Check out our first edition of Aboriginal words used in Australian English. In this article, we also discuss the things you should consider before asking about what certain Aboriginal words mean or translate to in Australian English words.
Here's a fun informative listicle of words, derived from Aboriginal language groups across Australia to get you started!
Pigmented, wooden and painted non-returning boomerang. Courtesy of NMA, 2020.
For First Nations people, the boomerang is a symbol of cultural endurance and serves as a tangible link to their millennia-long presence on this continent. Similarly to the didgeridoo, the ‘boomerang’ is an English term coined through the European colonists’ interpretation of this ancient hunting tool. This term was first documented in 1822 and recorded as “bou-mar-rang;” a phrase adopted from the Dharug language of the Turuwal people from George’s River near Port Jackson, New South Wales (Queensland Museum, 2011).
Since there is not one homogenous language and dialect for all Aboriginal Australians, it is understandable that the First Nations peoples’ traditional words for ‘boomerang’ varies across the continent depending on the local language. This is seen where the Butchulla people from Fraser Island call them ‘barcan,’ and the Noongar people of south-west Western Australia call them ‘kylie’ (McCarthy, F.D. 1961).
If you want to learn about the origins of the boomerang, check out our article here.
Illustration of a Bunyip by J. Macfarlane (1890). Courtesy of State Library of Victoria, 2022.
The Bunyip is a mythical creature in traditional Indigenous culture who inhabited swamps, billabongs, creeks, waterholes and riverbeds, and grabbed anybody who visited the water’s edge alone (ABC, 2007). In traditional Aboriginal culture, the bunyip is a spirit creature and is known by a variety of names and guises, depending on the local Indigenous language and their culture. For example, the Aboriginal word for the creature in the Ngarrindjeri nation of the lower reaches of the Murray River is ‘mulgewanki,’ whereas to the Aboriginal people living in western Victoria who speak the language Wemba-Wemba the creature is called ‘banib’ (F.Cahir, I.Clark, P.Clarke, 2018)
In the Aboriginal dreaming stories that the bunyip is in, the spirit being is used to teach moral lessons, explaining the cultural rules and obligations that clans are expected to live by. For example, in the three versions of the Three Sisters Dreamtime story from the Dharug (western sydney) and Gundungurra peoples (the south-west of Sydney), the Bunyip is either the ‘protector of the river’ teaching people valuable lessons to respect the unpredictability of water and the dangers it presents (ABC, 2007), or he is the bearer of punishment to those who don’t marry and bear children in accordance with the Aboriginal ‘skin system’ (Scenic World, 2019).
Yilila band performing at Barunga Festival. Courtesy of NT Government, 2022.When European colonists first heard the music of this ancient instrument, it sounded like it was making the word ‘didgeridoo.’ As a result, the onomatopoeic word ‘didgeridoo’ was coined, and has been used by the wider Australian community ever since. The earliest known occurrences of seeing the word in print can be found in the 1908 edition of the tri-weekly tabloid newspaper the Hamilton Spectator where it referred to a “did-gery-do (hollow bamboo),” a 1914 edition of The Northern Territory Times and Gazette referring to a “didgery-doo,” (National Library of Australia, 2017) and a 1919 issue of Smith’s Weekly, saying “The Northern Territory aborigines have an infernal - allegedly musical - instrument composed of two feet of hollow bamboo. It produces but one sound - 'didjerry, didjerry, didjerry ” (ANU, 2022).
One of the most commonly used Aboriginal words for ‘didgeridoo’ is the word ‘yiḏaki’ from the Yolŋu peoples of north-east Arnhem Land (SAFC, 2016). Although, strictly speaking, it refers to a specific type of didgeridoo made, as in the Yolŋu nation the yiḏaki is generally long (1.3-1.5metres) and has a flared shape where the mouthpiece end is slimmer than the bell end. In western Arnhem Land, the didgeridoo is called ‘mako’ by the Bininj people speaking in the Kunwinjku language. The ‘mako’ also has different sound characteristics as the instrument is shorter than the yiḏaki and has a somewhat richer and more full-bodied sound (Spirit Gallery, 2022).
If you want to learn about the origins of the oldest wind instrument on the planet, check out our article here.
Woomera painted by Albert Namatjira, c.1950, Hermannsburg Mission, NT. Courtesy of MAAS, 2017.
A ‘woomera’ is essentially a spear thrower that allows Aboriginal hunters to apply more force, speed and distance when launching their spears through the water or over long distances. ‘Woomera’ is a word from the Dharug language group of the Eora people from the Sydney basin. This spear throwing tool is usually made from Mulga wood, and serves many other purposes such as a: receptacle for mixing ochre for traditional paintings for ceremonies, deflection tool of enemies’ spears in battle, fire making saw, or a utensil for chopping game (MBantua, 2020).
In 1947, there was even a town founded and named Woomera, in South Australia and was the home of the ‘Woomera Rocket Range’- an Australian civil aerospace and military facility and operation (RAAF Base Woomera, 2022).
If you want to learn about woomeras and their traditional uses, check out our article here.
We hope you had fun learning about First Nations’ words used in everyday Australian life. Learning about First Nations languages is so significant to understanding not only the cultural roots of this Country, but the anthropological roots and plant and animal life as well. We should also know that language is vital to all Indigenous groups' traditional rituals and ceremonies, and is a part of their history. Without the preservation of language, history and culture is lost.
Stay tuned for part three to learn more about the most popular Aboriginal loanwords used in Australian society.