This is a word of layers, as you shall see.
It’s an easy pun to say I like the sound of this word, since Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I can recall seeing (and that’s saying a lot, as I like to visit beautiful places). But it also has a nice sound in the saying, the soft nasal shifting into a vowel that glides through a relaxed liquid (your tongue tip likely doesn’t touch when you say the /l/) into the powder-puff of the /f/ (even appearing in letter form to relax, as an f is like an l bent over and leaning on a bar), then on through a syllabic /r/ until at last touching a firm landing point at /d/.
The echoes are various, of course; I will leave aside the milf bit, other than to point out that that term’s referent is old and desirable, like Milford Sound. Milk comes up, though it stops hard at the back. The ford is not said like the independent word ford; rather, it ends the same as Harvard and Clifford. I am put in mind of Medford, just because that’s where Tufts University is (I got my PhD there) and where “Jingle Bells” was written. People from Britain may think of Milford Haven, in Wales (which may remind Canadians of Millhaven, a federal penitentiary, but never mind).
Surely it’s the same Milford, this sound and that haven? Yes, in fact. I should say first, though, that Milford Sound is actually a fjord – a sound is a kind of ocean inlet or passage between land bodies (for instance Øresund, between Sweden and Zealand), but Milford Sound is actually a narrow valley carved by glaciation and then filled in by sea, and fjord is the more technically appropriate term. Contrast this with a ria, which is a river valley which was flooded by rising sea levels (one tour guide told us this was the definition of a sound, but that seems not to be the standard accepted definition).
Now, Milford Fjord would sound a bit odd, wouldn’t it? A strange repetition of sound (through lack of Sound). It sticks with the name as revised in the mid-19th century by Captain John Lort Stokes. The name originally given was Milford Haven. Yes, directly in honour of the place in Wales, home of John Grono, a sealer captain who sailed into it in about 1812 and aimed to further immortalize (and perhaps recapture) his place of birth.
But Milford Sound doesn’t actually look like Milford Haven; the latter is rather flattish. And in fact it’s a ria, not a fjord. Which is kind of funny, because, as you may have guessed, the ford in Milford is related to fjord. In fact, Milford means “sandy fjord”. So while Milford Sound is not altogether accurate, Milford Fjord would be redundant. But there’s really nothing sandy about Milford Sound, so if we’re going to get etymological, we’ll go off the rails anyway.
So you can see there are layers, and then there is this diverted attempt at immortality…
Now, if Grono had named it by the Welsh name of his home, he would have called it Aberdaugleddau, which could have been problematic for what I presume are obvious reasons, but it would have been a little less inaccurate inasmuch as it means “mouth of the Cleddau rivers” and the river that flows into Milford Sound was named the Cleddau by Grono.
But Grono was not the first person to navigate the waters of Milford Sound, nor the first person to give it a name. Hello! The Maori had already been in New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as they called it) for a few centuries. And they called Milford Sound Piopiotahi, which is also an official name for it now.
OK, so… Piopiotahi? Six syllables, with that vowel-heaviness and reduplication characteristic of Polynesian languages. It’s pretty, maybe, but the sound characteristics are crisp and play more to the spectacular sights and heights of the place than to any sense of calmness of fluidity. But what does it mean?
Well, the piopio was a kind of thrush indigenous to Aotearoa. It is now extinct. But in Maori legend, a piopio was the travelling companion of the demi-god Maui, who set out to achieve immortality for humans by entering the womb of the goddess of death and coming out through her mouth. When he died in the attempt, the piopio flew to Milford Sound in mourning. Tahi means “single, one”; piopiotahi means “a single piopio”.
And now there is not a single piopio left either; they too were mortal. But Piopiotahi is immortal, timeless, and though you may cruise through it with a multitude of tourists on your bark of fantasy, in the grandness of the sound you make barely a sound. You are entering a passage closer to where time was born, where all is always changing (waterfalls that come and go within hours; plants that cling to cliffs, sometimes slide off, then grow again), but it is the very liquid nature of the place that, in the face of its high rocks, gives it immortality – it and, for an illusory hour, you.