The Spinoff: A history of outrage over the word ‘Pākehā’

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Historians and language experts agree that the original meaning of the word Pākehā is most likely to be ‘pale, imaginary beings resembling men’, referring to a sea-dwelling, godlike people in Māori mythology. It has been used to describe Europeans, and then New Zealanders of European descent since before 1815. So why do some people object to it so much? Branko Marcetic looks at the history of outrage.

As a high-profileReddit thread reminded us some weeks back, the word ‘Pākehā’ has always had a somewhat tumultuous history, asking, as it does, the coloniser to refer to themselves by the language of the colonised. Backlash to it is often based on persistent urban myths about what the word means or translates to, probably the silliest of these being that it’s a transliteration of “bugger ya.”

Pākehā is not the only te reo word out there to refer to non-Māori – Tauiwi and Tangata Tiriti (literally, “people of the Treaty” which includes all cultural backgrounds, not just European) are also acceptable, though they can invite outrage of their own. Still, Pākehā is used most widely, and has received the lion’s share of this outrage, with the Human Rights Commission recording in 2001 that being labelled Pākehā was one of the most frequent complaints received by the former Race Relations Office. Let’s take a tour through some recent flashpoints where ‘Pākehā’ has decidedly not been embraced by Pākehā.

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