21 April 2020

What is "Aotearoa" and what exactly does it mean?

AOTEAROA (pronounced "aO-tay-a-rOa") is the Maori name for that beautiful, pristine island nation we know affectionately as New Zealand.  Several meanings are attached to the name but, as is the case with many Maori names, its supposed true meaning and origin is found in both mythology as well as in historical fiction.

Essentially, there are two schools of thought with regards the origin of the name. While some believe Aotearoa is made up of two words, i.e. Aotea and roa, others suggest this number to be three, i.e. Ao, tea and roa.

From what I learnt from during my trips to New Zealand, Aotea in Maori can be interpreted to mean either:-

(a)  the name of the great Polynesian explorer, Kupe's canoe during the great migration from Hawaiki to New Zealand, or

(b)  the Large Magellanic Cloud which is visible from the Southern Hemisphere; ao meaning cloud, dawn, daytime or world, tea white or bright, while roa means tall and long.
The most widely-accepted and authoritative meaning for the word is therefore "long white cloud" - hence, "The Land of the Long White Cloud".

There are two popular stories that are often told in this respect.  The first is this; it is believed that the first voyagers to New Zealand were guided during the day by a long white cloud, and after nightfall, by a long bright cloud - both of which eventually led them to the new land.

One of the "Kupe - The Great Navigator" series of postage stamps issued by New Zealand Post in 2019

The other, more commonly-told story tells of how Kupe and his wife (just when they feared they might be lost at sea during their long exploratory voyage) beheld a long, white cloud hovering over what is now known as the North Island of New Zealand.  When they finally set foot on an island off present-day Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, Kupe decided to name the land "Ao-tea-roa" on account of the peculiar cloud that greeted their arrival.

Other alternative translations include "Land of Abiding Light" and "Long Bright World", both of which make reference to the length and quality of New Zealand's daylight (when compared to the shorter days found further north in Polynesia).  However, these are largely interpretations made by modern-day scholars and authorities on the subject and are less popularly-embraced.

So there you have it; "Aotearoa" explained.

I hope you find this post both interesting and informative.  Always glad to share knowledge and insights gained from my adventures because the more we travel, the more we learn, the more we share, the more we gain.


Did you find this post informative?  Have you visited New Zealand before and, if so, are you fascinated by her culture?


  1. Vincent, I love it! I knew about Land of the Long White Cloud, yet Land of Abiding Light sounds REALLY romantic! You're a legend :)

    1. Thank you, Sara. I ngaro Aotearoa.

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