I was watching one of my favourite British comedians, Griff Rhys Jones, recently on his latest TV travel show aimed at his British audience, Griff's Great Kiwi Road Trip. Griff takes his audience all around our fair land, hailing its beauty and the unusual activities of its occupants in a humorous and, occasionally, bemused way.
The episode I was watching had Griff on the inter-island ferry between Wellington and Picton extolling the beauty of the scene when he said in his understated British way something along the lines of "over there is the… North Island, and over there is the… South Island…", shaking his head in amusement and possibly disbelief, implying that in this land of beauty, wonder and people who will give anything a go we have named our two largest islands in such an ordinary way.
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Remember that this show is pitched to a British audience and will hopefully help our tourism coffers in the years to come.
Growing up here I know that the islands have Māori names but we nearly all call them North and South. The official names, since 2013, are North Island/Te Ika-a-Māui and South Island/Te Waipounamu. That other island named after some insignificant British naval officer is Stewart Island/Rakiura.
All three islands have older Māori names and have also had other British names in the 19th century, New Ulster for the northern island, New Munster for the "middle" island and New Leinster for Stewart Island. There was some further fiddling with the names and boundaries until the British Parliament in 1852 abolished the names in favour of the establishment of six provinces.
Somewhere along the way we all got confused and, being practical no-nonsense Kiwis, we just called the big islands North and South.
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When one sits and mulls this one realises that these names are, at most, quaint and, at least, boringly ordinary, especially in the eyes of overseas visitors, many of whom have travelled throughout Polynesia with its beautiful island names. Coming to what is the biggest group of Polynesian islands by land mass and population, they see our main islands are named after compass directions and a minor naval officer.
You can see where I am going with this. Before you of a more traditional bent choke on your Weet-Bix with sheer indignation at my cheek, think about what I have outlined above. In practical terms we are in the business of marketing our country to the world. Tourism is one of our biggest industries, at the year end of March 2018 it was worth $39.1 billion for the 12-month period.
The simple renaming of the two main islands and Stewart Island as Te Ika-a-Māui, Te Waipounamu and Rakiura makes economic and cultural sense in the 21st century. In my opinion the Māori names are nicer to listen to. Visitors will get the change easily and it will help to cement the importance of Māori culture in this country.
Further, have you ever wondered why we call our country after Zeeland, a small coastal Dutch province bordering Belgium. We all know that Abel Tasman and his crew accidentally bumped into these islands in 1642 after unfriendly winds forced them off course, lost four sailors in an unfortunate incident in what we call Golden Bay - naming it Murderers Bay - and sailed on, leaving the area after naming the land mass he found Staten Land. Somehow that later got changed to New Zealand.
The latest names of the country are now New Zealand Aotearoa or Aotearoa New Zealand, depending on who you are talking to or what reference you use. There are currently moves afoot to change the name officially to Aotearoa New Zealand via petition supported by the Green Party. Despite my misgivings about this lot I have to agree it does make sense in terms of where we are in the 21st century.
We have nothing in common with Zeeland but everything in common with Aotearoa. Again, we are the biggest Polynesian nation in the world but we call our nation a misspelt name of Dutch origin. I do not see New Zealand's name being changed to Aotearoa in my lifetime but I guess it will come. Aotearoa New Zealand makes sense and rolls off the tongue nicely, don't you think?
Name-changing is a hot topic at present in our country with some wanting every non-Māori placename changed to a Māori name, a bit unfair and extreme I feel. However, there does need to be a sense of cultural perspective. Why not do what the Welsh do, and have signposted placenames in both Māori and English. This way we will subconsciously learn the Māori names of places, recognise both cultures and learn some interesting history as Māori placenames have interesting historic meanings.