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Aotearoa (Māori: [aɔˈtɛaɾɔa]), originally used in reference to the North Island of New Zealand, is now the most widely known and accepted Māori name for the entire country. It is often pronounced Listeni/tiəˈr.ə/ by English speakers, and is becoming widespread in the bilingual names of national organisations and institutions. Since the 1990s it has been the custom to sing New Zealand's national anthem, "God Defend New Zealand", in both Māori and English,[1] exposing the term Aotearoa to a wider audience.

A bilingual sign outside the National Library of New Zealand uses Aotearoa alongside New Zealand.


The original derivation of Aotearoa is not known. The word can be broken up as: ao = cloud, dawn, daytime or world, tea = white, clear or bright and roa = long. It can also be broken up as Aotea = the name of one of the migratory waka that travelled to New Zealand, or the Large Magellanic Cloud, and roa = long. The common translation is "the land of the long white cloud".[2] Alternative translations are ‘long bright world’ or ‘land of abiding day’ referring to the length and quality of the New Zealand daylight (when compared to the shorter days found further north in Polynesia).[3]

In some traditional stories, Aotearoa was the name of the canoe of the explorer Kupe, and he named the land after it. Kupe's wife (in some versions, his daughter) was watching the horizon and called "He ao! He ao!" ("a cloud! a cloud!"). Other versions say the canoe was guided by a long white cloud in the course of the day and by a long bright cloud at night. On arrival, the sign of land to Kupe’s crew was the long cloud hanging over it. The cloud caught Kupe’s attention and he said "Surely is a point of land". Because of the cloud which greeted them, Kupe named the land Aotearoa.[4] Aotearoa can also be broken up as: aotea-roa. Aotea is the name of one of the Māori migration canoes. The first land sighted was accordingly named Aotea (Cloud), now Great Barrier Island. When a much larger landmass was found beyond Aotea, it was called Aotea-roa (Long Aotea).[5]


When Māori began incorporating the name Aotearoa into their lore is unknown. From 1845, George Grey, Governor of New Zealand, spent some years amassing information from Māori regarding their legends and histories. He translated it into English, and in 1855 published a book called Polynesian Mythology And Ancient Traditional History Of The New Zealand Race. In a reference to Maui, the culture hero, Grey's translation of the Māori read as follows:

Thus died this Maui we have spoken of; but before he died he had children, and sons were born to him; some of his descendants yet live in Hawaiki, some in Aotearoa (or in these islands); the greater part of his descendants remained in Hawaiki, but a few of them came here to Aotearoa.[6]

Aotearoa was used for the name of New Zealand in the 1878 translation of The National Anthem by Judge Thomas H Smith of the Native Land Court,[7] the translation still used today. Also, William Pember Reeves used Aotearoa to mean New Zealand in his history of New Zealand published in 1898, titled The Long White Cloud Ao-tea-roa.[8]

In the 19th century, Aotearoa was sometimes used to refer to the North Island only. An example of that usage appeared in the first issue of Huia Tangata Kotahi, a Māori language newspaper published on 8 February 1893. It contained the dedication on the front page, "He perehi tenei mo nga iwi Maori, katoa, o Aotearoa, mete Waipounamu", meaning "This is a publication for the Māori tribes of Aotearoa and the South Island.[9]

The widely used name for the North Island is Te Ika a Māui, The fish of Māui. The South Island was called Te Wai Pounamu, The Waters Of Greenstone, or Te Wāhi Pounamu, The Place Of Greenstone.[10] In early European maps of New Zealand, such as those of Captain James Cook, garbled versions of these names are used to refer to the two islands (often spelt Aheinomauwe and Tovypoenammoo).

After the adoption of the name New Zealand by Europeans, one name used by Māori to denote the country as a whole was Niu Tireni,[11] a transliteration of New Zealand. When Abel Tasman reached New Zealand in 1642, he named it Staten Landt, believing it to be part of the land Jacob Le Maire had discovered in 1616 off the coast of Argentina. Staten Landt appeared on Tasman's first maps of New Zealand, but this was changed by Dutch cartographers to Nova Zelandia in 1645, referring to the Dutch province of Zeeland, after Hendrik Brouwer proved the South American land to be an island (1643). The Latin Nova Zelandia became Nieuw Zeeland in Dutch. Captain James Cook subsequently called the islands New Zealand. It seems logical that he simply applied English usage to the Dutch naming, but it has also been suggested he was possibly confusing Zeeland with the Danish island of Zealand.

In 2015 the New Zealand national cricket team played under the name of Aotearoa for their first match against Zimbabwe to celebrate Māori Language Week.[12]



  1. ^ "God Defend New Zealand/Aotearoa | Ministry for Culture and Heritage". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 29 April 2017. 
  2. ^ "Swirling cloud captured above New Zealand - 'The Land of the Long White Cloud'". 22 January 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2017. 
  3. ^ Jock Philips (ed.). "Light - Experiencing New Zealand light". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 
  4. ^ A.H.McLintock (ed.). "Aotearoa". Encyclopedia of New Zealand (1966). 
  5. ^ There are several other explanations of the origin of the word Aotearoa, of varying plausibility. Those that apply more to the South Island, relating to high snowy mountain ranges, or to the long Southern twilight, must be regarded with suspicion, given that Māori only used Aotearoa to refer to the North Island. One explanation derives the name from seafaring. The first sign of land from a boat is often cloud in the sky above the island. The North Island's mountain ranges sometimes generate standing waves of long lenticular clouds. Another explanation relates to the mountains of the North Island Volcanic Plateau. In some years, the mountains are snow-capped for limited periods. The supposition here is that Polynesian travellers, unused to snow, might well have seen these snowy peaks as a long white cloud. A third hypothesis surmises that Polynesian seafarers came from the tropics where night comes rapidly, with little twilight. New Zealand, in temperate latitudes, would have provided long periods of evening twilight, and also long summer days. Thus Aotearoa, would then translate as "long light sky".
  6. ^ Grey, Sir George. "Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race". New Zealand Texts Collection, Victoria University Of Wellington. Retrieved 27 April 2013. 
  7. ^ "History of God Defend New Zealand". Manatu Taonga. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 27 October 2011. Retrieved 26 September 2012. 
  8. ^ The long White Cloud Ao-tea-roa can be viewed online at Project Gutenberg
  9. ^ "Huia Tangata Kotahi". New Zealand Digital Library, University of Waikato. Retrieved 2 April 2013. 
  10. ^ As a counterpart to Te Ika a Māui, the South Island is sometimes referred to as Te Waka o Māui, The Canoe of Māui, or Te Waka o Aoraki, The Canoe of Aoraki, depending on one's tribal connections. Most of the South Island is settled by the descendants of Aoraki, after whom the country's highest mountain is named (according to legend, he was turned into the mountain), but the northern end was settled by tribes who favour the Māui version.
  11. ^ The spelling varies, for example, the variant Nu Tirani appears in the Māori version of the Treaty of Waitangi. Whatever the spelling, this name is now rarely used as Māori no longer favour the use of transliterations from English.
  12. ^ "New Zealand to play as Aotearoa". ESPNCricinfo. Retrieved 27 July 2015.