Funny - I commented in this post on the the dreary nature of the names of the Islands of NZ and now it seems the NZ Geographic Board has caught up with my inciteful scholarship! In case the link there dies, I'm pasting the full text of the article below. It is from http://www.stuff.co.nz/, 22 April 2009.
Naming NZ places has been a bit of a talking point lately, particularly at Wanganui/Whanganui. The trouble mostly I think is in dealing with 18th and19th century transliteration of different Maori accents and their subsequent dying out or changing. The transliteration creates words in modern Maori (a largely European construct, and largely influenced by Northern accents) that don’t actually mean anything. "Whanga Nui" means “Big Harbour” but the local Maori at the time pronounced the initial not as a sort of English “Ph” sound (as in the North), but more like a “W”; hence the European spelling, and its meaninglessness in the common modern Maori idiom. Spelled "Wanga", the word doesn't mean shit, no matter what accent you use. You can again see this problem illustrated in the old spelling of “Hongi” (fish) as “Shunghie”, a reflection of the aspirated Ngapuhi accent of the North. Hongi Hika, for example, is never called Shunghie these days, as in most accents it makes no sense: pretty much like the impenetrable paragraph I've just written! To make it simpler, if you get a Yorkshireman to say "boat" he will say something like "Boort", but he will still spell it "boat". So spell it correctly I say, and pronounce it as your accent and culture dictate.
(Hongi Hika can also translate as “smells like fish”. This isn’t an insult, early Maori used to smear themselves in fish oil, which really put the Europeans off, But Maori liked it and it is good for the skin. War casualties were also known as “The fish of war” (ie the catch). Hongi Hika was a successful general during a very bloodthirsty period in Maori history)
As in all things, these things go both ways. "Punakaike", for example, is a Maori rendering of "Pancake"; as “Poneke” is an attempt on the difficult to pronounce “Port Nicholson”. This goes for personal names also: Piri, Hemi, Henare are attempts at Peter (or Philip), James, Henry.
And, sometimes the wrong place gets the wrong name. Terawhiti in the Cook St should actually be a few capes to the East. Lord and I hope a few old Kaumatua know now what it's real name is: Perhaps "Cook's mistake" would be a good option.
Sometimes these official name changes stick, for example Mt Egmont now is almost universally known as Taranaki. Whatever the board decides, it will be the people who will really name it. “New Zealand” and “Aotearoa” (actually again, a word used by a minority even within the Maori peoples) have been interchangeable for a long time for both Maori and Pakeha.
That, in the end, is what is cool about this country. Politicians, bureaucrats, and militants of all colours can say what they like, but the biggest issue with the Wanga/Whanga debate is the expense no doubt incurred in changing their stationery!
You might have always known them as plain North and South, but it turns out our two biggest islands have an identity crisis.
The Geographic Board plans to formalise the names North Island and South Island after discovering they were not official. It is also investigating alternative Maori names for the two land masses.
Chairman Don Grant said yesterday: "Interestingly, while researching this issue, we noted that `North Island' and `South Island' are actually not official names under our legislation, despite their long-term usage."
The board would be writing to iwi representatives over the next few weeks to seek traditional Maori names and associated stories for the islands, he said. It planned to widen the consultation to all New Zealanders next year.
Dr Grant said the English and Maori names would be alternative they could be used individually or with the other.
That was different from dual naming, in which both names were used together on official documents, such as maps.
The board decided that a name change or dual names would "cause too much cost and disruption throughout the whole country and for visitors".
Dr Grant said Te Ika a Maui for the North Island and Te Wai Pounamu for the South were on early official maps and documents, including Captain Cook's.
The board's decision to investigate alternative Maori names was prompted by a 2004 proposal from Christchurch man Keith Darroch to rename the South Island Te Wai Pounamu. In 2007, the board decided it would not consider a Maori name for the South Island in isolation.
Maori names for the North Island:Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui), Aotearoa, Aeheinomouwe - Captain Cook's spelling of what might be He Ahi No Maui (a fire of Maui) or He Hi No Maui (a thing of Maui)
Maori names for the South Island: Te Tumuki (the oldest recorded name), Te Arapaoa, Te Wai Pounamu, Tovypoenammu (Captain Cook's spelling of Te Wai Pounamu), Te Wahi Pounamu, Te Waka a Maui, Te Waka o Aoraki, Tau Ihu o te Waka.
Other English names that have been used: Middle Island - for the South Island (where the name 'South Island' was used for Stewart Island/Rakiura) New Ulster - for the North Island New Munster - for the South Island Island of Victoria - for the South Island.