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Place Names of New Zealand, by A.W. Reed

29 July 2010

Place Names of New Zealand was first published in 1975, as a single volume of 510 pages that listed alphabetically thousands of geographical names, their origins and meanings. Reed’s work quickly became the standard guide to toponymy in New Zealand. The volume stimulated a wealth of correspondence and further research that was embodied in Reed’s Supplement to Place Names of New Zealand (177 pages), published shortly before the author’s death in 1979. In the second edition, The Reed Dictionary of New Zealand Place Names (2002, 621 pages), Peter Dowling (at the time the Publishing Manager of Reed Books) led a team that amalgamated and updated Reed’s two works. In the third edition, published in 2010, Dowling consolidated the Dictionary into a concise reference work, extended by the inclusion of any new names that could be reliably sourced.

Place Names of New Zealand, 1975 edition (left) and 1979 supplement (right)

Place Names of New Zealand, 2002 edition (left) and 2010 edition (right)

Place Names of New Zealand does not claim to list every place in New Zealand. As stated by Reed in the introduction to the first edition, “although the present volume may claim to be the most comprehensive work of its kind yet published, it must be confessed that it barely touches the fringe of the subject.”

“The task of providing a watertight explanation for every New Zealand place name is beyond the power of any modern man. Many of the old Māori names are susceptible to widely differing explanations, and the real interpretations are hidden in the mist of centuries past […] Similarly, the origins of many European names have been lost or have been hotly debated for the past 75 years and more.”

With a list of over 10,000 place names and their meanings, as well as an appendix containing over 2,000 superseded names and their current replacements, Reed’s dictionary is an invaluable and unchallenged reference on the subject. The latest edition, fresh from the press in June 2010, is a welcome update, given that many place names have been recently corrected or altered by the NZ Geographic Board of Names, while many others have been revised under Treaty of Waitangi settlements between Crown and iwi.

The one big disappointment in the third edition is the low quality of the publication: very cheap paper and soft cover (all previous editions were hard-bound), poor binding, and an abysmal poor quality of the actual printing. At times it feels like the ink will come off the cover and pages at the simple touch of the finger-tips. I appreciate that the 500-page volume is reasonably priced, but I’m afraid this book is not made to last. Perhaps it is time to recognize that this kind of work is nowadays more suitable for publication on-line. As stated by Dowling in the preface to the third edition, “much of the revising work involved converting the 2002 edition into a database to establish a platform for preserving the work and allowing multiple uses in the future including websites. With the passing of the New Zealand Geographic Board Act in 2008, the Board is now empowered to collate place names, meanings and origins, and a combination of this resource with the present work may at some future time constitute a national database of place names.” I eagerly await the publication of such a national database on the web.


Reed, A.W. (2010) Place Names of New Zealand, 3rd Edition. Revised by Peter Dowling. Raupo Books. 502 pages

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Penny Griffith permalink
    11 November 2010 12:30 pm

    Of even greater concern are the errors in information in this publication. I have found an unacceptable level of errors in entries for placenames with which I am familiar. Therefore I have no confidence at all in using it for information on unfamiliar placenames.

    Here’s just one example: “Abrahams Bosom” is recorded as being in the Auckland Islands, when it is actually in Port Adventure in Stewart Island. The annotation attached to the entry relates to the Auckland Islands harbour — which is actually called “Sarahs Bosom”. There’s no entry for Sarahs Bosom.

    These sort of errors in a reference work should not occur. Surely double-checking against an atlas or gazetteer would have been a basic quality control step to pick up such errors.

    • 11 November 2010 12:57 pm

      Thanks for the comment Penny. Yes I have found a few mistakes also. But I would not go as far as stating that “I have no confidence at all” in the information provided. Overall, I feel that the gazetteer is reliable and thoroughly researched.
      It would be unrealistic to expect a work like this to contain no mistakes at all. The best thing we can do when we notice one is to e-mail Peter Dowling and let him know. His e-mail address is at the end of the preface. I have found him to be very receptive to corrections; as he told me himself, he still finds the occasional error in Reed’s original work. In the end, any critical input will help him (or a successor) complete a more accurate next edition.
      Personally, I’d love to see references to the original sources. Not really possible in a paper book (it would double the size of the volume), but maybe in an electronic publication. Who knows, hopefully they’ll move that way!

  2. Penny Griffith permalink
    11 November 2010 1:23 pm

    I understand what you’re saying, Danilo, about setting the bar too high for error rates. Having authored reference works, I’m all too aware of that factor! There’s a variety of errors in Dowling’s book from the minor (acceptable) to the major (cringe/unacceptable). I’ve worked systematically through about 15% of the text and found enough of concern to trigger my lack of confidence, and have sent the info to Penguin.

    You’re quite right that electronic is the way to go with this sort of information, and also a way of revitalising old texts. But it probably doesn’t generate much money for publishers.

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