How Did New Zealand Get Its Name?

Milford Sound
Milford Sound | © Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr
Joe Coates

New Zealand has been put on the map thanks to its unbelievably scenic landscapes, amiable locals and hobbit-related tourism. What a lot of people don’t know – both tourists and Kiwis themselves – is how the country came to be called New Zealand. As with all names, after a bit of research and reading, an interesting history emerges and tells you more about the country than a simple name. We all know that sometimes the old human imagination runs a little thin and we simply call something ‘New’ after an already established city or place. For example, we have New Hampshire, New York and New England from the original Hampshire, York and England. New Orleans is named after the French town of Orleans. Even Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland! Take a look at how New Zealand came by its name, and learn a little bit of the history of this brilliant little island nation.

A bit of background

Firstly, although English is the first language of this little Pacific nation, it wasn’t actually the British who were the first Europeans to first clap eyes on what the Maori people had been calling Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud. (And yes, let’s face it, the Maori name is a little more lyrical and romantic than the English version.)


Whilst the well-known Captain Cook was the first European to land in New Zealand in the late 1700’s – on three separate expeditions no less – and make a comprehensive mapping of the coastline, it was actually the Dutch who rocked up a century or so earlier.

A Statue of Captain Cook, Christcurch

Now, the Dutch were seemingly well ahead of the game here, what with managing to find a relatively tiny speck of land at the end of the world. If they’d overshot it they might’ve ended up in Antarctica. However, old Abel Tasman and the boys were convinced that they were on an island off the coast of Argentina. After much muttering and a few hasty calculations, a bit of head scratching and some embarrassed looks, they figured out where they’d actually ended up. Presumably, Abel Tasman covered the awkward silence by proclaiming that this new land was to be called… Nieuw Zeeland!

Abel Tasman

Where was the old Zeeland?

Well, as you would expect, Zeeland was a province in the Netherlands. The word ‘Zeeland’ actually translates to ‘sea-land’, which was not a bad shout from the explorer Tasman – especially when you think how silly he must have been feeling after landing somewhere thousands of miles from where he intended to be. Still, he came up with a nice name and then biffed off again. He still got his name pinned to a good many locations around the area in the end, being the first bloke to the party and all. These included the Tasman Sea that divides New Zealand and Australia, and also the island of Tasmania.

The Land of the Long White Cloud

Captain Cook and his finishing touch

When Captain Cook sailed on into town about a century later – also, amazingly, by getting completely lost and sailing into the area quite by accident – he was quick to act in the time-honoured tradition of many explorers of the day and totally disregarded the fact that he was the second bloke to discover Nieuw Zeeland. He gave it the Anglican twist and renamed it the more English-friendly New Zealand. This is, obviously, how we all know it today. It’s nice though to be aware that this name didn’t just spring out of nowhere. That it came about through the – and this is looking at in a tongue-in-cheek way – ineptitude of two excellent and brave explorers and their crew. Who would’ve thought that two such crucial landings were the results of the equivalent of poor map-reading skills?

However it happened, New Zealand or Aotearoa, is a wonderful place to visit, and on reading this guide you’ll be a little more equipped to impress the locals.

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