Pākehā: The real meaning behind a beautiful word

Pākehā: The real meaning behind a beautiful word

Sometimes, the origins behind reo words can get lost in translation, their meanings altered to mean something derogatory or unpleasant. Kaiako (teacher) Joan Costello shares a kōrero (story) behind the word Pākehā, and helps us understand the beauty of the word.

What does Pākehā mean?

Growing up, I just knew that the word Pākehā meant the early ancestors that came from abroad – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, etc.

I first heard its deeper meaning when it was shared by an elder in a documentary. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember which one – but its teachings stayed with me all these years.

Within the word ‘Pākehā’ there’s reference to three words:

– means to come in to contact, to make contact.

Ke – is related to the word ‘rerekē’ which means different, or unique.

– is to share and exchange the breath. I understand that’s the whole reason we do a hongi – to share and acknowledge the breath, the hā, that connects us all.

So putting those three words together we have:

‘To come in to contact with a unique essence of the hā ’

A Pākehā child does a hongi with a Māori lady
Hongi, 2007. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa (85729)

From the heavens

It was thought that the people who came on the ships with their fair skin had come from ngā rangi tūhāhā – from the skies, realms, heavens, dimensions above.

In Sāmoa, the equivalent to ‘Pākehā’ is ‘Palagi’. When talking to a colleague from Sāmoa, she told me that ‘pa’ means the same – to come into contact, and ‘Palagi’ is the skies, or the heavens. So there’s a very close similarity.

It was a wonderful day when I learnt the meaning behind the word Pākehā – it makes you stop and want to take a big breath!

Pronouncing Pākehā

Pā  (p+are)

Kē (say the English word ‘Keg’ then drop the ‘g’)

Hā (hā)

Note: the macrons elongate the vowel therefore enjoy and take your time!


This is just one interpretation of the kupu (word) Pākehā and others may have different understandings, we’d love to hear what yours are in the comments.


  1. So does that mean Pakeha is also Samoan people, Asian people and India people? And dosen’t strictly mean white European people?

  2. Kia ora Whaea Joan. I love this definition. Thanks for sharing your story. Nancy Thompson

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