The sad story of a man washed overboard

… a humorous anecdote about New Zealand place names…

Now, I love New Zealand. Really, I do. It’s like the Creator (insert your preferred deity here) spent four days working on it, only to be told that the world was, in fact, a rush job and that the rest of it had to be done in time to meet the weekend post.

Despite my unbridled passion for the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, there is one thing that I can’t get my head around and that is the names that were given to places when the country was first colonised. Now, I’m not talking about indigenous Maori place names here, which, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, have a deep cultural and spiritual relevance, but rather the European names that have been assigned to the place over the years. And I’m sure that others have written about this many times in the past, but I wanted to share my thoughts with you, just to finally get it off my chest as much as anything else.

First of all, consider where most of the people who colonised New Zealand (or invaded it depending on your point of view) came from. Yes, that’s right, the UK. The place that has given us such a wide variety of strange, unusual and downright rude place names that I couldn’t possibly include them all here, without blocking up the entire Internet. But by way of example, consider the following: Chipping Sodbury (South Gloucestershire), Upper Slaughter (Cotswolds), Swell (Cornwall), Scratchy Bottom (Dorset), Bishops Itchington (Staffordshire) and of course, Sandy Balls (Hampshire).

And then there’s the Australians. They live just next door to the Kiwis and boy; did they really go to town when it came to naming places! We’ve got Boing Boing (NT), Burpengary (QLD), Dismal Swamp (TAS), Humpty Doo (NT), Mount Buggery (VIC), Pimpinbudgie (QLD) and my all-time favourite, Tittybong (VIC). And they didn’t stop there. They named an entire state Tasmania. I mean Tas-mania? Is there no stopping these wonderfully creative people?

But cross the Tasman Sea and what do you get? First of all, there are two main islands. The one to the north is called the North Island. The one to the south? Well, that’s the South Island. At the very top of the North Island is the region called Northland, while the very bottom of the South is Southland. To the east of the North Island, we have the East Cape, while the West side of the South Island is called the West Coast. In the middle of the North Island lies the Central Plateau. Are you starting to get the idea yet?

Then there are the names of the towns. Quite a few were so good that just like the song ‘New York, New York’ they named them twice. Thus, we have the likes of Kerikeri, Kawakawa and Matamata. Have the same town in two places? Easy, just name the northernmost one ‘North’ as in Palmerston North and Havelock North. Problem solved! Want to follow the Americans? Well, just call the place ‘New’ as is New Plymouth or New Brighton (very nice beach by the way). I mean, even the whole country is named after the Dutch province, Zeeland, so what possible hope could the settlements, towns and regions within it ever have?

What I find hard to believe is that those who were on the first ships to arrive didn’t try harder. Okay, so they could have been really tired from the long voyage, or maybe someone wasn’t talking to someone else and the whole chain of command broke down. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I’ve been doing some digging and here’s what I think really happened…

Back in those days, no exploratory vessel was allowed to leave the British Isles without a naturalist (think Darwin and ‘The Beagle’), a small symphony orchestra (to compose the new national anthem) and a nomenclaturist on board. The role of the nomenclaturist was to name the new places on any islands that were discovered and it was such a revered role that the person chosen for the job had the run of the ship. Now, it’s quite a long way from the UK to New Zealand and the weather isn’t always that good. So, what if the nomenclaturist fell overboard one night while out for his evening constitutional? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility and you can imagine the discussion the following morning:

CAPTAIN: Has anyone seen Higgins lately?

FIRST MATE: I’ve asked around and a couple of the deckhands saw him wandering up near the prow last night, Cap’n. They say he seemed a bit unsteady on his feet.

CAPTAIN: Unsteady, you say? You don’t think he’s been at the rum again, do you?

FIRST MATE: It looks that way, Cap’n. Come to think about it, I do recall hearing a splash in the early hours of this morning. Put it down to dolphins running alongside us at the time, but it could have been…

(Both exchange horrified glances)

CAPTAIN: First mate! Search the boat immediately! If we’ve lost him then we’re done for. We might as well just turn around and go home now.

FIRST MATE: Aye, aye, Cap’n.

(Sometime later)

DECKHAND: Land ahoy!

CAPTAIN: Well, this is it. We’re nearly there, but with no Higgins on board. What the hell are we going to do?

FIRST MATE: At least we’ve still got the orchestra, Cap’n.

CAPTAIN: Be thankful for small mercies, eh? I suppose that you’re right, but what about the naming of the damned place? Who’s going to do that?

FIRST MATE (nervously): Well, you are the Captain, Sir.

CAPTAIN (shrugs): I suppose you’re right. Okay, line up the crew. Let’s see if we can’t drag something useful out of them?

FIRST MATE: Aye, aye, Cap’n!

(Some more time later)

CAPTAIN: So, that’s the best we can do, is it? Jones came from Hastings, Stanley from Stratford and Ponsonby from Cambridge. We’re going to have to double up at this rate. And what was that about your Uncle Arthur? Well, let’s pass on that for now, but I’m sure we’ll find a use for it once we get into the interior. Oh, and your wife’s name is Geraldine, isn’t it? Write it down man! You never know, we might just need it! Honestly, I bet Nelson never had these problems. Wait a minute! Write that down too! Oh, I’m never going to live this one down, am I?


As I said at the start of this piece, I really do love New Zealand and am happy to report that since those early days of naming chaos, the country has, in fact, come up with a plethora of unique and interesting place names of which it should be justly proud. So, with a smile on my face, because I’ll always know my place in New Zealand, I’ll leave you with:

  • Bluff
  • Bulls
  • Gore
  • Paraparaumu, and
  • Piha

For more information about crazy place names in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, see:




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