The many strange names of New Zealand: From Wet Jacket Arm to Hoon Hay, what’s with our oddball place names?

Karolin Potter doesn’t laugh as much now when she takes the slow sweep south along Lyttelton Street before crossing the Heathcote River and leaving her home suburb of Spreydon for neighbouring Hoon Hay.

She used to.

“I’m not a Christchurch native, so when we moved here we thought it was absolutely hilarious. Hoon Hay – what a name!

“It was quite a while before we stopped [laughing], because it is such a ridiculous name. But sometimes I still think, as I’m turning to go there, ‘You know what? That name’s really weird’.”

To be fair to Potter, the Waihoro/Spreydon-Cashmere Community Board chairwoman and longtime champion of south-central Christchurch, she’s far from the only one to let slip a giggle at humble Hoon Hay’s expense.

She remembers a comedian years ago whose favourite hometown joke was a riff on the suburb’s name and its – actually non-existent – connection to one of the city’s most famous families.

There was Sir James Hay, the philanthropist founder of Hay’s department store, and his twin sons, former longtime Christchurch mayor Sir Hamish Hay and cardiologist and anti-smoking campaigner Sir David Hay, the comedian would tell his audience, Potter says.

“‘And then there’s their cousin – Hoon’, he would say. People just split their sides with laughter.

“They were simpler days.”

As were, in some respects, the 1850s when, according to A.W. Reed’s Place Names of New Zealand, the suburb’s peculiar name likely came into existence.

“There has been much speculation about this unusual name, some people even suspecting that it was of Chinese origin,” the 2010 revised edition of the book says.

The more likely story is that Hoon Hay is a nod to the Derbyshire, England, farm of the same name belonging to Captain Wickham Harvey and his wife, who emigrated to Christchurch in 1852 and took up two 20 hectare plots of land, the book says.

Our modern brains think of a hoon as something close to young drivers with fat exhaust pipes and lowered suspensions marking their territory on Saturday night circuits around the garden city’s four avenues.

But according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, ‘hoon’ means hill or mound.

And ‘hay’ doesn’t refer to captains of industry or powerful city leaders, but enclosures or, in the more modern form, hedges, according to Place Names of New Zealand.

Still, if provenance prioritised choice over fact the old Hoon Hay joke would, for Potter, make its way into the city’s histories.

“Hoon Hay’s not a hill and it never had a hedge. I love the joke version – and I think it has more relevance because everyone knows who the Hays were.”

‘Our names can teach us much’


There’s plenty more place names across the more than 700 islands that make up our little slice of South Pacific paradise, and many with meaningful – or downright unusual – stories behind them to enjoy.

Fifty-thousand-five-hundred-and-nineteen to be exact, according to the New Zealand Geographic Board Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa.

Not bad for an archipelago at the bottom of the world with a land mass that covers barely more than 268,000 sq km.

There’s the familiar ones, the imagined dividing line between Auckland and the rest of the country that is the Bombay Hills – named for the ship many early European settlers came to the future SuperCity on, the intriguingly-named Wellington film hub of Miramar, or the impossible to ignore Auckland landmark, Rangitoto.

And there’s the less so, a Marlborough Sounds’ bay named for an alleged monkey sighting and a remote and spectacular spot at the other end of the island capturing the dismal weather experience of some of New Zealand’s earliest European explorers.

Others are Anglicised versions of the original Māori names, bastardised versions of continental European-given names and, in the Timaru suburb of Gleniti, a name born of three languages, the Anglicised Scottish Gaelic word for narrow valley and the Māori word for small.

Others are just totally made up.

The name Waikikamukau (“Why kick a moo cow”) has become a running joke in New Zealand for any tiny, rural town, similar to “in the wops”, the Boondocks or Timbuktu (although the latter is a real city in Mali, West Africa).

It was also the name given to an Australian race horse in the 1990s.

The origins aren’t definite but one story goes that an American servicemen stationed in New Zealand during WWI found Waipukurau difficult to pronounce and jokingly called it Waikikamukau.

There’s names which are onomatopoeic – they come from a sound associated with
them – and many more which are simply highly descriptive of people and places.

Some tell stories of love, others of mishaps and, as with any history involving our imperfect selves, deceit and murder.

In his preface to Place Names of New Zealand, Peter Dowling, who revised the 2010 update to A.W. Reed’s original 1975 edition, wrote that how we call the places where we live “matters deeply”.

“We care about place names because they crystallise our relationships to the land, to language and to history … the study of place names can therefore teach us much about ourselves.”

One thing we need to understand is the land five million of us call home already had names when European settlers arrived and began imposing their own.

Replacing existing names was a widely used colonising tool intended to extinguish local knowledge, which was portrayed as primitive and in need of salvation, Te Wānanga o Waipapa University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr Dan Hikuroa says.

“You look at it now and you think, ‘If it wasn’t so abhorrent, it’d be absurd’.”

The practice of only having one name for a place was also brought in with colonisation, Hikuroa says.

Even where Māori place names were retained, some were shortened.

Among them is one of Auckland’s most well-known landmarks – Rangitoto Island, Hikuroa says.

“One of Rangitoto Island’s full names is Te Rangi-i-totongia-ai-te-ihu-o-Tamatekapua, [which according to Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand means] the day that Tamatekapua had a bloody nose.

“It was named after a fight between Tamatekapua, captain of the Te Arawa voyaging canoe, and the Tainui canoe captain, Hoturoa.”

File M for Murder

It’s one of our most-recognised physical landmarks, but the revered fixture of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf is far from alone in taking its name from a bloody moment of history.

A trio of Murderers’ – Point, Rock and Creek – are filed under M in Reed’s tome, the most sensational origin belonging to Murderers Point near the then-gold mining town of Lyell on the South Island’s West Coast.

The name came from an 1883 murder where the decomposing headless body of Denis Quinlan was found in a sack that had become caught on a bush down an embankment of the Buller River.

Foul play was, unsurprisingly, immediately suspected. ‘Horrible Discovery at Lyell,’ was the headline on a story in the New Zealand Times.

“The opinion of the doctor is that a fall from the embankment would not injure a child, must less sever the bones of the head from the body.”

A man convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life in jail over the killing, a few months later killed a Nelson Gaol prison guard and took his own life, according to Papers’ Past.

A woman charged as an accessory to the killing was acquitted at the direction of a Supreme Court judge, albeit not before he told her she “excited the passions of the men, and led up to the crime” and her conscience “must tell her how much she had to answer for”, according to the New Zealand Times.

It also reported that the woman was dispatched from court with instructions to “consider the disgraceful life she’d led” and be a better mother.

More subtle in its tale of woe is a rural Waikato spot better known now as the location for the Southern Hemisphere’s largest agricultural event.

There are several variations on the story of how Mystery Creek, near Hamilton Airport, got its name, Waipa district author and historian, and former Herald journalist, Kingsley Field says.

“I tend to go along with the robbery story and the mystery surrounding who the thieves were, and that one of them may have murdered the other.”

The story goes that in 1867 farmer Christian Hansen was robbed in the middle of the night and, during an altercation with the two intruders, was shot in the wrist by his own rifle, before his 21 gold sovereigns were taken.

Hansen made his way to Ōhaupō Hotel, where a doctor was fetched. But it was not a happy ending for the luckless farmer.

“His left hand was amputated just above the wrist. No chloroform, no anaesthetic at all, which meant they had to strap this guy down while they chopped it off with a saw,” Field says.

“It was very unpleasant, I should think.”

Another fared worse.

“Some months later there was a settler looking for a lost cow and came across the [decomposing] body of a man. Investigators established he’d been strangled and concluded he was one of [Hansen’s] robbers, who’d then been murdered by his mate, who’d done a runner with the money.

“And that body was never identified.”

‘Behold the Sea’

It’s not all bleak.

Wellingtonians have long bemoaned their less than stellar summer weather – the start of last month was particularly dire – but James Coutts Crawford was absolutely focusing on the positive in 1872 when he acquired what was then known as Watt’s Peninsula and is now most recognised as home base for the capital’s multi-million dollar film empire.

“The name Watt’s Peninsula is neither euphonious nor appropriate”, Crawford, according to Place Names of New Zealand, wrote at the time.

“Mr James Watt had no other connection with the land in question than the fact he landed a cargo of cattle on it,” he continued, not acknowledging that his name was again usurping the Māori name Whataitai, which meant murmur of the tide.

Instead, he chose a word of Spanish origin.

“The name Miramar, or “Behold the Sea”, is appropriate and suitable to the locality.”

Admiration of a different kind was the inspiration behind an old Central Otago miner’s dogged – and ultimately successful – attempts to honour a martyred British nurse.

Edith Cavell helped hundreds of Allied soldiers escape the Germans in occupied Belgium during World War I, a decision which cost her her life, after she was arrested, tried and executed in 1915.

But her memory lives on 18,000km away on the Heritage New Zealand category 1 bridge, named in her honour, which crosses the Shotover River at Arthurs Point between Queenstown and Arrowtown.

It wasn’t meant to be so.

Miner Jack Clark’s request to the then-Queenstown County Council was initially
rejected – they favoured honouring a mayor.

So Clark, who lived in a sod hut overlooking the bridge – which is now neighboured by popular tourist operator Shotover Jet – painted his chosen name on the new structure anyway, according to Te Ara.

“By the time the paint wore off, the name had stuck and an informal war memorial had been created.”

Affection, this time for the land, is similarly said to have been behind the naming by Kahumatamomoe, an early explorer in Māori traditions, of a spot where Waikato’s Waihou River divides into two streams, according to Place Names of New Zealand.

Kahumatamomoe was on his way home after an excursion to the north when he rested at the spot – and fell in love.

“His heart swelled with affection for the land he had come to love and he was moved to name the place Muriaroha-o-Kahu … yearning of Kahu.”

The many mountains of woe

Not all names come from a place of affection.

Marlborough’s Vinegar Point marks the place in Taylor Pass where two early European settlers travelling home by horse and trap one cold night mistakenly popped the cork on a bottle of vinegar, instead of the expected warming draught of brandy.

And in this land of oft-inclement weather, there’s more than one Mt Misery, along with Nelson Lakes’ Mt Hopeless, Canterbury’s Mt Blowhard and Fiordland’s Mt Soaker.

The latter finds itself among a swag of appropriately-named places in one of our most challenging environments, including one named by Captain James Cook after a party from the Resolution, Cook’s ship for his second Pacific voyage, became caught in a gale while exploring an inlet behind Resolution Island and had to sleep in their wet coats.

“After listening to their story, Captain Cook set down on his chart the name ‘Wet Jacket Arm’,” according to Place Names of New Zealand.

Almost 250 years later, nothing’s changed.

Pete McMurtrie, Tim Raemaekers and Monty Williams are Department of Conservation rangers who work in and around the remote inlet, which can take between 30 minutes and two days to reach whether arriving by air or water.

There they trap pests which threaten wildlife, monitor chick survival rates for kiwi (Southern Fiordland Tokoeka) and, last month, assessed whether pest control measures either side of Wet Jacket Arm to protect local kiwi populations should be extended.

Cook’s name fits, with an estimated 5m of rain falling each year, biodiversity ranger Williams says.

“At 45 degrees south and in line with the roaring forties, we can expect four seasons in one day. But on the whole, it’s wet!”

They try to work around the worst of the weather as it’s “not good practice to handle kiwi in the wet”, but were fortunate in December.

“So far, this summer, the forecast La Nina weather pattern has kept things rather warm and dry – for Fiordland.”

Snufflenose and Old Mother Parker

The name’s stuck, but so many have been pushed aside, especially those of Māori.

In downtown Auckland, there’s an area between two former pā sites called Te Reuroa (the High Court) and Te Rerenga Oraiti (Emily Pl) known as Wai Ariki – the Chiefly Waters, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei deputy chairman Ngarimu Blair says.

“The Waiariki freshwater spring still bubbles forth here. In early Auckland Ngāti Whātua
controlled the spring and selling water to early European settlers until the land was lost.”

One, Paora Tuhaere, would later tell the Native Land Court sailors had, after being turned away when they wanted water without paying, gone back to their man-of-war ship and returned with swords and guns.

“[They then] took the water.”

Names from the Continent made their way to our shores less frequently – Waiheke Island’s Ostend recognises a coastal city in faraway Belgium while Dannevirke – which translates to the frank “Danes work” – was christened so by about 20 Danish and Norwegian families who settled in the area in 1872.

Their choice fared better than Banks Peninsula’s Snefellness, thought to have been named by the captain of a Danish whaler in the area in 1840, but since then bastardised to “Snufflenose”, according to Place Names of New Zealand.

“The captain may have been responsible for the name (Snefellness), not dreaming of what British whalers would do to it.”

Māori could likely commiserate.

Whalers also mangled kirimoko, a species of manuka sometimes used to make an infusion of tea, and turned it into Kilmog – now known to travellers as the, at times, dicey-in-winter northern entrance to Dunedin.

Another Māori name butchered by early Europeans was Omarupapaku, near the mouth of Manawatū River, which was crudely turned into “Old Mother Parker”.

Many iwi have sought restoration of Māori place names as part of Treaty of Waitangi settlements, such as Ngāi Tahu for Aoraki-Mt Cook.

Anyone who disagreed with the restoration of Māori place names should consider how some places came to have their European names, and what that meant for those whose names had been taken away, says Hikuroa, who is also culture commissioner for the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.

“A Māori world view is that you are of the land and so if that land’s getting stripped of its name, what does that do to your identity as an individual and as a collective?”

‘It’s the place of the night wind’

Our place names have acknowledged birthplaces, explorers, children, pets, lovers, wild animals, ancestors, soldiers, poems, castles, stoushes and so much more.

And across all cultures, we’ve named places for ourselves.

Some places describe themselves, and some sound like themselves.

It’s the latter – the onomatopoeic names – that Field really enjoys.

“Like Ōhaupō, it’s the place of the night wind.”

That feels more meaningful than the name of a member of the British ruling classes who never set foot here, or a general honoured because he’d fought in a faraway land.

“Yeah, some complete turkey,” Field says.

“Who lost the war anyway.”

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