With the word ‘nurse’ having many meanings in English, it is probably not surprising that the word has several translations in te reo Māori.

Look up the word for ‘nurse’ (the profession) in Māori dictionaries and you find the words nēhi/neehi, nāhi/naahi and tapuhi, plus several other words for the verb ‘to nurse’.

Neehi was used by Te Kaunihera o ngā Neehi Māori (the National Council of Māori Nurses) when it formed in 1984. Tapuhi is used in the Nursing Council of New Zealand’s translation of its name; Te Kaunihera Tapuhi o Aotearoa.

When Nursing Review approached some Māori nursing leaders, it appears that all the words for nurse are commonly in use.

The country’s chief nursing officer Dr Jane O’Malley says she uses neehi (sometimes spelt nēhi).

“Neehi or naahi (depending on dialect or area) are common kupu (words) for nurse,” says Margareth Broodkoorn, the lead director of nursing on Ngā Manukura o Āpōpō (the national Māori nursing and midwifery workforce development programme). She says the National Council of Māori Nurses, for which she is on the executive committee, tend to use ‘neehi’ but ‘tapuhi’ was the other word that is commonly used for ‘nurse’.

Ngaira Harker, the co-chair of the College of Nurses Aotearoa and director of nursing for Te Kaunihera and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi’s joint nursing degree, says it uses the term ‘neehi’ but the term ‘tapuhi’ was also used.

“My understanding is that ‘tapuhi’ was the more traditional term, whereas ‘neehi’ was derived from the English translation of nurse into Māori.”

Nurse consultant and former college co-chair Taima Campbell agrees, saying neehi/naahi are likely to be transliterations of the noun ‘nurse’ which didn’t exist as a role pre-colonisation, whereas tapuhi or tapuhitia were more descriptive of the act of nursing/caring for the sick. Because tapuhi was not a transliteration, it was preferred by many, says Campbell. Tapuhi was also used for midwife, along with the term ‘kaiwhakawhānau’.

Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, says when NZN0 was approached by the International Council of Nurses two years ago for New Zealand’s translation of the word ‘nurse’, her first thought that “this was pretty safe and we can do this”.

“I thought the direct translation would be nēhi (neehi) but it caused a great big debate as people described themselves more as tapuhi – which means the broader aspects of caring,” says Nuku.

So when NZNO chose a new translation of its name – launched recently with a new logo at NZNO’s Matariki celebrations – it decided on tapuhi, so its name in Māori is Tōpūtanga Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa.

Nuku says NZNO’s Te Runanga o Aotearoa is also looking at what it is unique about being a Māori nurse. She says a range of interesting views and concepts are emerging about what it means to be a nurse and Māori, with terms like ‘tohunga’ and ‘kete’ also being used to describe aspects of the role.

Some dictionary meanings

The online Maori dictionary  (Te Aka) describes nāhi and nēhi as loan words for nurse that have been in use in written language since at least 1925 and 1903 respectively.

Tapuhi/tia is translated as a noun meaning nurse or midwife and as a verb meaning “to nurse, carry in the arms, tend in sickness or distress”.

Other Māori words for the verb ‘to nurse’ found in online dictionaries include whakatapuhi, mohimohi , hiki and tiaki.

One of the earliest Māori dictionaries, published by missionary Archdeacon Williams in 1852, has the words hiki, and tapuhi/tapuhitia for the verb ‘to nurse’ and translates the phrases:

Kei hea te kai hiki? as Where is the nurse?


Tapuhitia te tamaiti nei, ka tango as  Let this child be nursed, it is crying

Some other translations for nursing words found in online dictionaries include tapuhi matua and hēhita for charge nurse/sister  and tapuhi whai rēhitatanga for registered nurse.



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