakapapa, are not only not forgotten, but celebrated.

"The main reason is to encourage the correct pronunciation of te reo, but also that if we don't pronounce correctly we lose the whakapapa, the story behind it.

"If you are a citizen of that community I think it is invaluable to know what it means."

Ngatai, who currently works as a social media adviser for Te Māngai Pāho, has previously hosted a TV series with Nickelodeon called Tiki Towns, which profiled 50 places across Aotearoa.

"We wanted to make something that explained Māori place names but which was fun for kids."

Sonny Ngatai is on a mission to tell the true stories of Aotearoa's place names. Photo / Supplied
Sonny Ngatai is on a mission to tell the true stories of Aotearoa's place names. Photo / Supplied

Recently, he has been using that content across social media platforms, including Instagram and TikTok, sharing short and humorous video clips with correct pronunciation and the whakapapa of each.

It's drawn a huge response, including from some "adult kids", with many pleading him to do their towns.

The most mispronounced in the motu - by far - was Tauranga, Ngatai said.

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It is often mangled with a variation of "Towel-wrong-ah", when really, it should be "Toe-rung-ah".

But rather than just telling people how to say a Māori word (kupu), Ngatai said it was important to provide the story behind it.

For example, Tauranga referred to the harbour as being a "resting place for waka" - like a "canoe carpark", Ngatai said.

"I don't want people to feel patronised, so rather than just saying, 'Say it like this', I want to give the whakapapa behind so people understand why it is important to get it correct.

"When they are mispronounced they don't mean anything, but when said correctly they tell a rich story."

The Māori name for Auckland is Tāmaki Makaurau, which means "place of a hundred lovers", among variations.

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It refers to the desirable, fertile site at the hub of a network of waterways taking travellers north, south, east or west.

Meanwhile, the English name, Auckland, is named after Lord Auckland, who never visited the area.

Within Tāmaki Makaurau, too, place names spoke to incredible tales.

Manukau, means birds just passing by, thought to have came from rangatira Hoturoa travelling through the harbour on the Tainui waka.

Another name in danger was Te Kauwhata - commonly mispronounced as "Te Koh-what-ah", instead of the correct "Te Koh-fah-tu".

Sonny Ngatai was the host of Tiki Towns, which screened on Nickelodeon. Photo / Supplied
Sonny Ngatai was the host of Tiki Towns, which screened on Nickelodeon. Photo / Supplied

The term actually refers to an ancient settlement in the middle of a lake in the area, Lake Waikare.

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Te Kauwhata (originally named Tā Kauwhata) refers to the empty store houses that stood on this settlement, protecting food from pests on the mainland.

Ngatai said they discovered this story while shooting their series after speaking to a kaumatua at the local marae.

"It just showed how unless we record and share these stories, they are at risk of being lost."

Ngatai was born in Rotorua, which means "second lake".

Ngatai's parents were part of the generation who were not encouraged to learn their reo, with their own parents in the generation beaten by teachers in state schools for speaking their mother tongue.

"But my parents wanted us to speak it, so we were really fortunate and went to kohanga reo and te kura kaupapa Māori."

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He'd always wanted to work in TV, practising his Te Karerere sign-off since he was a tamariki.

He started at Hahana at 18, and then later worked on Tiki Towns for Nickelodeon.

He now works for Te Māngai Pāho helping government departments and agencies in social media content around te reo.

"Te reo Māori has made my dreams come true, and is the only reason I am where I am.

"I wholeheartedly believe, not just for Māori, that it helps knowing more about New Zealand identity and more of who we are - it is like a little secret door into another world."

The TikTok pronunciation videos are "just for fun" he says, but also to help those who might be struggling with their pronunciation.

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"It is a real delicate situation. For anyone struggling, my advice is to keep going.

"And if you hear someone struggling, just try and understand it is a difficult process for some, and acknowledge that they are trying, and encourage them."

The whakapapa of Aotearoa's place names, as told by Sonny Ngatai

Aoteaora/New Zealand - The most famous story is Kupe discovered Aotearoa, but it was his wife who named it. Once she first sighted land, she called out, "He Ao He Ao, he Aotearoa - land of a long white cloud."

Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland - Tāmaki Makaurau which means, among variations, "place of a hundred lovers". It refers to the desirable, fertile site at the hub of a network of waterways taking travellers north, south, east or west. Meanwhile, the English name, Auckland, is named after Lord Auckland, who never visited the area.

Paeroa - A well-known name among many Kiwis and world famous in New Zealand for L&P. The full name is Te Paeroa o Toi te Huatahi, meaning the long range of Toi te Huatahi. Toi te Huatahi was a famous explorer who named many places. In recognition of his incredible intrepid ability, Paeroa was named after him.

Tauranga - Long ago Tauranga was used as a resting place for travellers in the area, a "waka carpark".

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Rotorua - Often though to mean "two lakes", Rotorua actually means "second lake". The full name is Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe, but has been shortened over time to Rotorua. It was discovered by the great explorer Ihenga, and named after he discovered Rotoiti, small lake, first.

Kaikōura - Kaikōura tells the story of Tama ki te Raki, a Māori explorer known for cooking kōura (crayfish) in the area. The full name of Kaikōura, is Te Ahi Kaikōura a Tama ki te Raki. Te ahi, meaning the fire, kaikōura, to eat crayfish, and Tama ki te Raki, the great explorer.

Taupō - Full name: Taupō nui-a-Tia, meaning the great cloak of Tia. Long ago a great chief names Tia stood upon a cliff, that looked similar to a cloak he was wearing, hence the name.