It’s all in a name

By Troy Douglas 7 November 2013
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What’s in a place name? And should we change unsavoury or politically incorrect names?

THERE’S AN AGE OLD question: What’s in a name? Well, apparently when it comes to names of geographical places you have to delve beneath the surface.

There are an estimated four million place names in Australia. Last month, the movement to rename one of them – Rotten Bay off South Australia’s coast – was quashed, despite there being no official record of its origins. Nine submissions from Port Lincoln residents to South Australia’s Geographical Names Unit opposed the change, much to the disappointment of the local council who wanted to give the bay a more tourist-friendly image.

Local councillors considered the name Bluefin Bay a perfect reflection of its tuna fishing industry. The mayor of the council argued that, unlike other areas which are named for historical significance, Rotten Bay – though registered – is “not a recognised name.” It seems to be an arbitrary name with no background information recorded by South Australia. 

The Port Lincoln Times unearthed a possible origin of the name, one inspired by the State’s first fisheries inspector. Local legend suggests he put razorfish (a type of shellfish with sharp edges) in the waters to cut the anchor ropes of any boats which tried to moor there, making it a ‘rotten’ place to anchor. Professor Ian Whittington, a marine scientist at the University of Adelaide, says that he “highly doubts” that these invertebrates could cause this kind of damage.

The literal and the controversial

Many places in Australia are described based on their European or Aboriginal heritage, or the physical typography of the features. Coffin Bay, on the southern tip of South Australia’s Eyre peninsular, for example, might not exactly project a welcoming image but it relates to Sir Isaac Coffin, a naval commander in the area from where Matthew Flinders departed. Similarly, Denial Bay originated from Captain Flinders being denied inland passage.

There are other names that aren’t quite so historic, but nonetheless significant. Fannie Bay, Northern Territory, was coined after an early opera singer who passed through the area. And Eggs and Bacon Bay in Tasmania is rumoured to be the place where Lady Jane Franklin, the 18th century Governor’s wife, enjoyed, yes, eggs and bacon. It replaced South Deep Bay.

Then there are the controversial. The Niggerheads, a ridge in Victoria’s Alpine National Park, was renamed in December 2008 because of its obvious racial connotations. A local tourism operator and the Environment Minister led the cause for its change to The Jaithmathangs, the name of an Aboriginal language group said to be from the region.

Should a name be changed?

Their names might be controversial or insulting or unsavoury, but should every controversial name be changed? Places such as Blackboy Mountain and Nigger Creek still exist. And is there any point if there is always someone who won’t be happy?

Names can be a confusing and sensitive subject. Xavier Duff wrote in New Matilda in April, that toponymy, the obscure field of studying how places came to be named, “can be the arena in which ideas about national identity, culture and heritage collide, along with nostalgia and romanticism”. Where do we draw the line at what name some may turn their noses up, while others may have affection for?

A spokesman for SA’s Geographical Names Unit says locals appear to accept Rotten Bay and have suggested “it’s a name that has always been used.” Perhaps then, there is rationale behind every name, even if only in the minds of the locals. Maybe we are forgetting the old adage: everything has its place. And every place has its name.

Most states have an equivalent body responsible for regulating place names, and a place names register.

ACT Land Information Centre Place Names
Queensland Place Names

New South Wales Geographical Names Register

Victoria Place Names

South Australia Gazetteer

Western Australia Geographical Names

Northern Territory Geographical Names