First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 9.8.21
I am driving over the Remutaka hill, thinking about names, and why they matter. It is one of those winter days that appears like a gift – clear blue skies, the sun hitting the car in a way that makes it feel like a moving capsule of summer. With no wind or rain to battle the rental car fairly swoops up these winding curves from Wellington, and drops down the other side into the Wairarapa.
When I was a girl, these were the “Rimutaka” ranges, not “Remutaka”. The spelling mistake was fixed only recently, part of a Treaty settlement for the Rangitāne iwi made legal in 2017. Remutaka means “to sit down and gaze” which is what early explorer Haunui-a-Nanaia did here on his journey of discovery across the southern North Island. As opposed to “Rimutaka” which doesn’t mean much of anything.
As I drive, I am thinking about other names that have been changed back to the original, to something that makes more sense. When I was a girl, my mother had a friend called Pearl who announced one day in middle age she would now be called Elizabeth. This was her original name and the one she wanted to use now, not the nickname she had come to be known by.
Eyes were briefly rolled in our small town. “Elizabeth” sounded formal, possibly regal, yes? Plus remembering to call her something different from the name used when they first got to know her would be hard. Jokingly (but not to her face) for a while she was referred to as “Per-Lizabeth”, and then the town got on with other things.
I wish now I’d been able to ask her how she had come to be known as Pearl, why it didn’t feel right for her anymore and what motivated her to reclaim Elizabeth. I can imagine stories from banal to dramatic that could explain it.
Whatever it was, I understand this affection for an original name. Despite marrying countless (ok, three) times, I have never changed my family name because it is part of who I am. It places me in my whakapapa and connects me to my own history. Any of the men who married me would have been welcome to change their name to mine, but they also were comfortable about continuing to be themselves.
I am excited when I hear about changing place names back to their pre-colonial versions, and the history the original name reveals. I feel more joy about living in Tāmaki Makaurau – a place “desired by many”– than in a city named by William Hobson after a man who was the Earl of Auckland, neither of whom were from here.
We are organically moving towards calling this country Aotearoa – not through legislation, but by popular usage. I am tickled when I hear grumpy old men kick against this with a “Who decided this? No-one asked me!” which is the kind of thing you might say if you are someone who is used to being in charge but find you no longer are.
We’ve proved that our brains are nimble enough to embrace what will be for some of us – though not all – new words. We’ve learned to sing our anthem in te reo, we can find Ōtautahi and Kirikiriroa on the map. And it takes me a long moment now to remember that Mt Taranaki was once called “Egmont” back when Elizabeth was called Pearl.