Australian Indigenous words you may know!

Cooee, bunji! Let’s find out the Indigenous origin of some of the widely used ‘English’ words!

In fact, cooee is itself from the Dharug language (also known as the Sydney language) meaning ‘come here’, while bunji means ‘mate; close friend; kinsman’ in Walpiri and other languages spoken in NT and QLD.

Among borrowings (or loanwords) from an Australian Indigenous language, ‘kangaroo’ is perhaps the best known. The word comes from kanguru in Guugu Yimidhirr, spoken in Cooktown, QLD, when Captain Cook landed in 1770. While kanguru only refers to the large black or grey species of kangaroo, ‘kangaroo’ becomes more of a generic word in English.

Another two members from the macropod family, ‘wallaby’ and ‘quokka’, on the other hand, come respectively from Dharug (NSW) and Noongar (WA). As you may know, many flora and fauna terms are actually borrowed from Indigenous languages, especially from those spoken near the areas of settlement, including dingo, koala, wombat (the Sydney language), kookaburra (Wiradjuri, NSW), taipan (Wik-Mungkan, QLD), quoll (Guugu Yimidhirr) and conkerberry (Mayi-Yapi, QLD) – just to name a few.

If you are familiar with social media, you are certainly familiar with ‘boomerang’. Just like the boomerang video effect, a boomerang is a returning throw stick traditionally used for hunting by Indigenous peoples. The word is believed to derive from bou-mar-rang in Dharawal (NSW).

Even the capital city of Australia, Canberra, comes from an Aboriginal language – meaning ‘meeting place’ (or ‘breasts’ according to some sources) in Ngunnawal. Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock in the Northern Territory, is the sacred place of the Pitjantjatjara people; being a proper noun, though, it has no particular meaning. To find out the origins of the place names near you, Wikipedia provides a list of Australian place names of Aboriginal origin that can serve as a handy starting point for further research.


References: Do you know a Bunji from a Boorie? Meet our dictionary’s new Indigenous words – the article gives a brief introduction of the 2016 edition of the Australian National Dictionary, which includes more than 500 words from 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. You can also learn some more from the websites below:

Radio program: The Australian National Dictionary Centre of Australian National University ran a radio program titled ‘Lingua Franca’ from 1999 to 2011, featuring topics on Australian English*. In the episode Shake-a-leg, talk the talk (16 December 2006), Dr Bruce Moore introduced Australian Aboriginal Words in English (R. M. W. Dixon, 1990; 2006), discussing the meanings and origins of some of the widely used Aboriginal words in English.

Class activities: The classroom exercises using dictionaries set out by the Australian National Dictionary Centre includes a model on borrowings from Aboriginal languages. Check the activity sheet out also for more interesting stories of the word ‘kangaroo’, which was further borrowed into Barkindji referring to ‘horse’!

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