Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's in a name?

It seems that the New Zealand Geographic Board has stirred up a storm with a recent announcement.

You'd think that knowing the names of the major parts of your own country would be fairly simple to get right - but authorities in New Zealand were surprised to discover that their country's two main islands weren't called what they thought they were.

In fact, it turned out they didn't have names at all.

Experts who were looking into possible alternative Maori names for New Zealand's two main islands were startled to find their English names - North Island and South Island - were never made legal.

The board had spent several years exploring a process for formally recognizing alternative Maori names for each island before they noticed that the islands had never been formally given English names either, board chairman Don Grant said.

'While researching this issue, we noted that "North Island" and "South Island" are actually not official names under our legislation, despite their common long-term usage,' Grant said.

To repair the 200-year-old oversight, the country's Geographic Board said it would take steps to legally name the two islands, which make up more than 95 percent of New Zealand's land area.

The New Zealand Geographic Board assigns, approves, alters or discontinues the use of place names for land features, undersea features and protected areas in New Zealand, its offshore islands and its continental shelf and in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.

South Island, the larger of the pair, is also known locally as 'the Mainland,' while North Island, where three-quarters of the population lives, is also called 'Pig Island,' partly for the wild pigs that English explorer James Cook brought during a visit and that still roam in the wilderness.

The issue has been complicated by the Geographic Board's invitation to New Zealanders to submit suggested names for the two islands. The BBC reports:

The Geographic Board wants to allow English or Maori names to be used in the future, but this aim is complicated by the fact that competing Maori words exist for each island.

They include Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui) for the North Island and Te Wai Pounamu (the waters of greenstone) for the South Island.

Maui was a mythological Maori demi-god who is said to have caught New Zealand while fishing from his brother's canoe.

Maori names appeared on early maps of New Zealand including charts by Captain James Cook, the British explorer and map-maker who claimed the territory for Britain.

New Zealanders (perhaps inevitably) seem to be having fun responding to the BBC report. A selection of their replies:

  • How about "Not Australia" and "Still Not Australia"?
  • They should be called: "South Island - the best Island" and "North (not as good as the south) Island".
  • Why not pick names from Middle Earth to get the tourist numbers back up? Gondor and Mordor? Wellington should be changed to Hobbiton, Auckland [to] Rivendell. The English names are ugly anyway.
  • I would call them the 51st and the 52nd State of the USA.
  • North and South are a bit bland. Perhaps we could call the north "Jafaland", standing for "just another flamin' Aucklander" and the South "One-eye Country", because they're blind in the other. Or maybe "Dairy" and "Sheep" Islands respectively, to denote the main population. If we're going Maori, maybe "Ika" (fish) and "Waka" (canoe). Then one can say the other smells like fish, to which they can reply "go paddle it". Point being, no matter what they're called, the already-ingrained attitudes between one and the other are not going to change.

I have my own memories of New Zealanders' naming abilities. One of its Maori names translates as 'The Land Of The Long White Cloud'. When the Springbok rugby team from South Africa toured New Zealand in 1981, anti-apartheid activists famously re-dubbed the country 'The Land Of The Wrong White Crowd'!



Grace Bridges said...

Proof that North and South are only colloquial names is that they are only ever used with "the" preceding, i.e. the North Island, the South Island, and never North Island / South Island. They are not titles, just descriptions.

I agree completely that Auckland needs a new name. Americans are forever getting it mixed up with Oakland. Rivendell...yes, it has something!

Anonymous said...

The BBC is full of shit on one point. I have lived in New Zealand my whole life and have never heard the north island being refered to as "pig Island" never ever. There are heaps of feral pigs on both islands, shot and bbq one just the other day on the south island.

The north Island is some times refered to as "the mad lands" but never pig island.