Skip to content

Whats In A Name Banner

What's in a name?

Tiakiwai Lower Ground Floor | Wellington

Aotearoa New Zealand has over 50,000 place names. Names that celebrate people, describe our landscape and acknowledge our diverse cultural roots.

They are a powerful record of our history and our encounters within Aotearoa New Zealand. This exhibition looks at how places are named, what some of those names refer to, and some quirky facts about place names.

Many of the place names in this country are te reo Māori particularly in Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island. 

Māori place names often tell stories, including the world’s longest single word name:

This place name is translated as 'The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who traveled about, played his nose flute to his loved one'.

Detail of Charles Douglas map Okarito to Big Bay, 1903. Ref: R15007619 Archives NZ
1903 Okarito to Big Bay Charles Edward Douglas (1840 – 1916) Manuscript Map Archives NZ R15007619

Charlie Douglas

Charlie Douglas spent nearly forty years exploring the remoter parts of Westland. He was a prolific place-namer;

"I confess it is not easy to give good names in a new country, especially when a number are required. After exhausting all the Jacks and Jills, the Buggins and the Biffens in the district, I have at last had to fall back on Milton's list of fiends and Homer's catalogue of the ships."

Sign post names

Sometimes the place name tells you a lot about how the namer feels about the place. Bilge Water, Boil Hole, Bowels of the Earth, Mounds of Misery, Rotten Tommy, Snuffle Nose, Tar Barrell, the Cesspool, and World’s End are all official names.
Place Name Signs