Macquarie Dictionary Blog
Loan words from Australian languages: Tales of myth and misunderstanding
Words that have been borrowed into English from Australian Indigenous languages have often followed a circuitous path, beset by failures in communication between the Indigenous peoples and the colonisers. The legend of kangaroo has become a kind of symbol of this narrative, but we see it to varying degrees in the etymology of many words. Like dingo, which comes from din-gu, the Dharug name specifically for domesticated dingos (warrigal is the general term for dingos or wild dogs in Dharug). But there are other words that have taken a similar path of misunderstanding. Katoomba More extreme is Katoomba (the name of a town in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney), which is commonly translated as ‘falling waters’ but actually most likely referred to ‘a place where the kadoomb fern grew’ in the local Gundungurra language. It is thought that this was either a generic term or referred to a specific site about 15 kilometres from modern-day Katoomba. Ningaui Sometimes borrowings were more arbitrary, like the name of the genus Ningaui, a group of very small, adorable marsupials (seriously, look them up – you won’t be sorry!). The genus was described in 1975 by Mike Archer, who took the name from an unspecified Indigenous language, apparently referring to small, mythical nocturnal beings. From what we know, this is probably the Tiwi nyingawi: mythical little spirit people. Kuring-gai Similarly, Kuringgai (also Guringai, Ku-ring-gai, Kuring-gai) was actually coined by ethnographer John Fraser as part of his hypothesis about a group of Aboriginal peoples of Sydney and the Central Coast of NSW. He hypothesised that they spoke dialects of a larger language, Kuringgai. While some speculate that people with this name may once have existed in the region, and others believe it was an alternative name for Awabakal, the word as we use it today was effectively made up by Fraser. Moomba Another etymology that has achieved a mythic status almost equal to that of kangaroo is that of Moomba. Since the first Moomba festival in Melbourne in 1955, the official line has been that the name is an Aboriginal word (the language was never specified) for ‘Let’s get together and have fun’. However, there is a widespread alternative story: that moomba actually translates to ‘up your bum’, or something of the sort – mum meaning ‘bum’ or ‘anus’ in a number of Victorian languages and -ba being a common suffix translated as ‘at the place of’ or ‘in’. The story goes that the former president of the Australian Aborigines’ League, Bill Onus, suggested the term as a cheeky practical joke. According to family, Onus’s wife claimed that this was not the case. Apparently, the couple found moomba while looking through a Queensland wordlist (though exactly which list is still not clear). Bill had also previously helped organise a cultural showcase called An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark, at Melbourne’s Palace Theatre which had been successful and led the state government to first patent the name Moomba. However, no-one has been able to definitively confirm or disprove either story. That the myth could very well be true goes to show the difficulty in sorting fact from fiction when it comes to English’s history of borrowing from Australian languages. Do you know any other words like this? If so, please let us know in the comments below.
Watch out for boomers at the beach, and on the streets
Aussie Word of the Week
Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. This week we look at boomer. There are a lot of very different meanings for the word boomer in colloquial Australian English. The most common is as something large, like a crashing wave. But it is also popularly known to mean something successful or popular, as a party or song. A newer reference, unrelated to these two, is simply as the shortened version of baby boomer.
The origin of kangaroo – getting to the bottom of an Australian furphy
It is a myth that is, despite being debunked in the 1970s, still rampant – still passed smugly between schoolchildren in playgrounds all over Australia. It was certainly something I believed for a long time, and is still circulated in popular culture, including in the 2016 blockbuster Arrival – a film with a linguist protagonist, as well as several high-profile linguistics consultants. I am talking about the Australian furphy around the etymology of kangaroo – that it actually means ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand you’ in language. The story goes that while exploring an area of far north Queensland, near modern-day Cooktown, Lieutenant James Cook and Joseph Banks encountered an unfamiliar creature and tried to ask a local Guugu Yimidhirr man what it was called. He responded, ‘I don’t know’ and the Englishmen took this to be the creature’s name. As it may not surprise you to hear, this is not the case. In reality, kanguru (pronounced ‘kang-uru’), or ganguru (‘gang-uru’) since k and g are in free alteration in Guugu Yimidhirr, refers to the male of a large black or grey kangaroo species – one of at least eight varieties of kangaroo distinguished in the language. The myth can be traced back to Captain Phillip King, who visited the area in 1820. He established good relations with the Guugu Yimidhirr people and compiled a vocabulary for the language that agreed with Cook’s on all words except one: He recorded a different word for ‘kangaroo’ – menuah. It is thought that King was actually given the word minha, a generic term for ‘edible animal’, but still, King’s account led people to speculate about the actual meaning of kangaroo in Guugu Yimidhirr. Another interesting chapter in the story of kangaroo is that when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney in 1788, they used the word kangaroo with local Dharug people, not realising at first that they spoke a different language. The Dharug people adopted kangaroo, thinking it was an English word for ‘edible animal’ and apparently even inquired as to whether cows were kangaroo. This is a common pattern in the history of contact between English and Australian languages – words spread between Indigenous languages through contact with English. In fact, several decades later, speakers of the Baagandji language of northern New South Wales also acquired the word through contact with European settlers. Baagandji people started using the form gaaŋgurru in order to describe a strange new animal – the horse. Perhaps, then, the myth is so pervasive because it does represent something true about the story of kangaroo, and in fact many other loan words from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages: That the process of borrowing from Australian languages is so often characterised by miscommunication.
The unique pain of stepping on a bindi-eye
Aussie Word of the Week
There are many names for this stalwart feature of an Australian childhood. Running barefoot across the grass is almost guaranteed to result in a bindi-eye in the sole of your foot. The bindi-eye is originally native to South America and was introduced to Australia in the early 20th century. Now known all over the country as a common lawn weed, it flowers in spring and produces small, flat, brown, seeds with sharp spines which stick painfully into bare feet. The name bindi-eye comes from the Australian Aboriginal languages of Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay. However, a bindayaa originally referred to any of a number of plants of the genus Calotis which have small burrs with fine barbed awns. It has since been applied to a wider variety of plants. It also has a number of different colloquial references. In the Newcastle region, it is known as a joey. And in parts of Western Australia, it is known as a jo-jo. Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. You can see other Aussie Word of the Week posts from the Macquarie Dictionary here.
The etymology of 'echidna' – why wasn’t it just called Spike?
We recently received a letter asking about the derivation of the word echidna. Was our iconic spiny anteater connected to the terrifying goddess Echidna of Greek mythology? Echidna comes from New Latin from the Greek word ekhidna meaning 'viper'. The Greek mythological being was so named because she was half-woman and half-serpent. She was also known as 'the mother of all monsters', so not the nicest creature to be near. One theory is that our spiny anteater was so called because its tongue resembled that of a snake. While this resemblance may be true, the theory is a little simplistic and doesn’t quite bear up. When the echidna was discovered by European naturalists in Australia, they noted that it had some characteristics of mammals and some characteristics of reptiles. A mammal that lay eggs? There was great confusion about how to classify it and questions about its taxonomic placement remained unresolved for a number of years. As monotremes (the platypus and echidna) are found only in Australia and New Guinea, this was the first time naturalists were faced with this problem. French naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier proposed the name echidna to reflect the animal’s possession of both mammalian and reptilian characteristics, likening it to the woman/serpent nature of the Greek mythological creature, Echidna. While numerous other terms came and went for the animal, echidna is the one that it is known by today. Our spiky little friend is not as terrifying as its name might have suggested to an ancient Greek. In contrast, the name of a baby echidna is a puggle, but that's a story for another time.
Is 'little nipper' a tautology?
Aussie Word of the Week
Anyone who lives near a beach might have seen a group of junior lifesavers, also known as nippers. There are a number of meanings for this word, but no clear etymology listed. An interesting and very likely now very much illegal meaning was a 'young lad on a construction site or in a mine who did small odd jobs, such as making tea and buying lunch.' We would love to hear from any nippers of any kind out there. Is this a common term where you come from? Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. You can see other Aussie Word of the Week posts from the Macquarie Dictionary here.
Some words are more beautiful words than others
Words can be beautiful in the way they look, the way they sound and in what they mean. Some words hit the trifecta of beauty, and others have only one. And still more are only beautiful to some people. We have a pretty good idea of what we like to see in words, but it's a very subjective artform. One person may love the word craquelure, but another may find it repulsive. We have found eight more beautiful words to bring you a little joy. From words about dreams, to writing and reading, Shakespeare and fine art – there is a word to suit everyone in our series. You can read our series on beautiful words here on our blog. We think every word is beautiful in its own way, and would love to hear from you what your chosen few words are. Comment below if you have a gem you think we've missed.
The young fresh spuds have eyes, you know
Aussie Word of the Week
Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. This week we look at spud. Perhaps the most versatile and popular vegetable on the planet, the spud (or potato, for those not in the know) is a staple of classic Aussie food. From chips to chips, it is part of almost every meal.
Eight new words to watch
It's that time again, when we look through our words to watch, often submitted by you for consideration in the Macquarie Dictionary. We are interested in hearing about words from all walks of life, be it from your profession, from everyday slang, from something your kids have said that you just couldn't wrap your head around, we want it all. This month, we have some words that have been floating around for some time like weeaboo and twofer, but perhaps it's time now to add them to the dictionary. We also review some new words, like the gaming term meta, and the new word for an old practice, humanure. And we look at one of our favourite types of word, the classic Aussie colloquial manner of shortening words. We've seen this before with things such as deso for designated driver, but have you ever sat down to a dego? Or better yet, a vego dego? We'd love to know! Let us know if you have any other suggestions. We are always happy to hear new words, no matter how big or small a usage they may have. Be sure to vote for some of these when we post them on our Instagram stories. See other words suggested to the Macquarie Dictionary here.
Aussie Word of the Week
While the goon of today is generally understood to be cheap cask wine, this meaning didn't appear until the 1990s. For at least a decade before this, goon meant a flagon of wine. It is possible that this word came from a jocular pronunciation of flagoon. An offshoot of this word is the classic Aussie drinking game known as goon of fortune. This is a drinking game in which bladders of wine casks are hung from a rotating clothes hoist under which players are situated at intervals, the spinning of the hoist determining who drinks next. Here at the dictionary, we do not condone excessive drinking or dangerous activities like this, but are reporting on it as a matter of fact. If you do drink, please do so responsibly. Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. You can see other Aussie Word of the Week posts from the Macquarie Dictionary here.
Fancy a bevvy up the rissole?
Aussie Word of the Week
The humble RSL (Returned Services League of Australia) club can be a mouthful, so in the Aussie tradition, it has been colloquially shortened to 'rissole'. You may have heard the question "Want to go up the rissole?", or, for entertainers, to "do the rissoles" is to make a tour of RSL clubs. Rissole has a number of other meanings unrelated to this one, but we'll leave those to you to discover. Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. You can see other Aussie Word of the Week posts from the Macquarie Dictionary here.
Will "shoot through like the Bondi tram" make a comeback?
Aussie Word of the Week
This is an interesting piece of Sydney history. This turn of phrase means 'to depart in haste', and was originally Sydney slang dating back to the 1940s. It referred to the now-defunct trams along the Bondi line which were notoriously fast. It also dates from World War II services slang, when it also meant to go AWOL. Sydney's trams were discontinued in 1961, but the term remained for years after the fact. Not as well known or used now, perhaps this is poised for a comeback with Sydney trams making a triumphant return. We're looking forward to seeing what new words and colloquialisms crop up from the everchanging city. Each week, we have a look at a slang word from Australian English. You can see other Aussie Word of the Week posts from the Macquarie Dictionary here.