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A study to officially cement the names of New Zealand's islands has brought to light myriad titles the young country has used.

But a historian says that although the North and South Island weren't very imaginative, most others were ignored in favour of the status quo.

The New Zealand Geographic Board this week revealed North and South were not official place names and is seeking to legalise them while also looking at alternative Maori names to use alongside them.

Maori editor for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage's Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Basil Keane, said it was largely unknown that the South Island used to be called Middle Island while Stewart Island was called South Island.

People also ignored the names given by New Zealand's first Governor, Irishman Captain William Hobson, in 1840 - New Ulster for the North Island, New Munster for the South Island and New Leinster for Stewart Island.

They were named after three Irish regions.

"It's a casual New Zealand thing I guess," Mr Keane said.

"Just to refer to the North Island/South Island.

"It probably underlines the reason why these names haven't become official. People get so used to it that when you just accept something, you don't look to make it official because everyone just thinks 'Well, that's just the way it is'.

"It's funny that we've never come up with anything more imaginative than the North and South Island."

Aotearoa - now only known as a name for the whole of New Zealand - was, in the 1800s, a Maori name for the North Island while Te Wai Pounamu had been adopted for the South. It wasn't until the 1900s that Te Ika a Maui came about.

Maps and documentation showed several other Maori names for the two main islands but dozens more probably existed, Mr Keane said.

"Iwi often have their own tradition surrounding a particular area so that's why you get those variations.

"For the South Island, they're obviously focused on greenstone because that was the most important mineral available before Europeans arrived. Whereas in the North Island the fish of maui was the most important thing."

The Geographic Board stumbled on the 200-year oversight after a member of the public proposed changing the name of the South Island to Te Wai Pounamu, meaning "the place of greenstone". A suggested alternative for the North Island is Te Ika a Maui which translates as "fish of Maui".

The board will write to iwi to seek their known traditional Maori names for both islands and will next year seek the public's views on the names.

A Herald online poll suggests 71 per cent of people want to keep just the English names for the two islands, 7 per cent think just the Maori names should be used and 22 per cent want both. As of 5 o'clock last night almost 10,000 votes had been cast on the topic.

Other places overseas that have been renamed include:
* The Texas town of Clark which in 2005 changed its name to Dish after a satellite television service. All 55 homes were given free satellite for a decade in a deal reported to be worth about $4500 to each household.
* The Chilean island of Mas a Tierra which called itself Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 to publicise its literary heritage.
* Hot Springs in New Mexico which changed its name to Truth or Consequences in 1950 when the host of the radio programme of the same name said he would record the show in the first town that renamed itself in its honour.
* The Spanish village Asquerosa, which translates as "filthy", was renamed Valderrubio in 1943 after playwright Federico Garcia Lorca spoke out about the connotation.
* An Austrian village with a name which translates into English profanity, believed to be named after an early settler, "Focko", has kept its name despite spending public funds on replacing stolen signs with the town's name on it. Residents voted against a name change in 2004.