Volume 54 1945 > Volume 54, No. 4 > Origins of the words Pakeha and Maori, by Sidney J. Baker, p 223-231
                                                                                             Previous | Next   

- 223

THE observations given below on the origins of the terms pakeha and maori represent notes collected while I have been engaged in compiling a Dictionary of Modern English Usage in Australia and New Zealand. I have collated most of the existing views concerning these two terms and added the evidence of a great deal of material unpublished to date.

Much of the material here is useless for the purposes of a dictionary; it is given because it appears relative to the various theories of origin.


1. Noun: a white man.

Originally applied to a European or American (a great many of the early whalers and sealers on the New Zealand coast were Americans); later, the use became specifically attached to a white resident in New Zealand, and, by the end of the 19th century to a Newzealand-born white. The meaning “a foreigner” given by Williams in his Maori Dictionary1 is scarcely adequate. There is no textual evidence to my knowledge to support a view that pakeha was ever specifically applied, before 1840 at any rate, to a person whose skin was other than white. The observations of J. L. Nicholas Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand (1817) are worth noting. He records the native expression mangho2 tangata (black person for “a man of colour” and, at the same time, gives:

Packahâ, a white man. The flea is also called by this name as they (the natives) assert it to have been first introduced into their country by Europeans—the turnip is likewise called packahâ from its whiteness.

The insistence of “whiteness” should be noted. The derivation of the term is highly doubtful. What is given below must be regarded as no more than theories, none of which may be deemed conclusive.

(Writing in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 2 (1893) 63, Archdeacon W. L. Williams expressed the view3 that the term was derived from pakepakeha “imaginary beings of evil4 influence, more commonly known as patupaiarehe; said to be like men, with fair skins.” Williams adds (first theory): “The use certainly did not originate with any of the Ngatikahungunu tribes, who regarded it as a name used by the white people for themselves. The Ngaitahu and others in the South Island used the expression tangata pora (or ship-men) instead; and this expression had not been superseded a few years ago, and perhaps has not yet been entirely superseded - 224 by the now universal pakeha. I conclude therefore that the word pakeha, as applied to white people, and the idea which seems to underlie it5 were originally local only ...”

(Second theory): In the Journal of the Polynesian Society, 3 (1894) 336, Hoani Nahe hazards that pakeha “is derived from ‘the gods of the sea,’ the names for which are Atua, Tupua, Pakehakeha, Marakihau and Taewa”. The translator, S. Percy Smith, adds the footnote: “All of these names have been applied to Europeans, besides others such as Piharoa, Urekihau, Maitai, etc.”

Important features of these quotations are (1) that at least one Maori tribe regarded pakeha as a name used by white people to denote themselves, and (2) that various names of “sea-gods” were applied to Europeans. The latter point would support Williams; the former does not.

In his Maori Comparative Dictionary (1891), Edward Tregear gives the meanings “a foreigner, one not of the Maori race”. He remarks that pakeha, a European, is given by Dumont d'Urville in his Voyage au Pole Sud, p. 164, as used in the Mangarevan dialect. No personal opinion is given on whether the Maori use was derived from pakepakeha or not, although he refers the investigator to the latter term, and notes that Mr. John White, author of Ancient History of the Maoris (1887-90), “considers that pakeha, a foreigner, a European, originally meant “fairy”, and states that on the white man first landing, sugar was called fairy-sand, etc.”

The pakepakeha theory has the weakness that, while there are many records of pakeha, there are apparently none of pakepakeha until the end of the 19th century. Tregear (1891) notes “one authority” against the entry of the word in his Dictionary, and, as has been pointed out above, Williams' observations were made in 1892-3.

(Third theory): There seems ample scope therefore for further speculation on the origin of pakeha. The quotation from Nicholas (1817) given above, may provide a clue. He records that the flea was called packahâ by transference because fleas had been introduced into New Zealand by Europeans.6 It might, however, be logical to suggest that the reverse had taken place, that the term had been originally applied to fleas and later to white men.7 Since an early date the Maori use of keha has been noted for “a flea”. The term is listed by Lee in Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand (1820). While he does not define it as a flea, he has the meanings “a turnip (exotic)” and “Proper name of a person”. Now it had already been observed by Nicholas (supra) that the natives had the name packahâ for a turnip and a flea as well as for a white man; so that when we find in the 1844 edition of Williams' Dictionary the entry “keha, a flea, a turnip” we would be justified—even allowing for a considerable element of error in the observations - 225 made by Nicholas—in supposing that Lee merely overlooked the use for a flea in his 1820 Grammar and Vocabulary. He compensates somewhat for the lapse—if lapse it be—by noting that keha had a use as the “proper name of a person”, which would assuredly indicate a colloquial use of the term by the Maori.8 It is obvious that the natives had no name for a turnip or a flea until after they were introduced by Europeans. My own view is that keha is perhaps no more than a Maori corruption of the word “flea” itself, and that it is within the bounds of possibility for its use to have been transferred to the Europeans9 who introduced the natives of New Zealand to the word “flea”. The origin of pakeha in paki, to slap, and keha, a flea, which has been suggested to me, is not too far-fetched to be dismissed entirely.10 As for pakepakeha, a fairy or demon, it may well have succeeded all these uses. The considerable lack of evidence of its currency supports such a view.

(Fourth theory): Another possible derivation is to be found in poaka, a pig, a hog. Williams and Tregear disagree on whether this is a corruption of the English word “porker” or not. Williams supports the contention, but Tregear says that the term is “genuine Polynesian”.

Nicholas (supra) 1817 records porkee, pigs (under the impression that it is “pidgin” English) and Lee (supra) 1820 gives porka, pork. It could be regarded as somewhat unusual if the English and Polynesian terms had developed independently. However, Tregear says: “It was probably received by the Maoris from the Tahitian interpreter of Captain Cook, although the passage in Vol. 2, p. 372, of Cook's Voyages, Ed. A.D. 1793, urges that the Maori already knew the word.”

Be this as it may,11 it is quite possible that the inevitable association in the Maori mind between pigs and white men should have led to poaka, or a corrupted form, being used to describe Europeans. This supposition appears to have some reasonable foundation for we find that Lee (supra) renders porka not only as “pork” but as “the name of a person”. It is indeed a strange coincidence that he should have had a similar note to keha,12 as I have mentioned above.

It is hardly necessary to remark on the use of poaka roa, “long pig” for human flesh. Since the pig was introduced by Captain Cook,13 it is obvious that—as was the case with keha—the expression could not have been current until the end of the 18th century.

In the Rarotongan dialect14 there appears puaka maori, a pig. One does not find great difficulty in imagining a swift transition to such a form as pakeha maori, if the expression puaka maori was ever used in Newzealand. In the Mangarevan dialect occurs puaka, an expression of contempt or, as Tregear puts it, “an injurious - 226 expression”.15 Earlier in this note I referred to the record by Dumont d'Urville of pakeha in the Mangarevan. It is apparently the only dialect outside Newzealand in which both puaka and pakeha have been observed; the terms are, moreover, particularly interesting since they are obviously both applied to a person.

It is a point to note that J. C. Bidwill Rambles in New Zealand (1840), defines pakiha mowries as “pork traders, etc., who have native women for wives”. Apart from the fact that this is the first use of pakeha maori that I have been able to discover, it is of particular interest because Bidwill is specific in referring to “pork traders”.

(Fifth theory): Also to be noted in passing is the popular but apparently erroneous view, published originally by E. E. Morris in his Austral English Dictionary, 1898, that pakeha is derived from bugger you! which, it is alleged, the natives possibly adopted from the sailors of the early whaling fleets. The fact that Tregear records puaka as “an injurious expression” in the Mangarevan dialect is, perhaps, support for this contention.

(J. Savage, author of Some Accounts of New Zealand, 1807, the first book published on this country, makes no mention of either pakeha or maori in any form. This in spite of the fact that he took pains to acquire some knowledge of the language and actually took a young native to London. Perhaps neither term had acquired much currency at the time.)

Evidence that pakeha was applied solely to white men and not to foreigners in general indicated by a sentence in the New Zealand Gazette (May 16, 1840), 3, col. 3, in which reference is made to an American negro “stated in their (the New Zealand) language a black white”. This could scarcely have been rendered in any other way than pakeha mangu. C.f. the form mangho tangata, “a man of colour”, given by Nicholas (supra), and the use of tangata ma(r), for a white man, by E. Markham (1834) (vide infra).


First recorded versions are those given by Nicholas (supra) 1817).16 He provides various instances of packahâ, pakkahah, and packaka, for a white man, a European. The first version is used most frequently. The following passage, although in doggerel Maori, is notable not only because it is the first native sentence in which a version of pakeha appears, but also because it includes the first-known record of the word maori:

Na! Iesu Christ ta Atua Nue, ta Atua Pi, ta wanhoungha Nue, ta wanhoungha Pi, ke ta notungata ne, Pakkahah, ke te na tungata maoude, ke te tungata katoa katoa.

(Behold! Jesus Christ is the great and good Atua, the great and good friend to white and black men ...)17

The now-accepted spelling pakeha is rendered by Samuel Lee in his Grammar and Vocabulary (1820). His various definitions are “white man”, “Europeans” and “white people”. A Earle, Narrative - 227 of Nine Months' Residence in New Zealand (1827) (published in 1832) renders the plural “white men” with packeahs. Edward Markham, MS. of Diary (1834) (in Turnbull Library, Wellington) gives parkiah and parkicah (with plural versions, parkiars and parkeiahs). He notes that a “fine (native) girl always looks out for a tangata mar,18 a white man if he has been any length of time in the country, or a parkiah, stranger”. The Rev. Richard Taylor, in his Journal (April 6, 1839), (typescript in Turnbull Library), gives pakeas, strangers. The additional meaning “an alien” is listed by R. Fitz-Roy Remarks on New Zealand (1846), this being a minor extension of the definition “a stranger, a foreigner”,19 given by Williams in the 1844 and 1852 editions of his Dictionary.

From the above will be seen that there is no explicit evidence that the term was ever applied to a person other than a white, although such has hitherto been assumed by inference. “Alien” and “foreigner” should be read as no more than alien or foreign to New Zealand, not necessarily a person of other than white extraction.

Some varied early renderings of the plural, in addition to those given above, include: pachias, which appears in The New Zealand Journal (12 September, 1840); pakihas, J. C. Bidwill, Rambles in New Zealand (1840); and pokeeys, in Letters from Settlers and Labouring Emigrants (No. 38, 1842). (Both pakeha and pakehas, the latter being preferred, are accepted standard renderings of the plural.)

Pakeha is almost exclusively a masculine term. The female element appears to be introduced only as an incidental in such expressions as the pakeha race and the inclusive phrases Pakeha and Maori, Pakehas and Maoris, though the application is never specific. A white woman is usually rendered a pakeha woman.20

2. An adjective:

(a) Pertaining to a white person in New Zealand or to the white population of New Zealand. In wide use after 1840. There is also an occasional loose use in the pakeha king, pakeha race, pakeha customs, etc., in which the noun describes elements common to all British people, not only to the British living in New Zealand. In the majority of cases, however, the term is related specifically to white Newzealanders.

In The New Zealand Gazette (18 April, 1840) p. 3, col. 1, there appears a notice in doggerel Maori in which the expression pakeha juropi is used, presumably for “a white European or a European white”. (Juropi was probably in imitation of the yuropi which had apppeared twenty years earlier in Lee's Grammar and Vocabulary.) Other uses of the adjective are given by J. C. Bidwill Rambles in New Zealand (1840), E. J. Wakefield Adventure in New Zealand (1845). See pakeha, 2 (b).

It should be noted here that both the noun and the adjective have been in standard use for the best part of a hundred years. It is doubtful if they were ever slang to the English, being colloquial in their early uses. If any of the derivations offered concerning the noun are correct, then it was the original Maori use that was slang.

- 228

Among composite forms in which the adjective appears are pre-pakeha times, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 27 (1918), pre-pakeha days, V. Roberts Kohikohinga (1929), etc. and the jocular uses pakehas (the “has” being accented) and pakehasn't, for a rich and a penniless white man respectively. (These uses may have occurred in print, but I have not seen them; only heard them.)

(b) An adjective, used always in the form pakeha maori to form a noun. In the discussion on the derivation of pakeha reference has already been made to this expression.

Pakeha maori is usually defined as a white man living with the Maori; a white man who has “gone native”; a white man who has married a Maori female; (occasionally) a half- or quarter-caste Maori.

Bidwill Rambles in New Zealand (1840), renders it pakiha mowries, “pork traders, etc., who have native women for wives”. E. J. Wakefield Adventure in New Zealand (1845), alludes to missionaries from the Bay of Islands as “pakeha maori, or whites who have become natives”.

It would appear that in its original use as an adjective pakeha was always applied to a person. See the N.Z. Gazette (1840) example, above, of pakeha juropi and the instances provided by Bidwill and Wakefield.

In addition to the definitions given to pakeha maori above, there is also a 2 (a) adjectival use in which pakeha maori is employed (seemingly a 20th century development) to describe a native-born Newzealand white, or the white population in general, though they may have no contact, or only minor contact, with the Maori race. This introduces an interesting reversion, for in other examples of pakeha maori the noun is Maori and the adjective is pakeha. In the specific instance given above the noun is pakeha and the adjective is Maori in its original meaning of “native”, “indigenous” or “common”.


1. A noun: a native of Newzealand.

As an adjective meaning “native” and “indigenous” the word has wide use in the South Seas. It appears in the form maori in the Tahitian, Mangarevan and Paumotan dialects, as maoli in Hawaii, and as maio in the Marquesas.21 It was applied by the Newzealand (indigenous beings) after the arrival of Europeans in the country had rendered such a distinction necessary.22

There is some conflict of opinion on the strict meaning of the adjective as used by the natives of Newzealand. A. S. Atkinson, in an article on What is a Tangata Maori? Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 1 (1892) declares: “The most general meaning ... is “common”, “ordinary”, and he asks: “If maori properly meant an aboriginal native23 of New Zealand, or of Polynesia, how came fresh water to be called wai maori or maori water; or the smaller stars, maori stars; or an untattooed face, a maori face, and so on?”

In Journal of the Polynesian Society, 2 (1893), the Rev. Hauraki Paora gives the adjectival meanings of “common” and “native”. - 229 He writes: I am of opinion that this is not a modern word dating from the time that the Pakeha arrived here. Rather do I think it is an ancient word24; one that has been handed down to this generation”. Amongst the examples he offers is “Is that horse of good blood?”—“No, it is a hoiho-maori,” an ordinary or common horse.

Archdeacon W. L. Williams, vol. 2, ibid, avoids discussing the antiquity of the adjective maori, but confines himself to the expression tangata maori. “When it became necessary (for the natives) to distinguish themselves from foreigners they naturally used the expression tangata maori, to denote a man of the description to which they had always been accustomed.” Williams also expresses the view that “pakeha, as applied to white people, and the idea which seems to underlie it, were originally local only, whereas the expression tangata maori seems to have been universal.”

What must be regarded as a contrary view to the above is given by Tuta Tamati, vol. 2, ibid, who declares that various New Zealand tribes were ignorant of the word maori. “My belief is that at the time the Pakehas came to these islands, our ancestors saw that they were a people possessed of great property and knowledge, a people with abundance of clothing and warlike arms. It was then that this word came into use to express their (the native) poverty, nakedness, and ignorance, he tangata momori tatou nei, we are a ‘bare’ people, quite unlike the white people.” He suggests that maori was originally derived from mamori, mori, morimori or momori,25 and that the first English pronunciation of the term was “mori”. This later contention can scarcely be supported if we take into consideration existing textual evidence—the early phonetic spelling of native terms by observers at the beginning of the 19th century, e.g. maoude (1815), maodi (1820), mourie (1834), mauri (1836), mowrie (1838), maury (1840) etc. See quotations given below.

Tuta Tamati is convinced that “it is not an old word of ancient times”. However, we would apparently be justified in assuming that the adjective maori was in use among the natives of Newzealand, as descriptive of common, indigenous objects, for a considerable period before European exploration of the country. The views of Atkinson, Paora, and Williams (supra) support this view. Whether the adjective was applied to a person in the form of tangata maori before Europeans came is doubtful. Its use could have been only in legends, since the natives had lived in isolation in Newzealand until Europeans arrived. Governor King, who compiled a vocabulary of Newzealand terms, ca. 1796 (see D. Collins, Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol. 2 (1802), and J. Savage, author of Some Account of New Zealand (1807), who did likewise, fail to record either maori or tangata maori. Both had close contact with the natives, especially Savage, who took a young Maori with him to England and was at pains to acquire a knowledge of the language.

It is in J. L. Nicholas' Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand in 1815 (published in 1817) that the first written record of the term appears, and here it is combined with tangata:

- 230

Na! Iesu Christ ta Atua Nue, ta Atua Pi, ta wanhoungha Nue, ta wanhoungha Pi, ke ta notungata ne, Pakkahah, ke ta na tungata maoude.

(Behold! Jesus Christ is the great and good Atua, the great and good friend to white and black men ...)

Nicholas thus renders “black men” for the inhabitants of New-zealand. In another note he gives mangho26 tangata, “a man of colour”, possibly applied by the natives to a negro member of his crew.

Samuel Lee has both the forms maodi and tangata maodi in his Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand (1820). This is the first instance of the word being rendered in print without the accompanying tangata. Thereafter, however, the use of tangata maori becomes increasingly rare in print, maori having become well established as a noun.

Early examples include: mourie and mouries, E. Markham MS. of Diary (1834), (Turnbull Library, Wellington); mauri, W. B. Marshall, Narrative of Two Visits to New Zealand (1836); mowrie, Proceedings before the Supreme Criminal Court, Sydney, in the Preservation Bay (N.Z.) manslaughter trial, 16 May, 1838. (See R. McNab, Old Whaling Days (1913), 209); maury, New Zealand Journal (12 September, 1840).

The spelling maori became fairly standardized after 1840, although even after that date there are considerable variations. There was a contest between Maoris and Maories for the plural until the 1860s, when the former eventually prevailed.27 The version mauris is rendered by J. and S. W., 5 June, 1841. (See L. E. Ward, Early Wellington (1928), p. 48) and Maories in The New Zealander, 26 July, 1845, p. 4, col. 3. Occasional instances of the latter are found in print until the end of the 19th century.

(In spite of these numerous uses, writers on Newzealand until after 1860, displayed a general preference for the expressions natives, aborigines, aboriginals, and New Zealanders28 to describe the original inhabitants of the country. Aborigines appears, for instance, in the first issue of the New Zealand Gazette, 6 September, 1839.)

2. A noun: the language of the native inhabitants of New-zealand.

This has always been an anglicized use, and was quite probably employed originally by the whalers. E. Markham (supra, 1834) gives mourie for the language and also uses the forms “the native Mourie tongue” and “Mourie language”. I have found no printed records of it until 1840, J. C. Bidwill Rambles in New Zealand, and 1842, R. Maunsell, Grammar of the New Zealand Language.

3. An adjective:

(a) pertaining to New Zealand or to the native race of Newzealand. This is an adoption of the strict native use of maori, and represents an interesting reversion, for it was not used in the English—insofar as we can judge from existing documentary records—until about 25 years after the noun had been anglicized from the native adjective.

1842, R. Maunsell Grammar of the New Zealand Language, see Introduction, Maori scholar, etc.; Letter No. 3, Letters from Settlers - 231 and Labouring Emigrants, 1842, maury grown potatoes; The New Zealander, 2 August, 1845, Maorie.

The adjective appears in several dozen terms used for Newzealand flora and fauna, e.g., Maori cabbage, Maori onion, Maori hen, Maori chief (the fish), etc., here being employed to describe a Newzealand species. (A glance through Popular Names of New Zealand Plants (1926), by Johannes C. Andersen, will reveal the large number of examples in connection with flora.)

(b) Used colloquially as the equivalent of makeshift, unkempt, uncultivated, etc., e.g., a Maori dog, a Maori hen, (a fowl, not the weka), a Maori onion, Maori manners, etc.

Derivatives of the noun and adjective:

To Maorify, to infuse with or influence by Maori elements. 1878, J. Buller Forty Years in New Zealand. Maoriland, Newzealand, after 1880; Maorilander, an inhabitant, both white and native, of Newzealand, ca. 1890. Pakeha Maori, see Pakeha.

Buck Maori (slang) a male Maori, especially a well-built man. Recorded post-1920, but possibly used before. (On the American buck-nigger, it may be noted that buck-nigger has been used to describe a male Australian aborigine—1870, E. B. Kennedy, Four Years in Queensland.)

White Maori, tungstate of lime. Miner's slang. 1833, Illustrated Guide to Dunedin (quoted by E. E. Morris in his Austral English Dictionary, 1898): “Tungstate of lime occurs plentifully in the Wakatipu district, where from its weight and colour it is called White Maori by the miners.”

1   The first edition of this dictionary, published 1844, also gave the definition “a stranger”.
2   mangu.
3   Expressed originally in the 1892 edition of the Williams' Dictionary.
4   The implication of evil is not supported by Tregear who gives the definition “a fairy”.
5   He had earlier written: “The word pakeha, as applied to foreigners, seems to imply that those who first so used it thought the white-skinned strangers to be something not exactly human.” (This is given to support his contention that the term is derived from pakepakeha.)
6   I am informed by an authority at the Dominion Museum, Wellington, that two non-European species of flea have been found in New Zealand. One type, Parapsylous Australiocus, is found on penguins and has also been observed in some parts of Australia. The other type has not yet been described, but is believed to be connected with the native bat. These facts would support the contention that the common flea (Pulex irritans), which was introduced from Europe, would probably be the only species that would attract the attention of the Maoris.
7   Working on the basis of the pakepakeha theory a reference to fleas as “small troublesome things” would be understandable.
8   Williams and Tregear offer no suggestion on the origin of the term.
9   The whiteness of a British skin and of a turnip, especially as turnips were introduced from overseas, would provide an easy bridge for the transference to the vegetable as noted by Nicholas.
10   The whaling fleets commenced operating on the New Zealand coast ca. 1794. Fleas probably arrived at the same time.
11   J. T. Thomson, Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 6, app. 25 (1873) records poaka as “derived from modern English language.”
12   To the best of my knowledge no other lexicographer of the Maori language has made similar notes.
13   Hence, modern Newzealand slang a Captain Cook or Captain Cooker, for a wild pig. (Current since the late 19th century.) Also, slang, Pig-islands, Newzealand, Pig-islander, a Newzealander.
14   See Tregear.
15   Ex b—r you?
16   His visit to New Zealand was made in 1815.
17   J. L. Nicholas, Voyage to New Zealand, 2 vol. (1817) 2, 344. The Coquille, under Duperry, later named L'Astrolabe, under Durville, was in Bay of islands in 1824, and from the description of the Maori by Lesson we learn that the word pakeha was at that time in use for a European. See S. Percy Smith Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century (1910) 311.—ED.
18   Ma, white or pale. His frequent use of this expression for a white man who has resided in the country for some time, while parkiah and other spellings of the term are persistently used for “a stranger” would indicate that the latter term might have been applied only to newcomers, and not whites in general.
19   Later editions of the Dictionary give only “a foreigner” as the meaning.
20   As in waheinee parkiah, a European woman, recorded by E. Markham (supra) (1834).
21   See Tregear, Maori Comparative Dictionary, 1891.
22   While maori has become the anglicized noun in Newzealand, it may be observed that kanaka, the Hawaiian version of tangata, has become a noun generally used by Europeans in Queensland and the islands for a South Sea native.
23   This is begging the question, for no recognized authorities make such an assertion.
24   The use in other Pacific dialects would support this belief.
25   In Transactions of the New Zealand Institute vol. 3 (1870), 313, Edwin Fairburn writes: “I am almost confirmed in the opinion that the names Maori of New Zealand, Mori-ori of the Chatham Islands, Malay (more properly Malai) etc., are but modifications of the same word as Moor in English and the Mauri of the Romans.”
26   mangu.
27   Maori, the native race, or several natives, is also accepted as a plural.
28   For this reason the term “New Zealander” did not come to describe a white resident or native-born white of the country until the 1890s.