What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

– Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

In this scene Juliet insists that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, that she loves the person and asks Romeo to reject his family name and instead be “new baptised” as Juliet’s lover.

Of course we know names are important, and the motivation for either lover to discard their family name was in part the conflict associated with the political struggle between their families.

The contest between place names around the world has usually been about political and cultural power. Of course these days it doesn’t have to be just one or the other name that is officially sanctioned.

Māori brought names from other places in Polynesia and bestowed those on physical features of these islands, and as settlement expanded the places were named and renamed according to significant people, events and stories associated with the location.

Early Europeans displaced most of the original Māori names with their own, although many original names have survived, mostly in the “North Island”. But similar to Māori, European settlers (re)named places after the areas, people and events that were special to them.

The Royal Geographical Society of London was responsible for approving place names until 1894 when authority was given to the New Zealand Governor-General. In 1946 the New Zealand Geographic Board (NZGB) was established and given power to change or implement Māori and English names.

Anyone can propose a geographical name to the board, who consult local Māori and allow public submissions before determining if the name should be made official.

The NZGB encourages the use of original Māori names and has given some places official double names. For example either Mount Taranaki or Mount Egmont can be used, and dual names can be approved where both names should be used together for example Matiu / Somes Island. In 1998, as a result of the settling of the Ngai Tahu Treaty claim, the county’s tallest mountain, officially became Aoraki / Mount Cook.

The NZGB can alter the local authority names for a district or region over which a territorial authority or regional council has jurisdiction. Only local authorities can propose alterations to their district and region names.

I floated the idea of the Gisborne District Council name change at the Community Development Committee last week and had a few supporters around the table, but I doubt the majority of my colleagues are ready to entertain the idea just yet. There would need to be a strong, coherent and consistent message from a wide cross section of the public for any Council to lead that process.

I suspect changing Poverty Bay should be a bit easier – while we all have some emotional connection to its use in organisation names, the bay and the flats, it is a branding nightmare for the region that has to be sorted out.

Dame Anne Salmond notes that Captain James Cook was told the name of the bay was Oneroa, meaning ‘sweeping sandy beaches’, which makes sense and subject to sufficient local support, would be much easier to utilise in promoting our beautiful location to prospective visitors, migrants and investors.

Many locals would prefer Māori names that have more historical and cultural significance than Gisborne. Similarly, while the Colonial Secretary Mr Gisborne may never visited the place named in his honour, the name ‘Gisborne’ now has a lot of meaning and emotional attachment for many people with connections here.

I’m confident we can keep the sweetness of both the rose and the kumara by having two official names.

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