People from further afield could be forgiven for thinking New Zealanders were named after a small fuzzy Chinese gooseberry which was renamed as Kiwi in 1959. However, New Zealanders never adopted the name and the gooseberries were known locally as kiwifruit, never ever just ‘kiwi’.
New Zealanders are in fact named after their national bird, the Kiwi, but that’s just part of the story.
Those plucky Kiwis
The first use of a Kiwi to symbolise the nation may have come in cartoon form when the New Zealand Free Lance magazine printed a drawing showing a plucky kiwi that morphed into a moa when the All Blacks defeated Great Britain 15-0 in the first rugby test in 1905. This image was repeated by showing a kiwi unable to swallow Wales after the All Blacks’ controversial loss in Cardiff. In the same year, the Westminster Gazette also depicted a kiwi and a kangaroo setting off for a colonial conference. By 1908 the kiwi was the dominant symbol for New Zealand in cartoons, especially sporting ones, having replaced images of moa, fern leaves, a small boy and a lion cub.
Theory number 2
Another story about how New Zealanders became Kiwis has its roots in shoe polish. In the early 1900s, a Scottish-born inventor living in Melbourne developed a boot polish that didn’t just shine shoes, it also preserved, waterproofed and softened the leather. He called it Kiwi polish, in honour of the country his wife called home – she hailed from Oamaru. During World War I, the polish proved so good it was adopted by the British and American armies, and it wasn’t long before New Zealand soldiers were no longer called Fernlanders or En Zedders, and were called Kiwis instead, a moniker that quickly transferred to New Zealanders in general.
A natural fit
The nickname ‘Kiwi’ sits perfectly with New Zealanders’ national psyche. Just like the bird, New Zealanders are resolute, adaptable and just a bit quirky. As a symbol, the Kiwi bird transcends age, gender, race, and creed, and New Zealanders embraced it. The New Zealand representative rugby league team was dubbed the Kiwis by a journalist in 1921 and has officially had this name since 1938. Before long New Zealanders ate Kiwi brand bacon, banked with Kiwibank, cheered for a horse named Kiwi in the Melbourne Cup and went to bed when ‘The Goodnight Kiwi’ ended TV broadcasting for the day. Next time you meet a Kiwi, remember they’re named after a bird, not a gooseberry.
So, if you’re looking for a country where people are named after birds that don’t fly… we know a place.