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Aotearoa ( ) is the most widely known and accepted Māori name for New Zealandmarker. It is used by both Māori and non-Māori, and is becoming increasingly widespread in the bilingual names of national organisations, such as the National Library of New Zealandmarker / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.


Place names are often difficult to translate, and the original derivation of Aotearoa is not known for certain. Many meanings have been given for the name. The word can be broken up as: aotea = cloud, and roa = long, (white being added in the translation as it is the most common colour of cloud) and it is accordingly most often glossed as "The land of the long white cloud". Or Aotearoa can also be broken up as: aotea and roa or ao tea and roa. Aotea = could also be the name of one of the canoes of the great migration, the great Magellan cloud near the bright star Canopus in summer, a bird or a food; ao = cloud, dawn, daytime, or world; tea = white or clear, perhaps bright; roa = long or tall. A mythological story or historical fiction offers a good picture of how the name was given or something of the ideas which motivated it. In some traditional stories, Aotearoa was the name of the canoe of the explorer Kupe, and he named the land after it. In another version, Kupe's daughter was watching the horizon and called "He ao! He ao!" ("a cloud! a cloud!"). A different story figures that it was actually his wife and not his daughter who called out these words. The story tells that the voyagers of that period were guided by a long white cloud in the course of the day and by a long bright cloud at night. Consequently, after a long voyage, the sign of land to Kupe’s crew was the long cloud hanging over it. The curious cloud caught Kupe’s attention and he said “Surely is a point of land”. His wife called out "He ao! He ao!" ("a cloud! a cloud!"). Afterwards his wife’s words and the cloud which greeted them, Kupe named the land Aotearoa - "long white cloud".. The first land sighted was accordingly named Aotea (Cloud), now Great Barrier Islandmarker. When a much larger landmass was found beyond Aotea, it was called Aotea-roa (Long Aotea).


The use of Aotearoa to refer to the whole of New Zealand is a post-colonial usage. In pre-colonial times, Māori did not have a commonly-used name for the whole New Zealand archipelago. Until the 20th century, 'Aotearoa' was used to refer to the North Islandmarker only. As an example from the late 19th century, the first issue of Huia Tangata Kotahi, a Māori language newspaper, dated 8 February 1893, contains the dedication on page 1: 'He perehi tenei mo nga iwi Māori, katoa, o Aotearoa, mete Waipounamu' (This is a publication for the all Māori tribes of Aotearoa and the South Island), where 'Aotearoa' can only mean the North Island. One of the earliest references to Aotearoa as referring to the whole of New Zealand is William Pember Reeves' history of New Zealand The Long White Cloud Ao-tea-roa published in 1898

Historians (e.g., Michael King) have suggested that the use of Aotearoa to mean 'New Zealand' was initiated by Pākehā (non-Māori). He theorises that it originated from mistakes in the February 1916 School Journal and was propagated in a similar manner to the myths surrounding the Moriori. In light of Reeves' earlier usage this theory is now discredited. Influenced by this English-language usage, Aotearoa is now the term used in Māori.

Another well-known and presumably widely used name for the North Island is Te Ika a Māui (The fish of Māui). The South Islandmarker was called Te Wai Pounamu (The waters of greenstone) or Te Wāhi Pounamu (The place of greenstone). 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, the name used by Māori to denote the country as a whole was Niu Tireni, 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 Argentinamarker. Staten Landt appeared on Tasman's first maps of New Zealand, but this was changed by Dutchmarker cartographers to Nova Zelandia, after the Dutch province of Zeelandmarker, some time after Hendrik Brouwer proved the South American land to be an island in 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 Danishmarker island of Zealandmarker.


Aotearoa gained some prominence when it was used by New Zealand band Split Enz in the lyrics to their song Six Months In A Leaky Boat. Their use of the name for New Zealand could have spread wider had the song not been 'discouraged from airplay' by the BBC in the UK. The ban was due to the ongoing Falklands War and a belief that the song would have been bad for British morale during the conflict.

"Aotearoa/Land of the Long White Cloud" was the name of a song from New Zealand singer Jenny Morris' seminal 1989 album, Shiver.

The Land of the Long White Cloud "Aotearoa" is a piece composed by Philip Sparke for brass band or wind band

Aotearoa is an overture composed by Douglas Lilburn.


  1. Since the 1990s it has been the custom to sing New Zealand's national anthem in both Māori and English "God Defend New Zealand", which has exposed the term Aotearoa to a wider audience
  2. There are several 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 were used to tropical sunsets, in which 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". However, this explanation works best for the southern parts of New Zealand, whereas the Polynesians are generally thought to have arrived in the north of the North Island.
  3. Huia Tangata Kotahi can be viewed online at Niupepa: Māori Newspapers
  4. The long White Cloud Ao-tea-roa can be viewed online at Project Gutenberg
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


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