Aotearoa (Māori: [aɔˈtɛaɾɔa]; commonly pronounced by English speakers as /ˌtɛəˈr.ə/ (listen)) is the Māori name for New Zealand. It was originally used by the Māori people in reference to only the North Island but, since the late 19th century, the word has come to refer to the country as a whole. Several meanings have been proposed for the name; the most popular meaning usually given is "long white cloud", or variations thereof. This refers to the cloud formations which helped early Polynesian navigators find the country.

Beginning in the late 20th century, Aotearoa is becoming widespread in the bilingual names of national organisations and institutions. Since the 1990s, it has been customary to sing the New Zealand national anthem, "God Defend New Zealand" (or "Aotearoa"), in both Māori and English,[1] exposing the name to a wider audience.


External audio
Pronunciation at Kōrero Māori, the Māori Language Commission website

The original meaning 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, 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". Due to 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).[note 1]


It is not known when Māori began incorporating the name into their oral lore. Beginning in 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 Māui, 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.[5]

The use of Aotearoa to refer to the whole country is a post-colonial custom. Before the period of contact with Europeans, Māori did not have a commonly-used name for the entire New Zealand archipelago. As late as the 1890s, the name was used in reference to the North Island only; an example of this usage appeared in the first issue of Huia Tangata Kotahi, a Māori-language newspaper published on February 8, 1893. It contained the dedication on the front page, "He perehi tenei mo nga iwi Maori, katoa, o Aotearoa, mete Waipounamu",[6] meaning "This is a publication for the Māori tribes of the North Island and the South Island".

After the adoption of the name New Zealand (anglicised from Nova Zeelandia[7]) by European settlers, one name used by Māori to denote the country as a whole was Niu Tireni,[note 2] an approximation of New Zealand.

The expanded meaning of the word was popularised in the late 19th century. Aotearoa was used for the name of New Zealand in the 1878 translation of "God Defend New Zealand", by Judge Thomas Henry Smith of the Native Land Court[8]—this translation is widely used today when the anthem is sung in Māori.[1] Additionally, William Pember Reeves used Aotearoa to mean New Zealand in his history of the country published in 1898, The Long White Cloud Ao-tea-roa.[note 3]

Since the 20th century, Aotearoa is becoming widespread in the bilingual names of national organisations, such as the National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.[9]

In 2015, to celebrate Māori Language Week, the Black Caps (the New Zealand national cricket team) played under the name Aotearoa for their first match against Zimbabwe.[10]

2018 petition

In 2018, a petition was initiated by Danny Tahau Jobe for a referendum on whether the official name of New Zealand should change to include Aotearoa.[11] The petition received 6,310 signatures before it closed on 28 February 2019.[12] The petition was presented to Parliament by the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand co-leader Marama Davidson on 1 May 2019,[12] and referred to Parliament's Governance and Administration Select Committee for submissions and consideration.[12]


See also


  1. 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”.
  2. The spelling varies, for example, the variant Nu Tirani appears in the Māori version of the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi. Whatever the spelling, this name is now rarely used as Māori no longer favour the use of transliterations from English.
  3. The long White Cloud Ao-tea-roa can be viewed online at Project Gutenberg.


  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'". The Daily Telegraph. 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. 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.
  6. "Huia Tangata Kotahi". New Zealand Digital Library, University of Waikato. Retrieved 7 April 2019.
  7. McKinnon, Malcolm (November 2009). "Place names – Naming the country and the main islands". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 24 January 2011.
  8. "History of God Defend New Zealand". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 27 October 2011. Retrieved 26 September 2012.
  9. "National Library of New Zealand (Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa) Act 2003". legislation.govt.n. Parliamentary Counsel Office. 5 May 2003. Retrieved 5 December 2018.
  10. "New Zealand to play as Aotearoa". ESPNCricinfo. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  11. "Petition for referendum to include Aotearoa in official name of New Zealand". 1 February 2019. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  12. "Petition of Danny Tahau Jobe - Referendum to include Aotearoa in the official name of New Zealand". New Zealand Parliament. 23 May 2018. Retrieved 20 April 2019.
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