What’s in a name?

By Tim Low February 16, 2016
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From ’emu’ to ‘cockatoo’, fewer Aussie animal names have their origins in Aboriginal languages than most of us realise – but the trend is shifting.

IF YOU THINK that ‘emu’, ‘cockatoo’ and ‘bandicoot’ are Aboriginal names, think again.

‘Emu’ comes from Portuguese, ‘cockatoo’ is Malay and ‘bandicoot’ is from the Telugu language of India. From Spanish came ‘goanna’, and ‘echidna’ and ‘platypus’ are Greek. Australia does have a good many names of Indigenous origin – including koala, kangaroo, bilby, budgerigar and brolga – but fewer than we might suppose.

Names have been imported for different reasons. Europeans first saw cockatoos and cassowaries when they visited the Spice Islands (Maluku) in the 15th century, and when they took some back to Europe, they took the Malay names as well.

‘Bandicoot’ is an Indian name for big Asian rats, from which our scrabbling marsupials gained their name. ‘Emu’ is from a word used by the Portuguese for the rheas in South America, big flightless birds much like ours. We can be grateful it won out over an earlier name: ‘New Holland cassowary’. ‘Goanna’ comes from ‘iguana’. ‘Echidna’ and ‘platypus’ started out as scientific names, but lost that status.

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The name ’emu’ may not be quite as Aussie as the zany flightless bird it represents, but at least it rolls of the tongue easier than the earlier ‘New Holland cassowary’. (Image: Chudditch / Wikimedia)

Early visitors to Australia were widely travelled and widely read, so we should not be surprised they borrowed names from other continents for animals that seemed similar. From a distance a goanna looks a lot like an iguana, although they are not closely related.

The Indigenous names we do use are a way to acknowledge that Aboriginal people had associations with these animals going back tens of thousands of years before the English language even existed. Some biologists want more of them used. ‘Woylie’ is gaining ascendancy over ‘brush-tailed bettong’, and in recent years some biologists have begun using ‘kakarratul and itjaritjari’ in place of ‘northern and southern marsupial mole’.

A growing trend is scientific names that draw upon Aboriginal words. One striking example is Philoria kundagungan (the red and yellow mountain frog). Biologists chose the species name because, in the Kabi language of southern Queensland, ‘kunda’ means mountain and ‘gungan’ means frog.

Outside biology we can find other names that appear to be, but are not, Aboriginal. ‘Didgeridoo’ is an early 20th century word, not Indigenous and probably based on the sound instead. Authentic names for this famous instrument include ‘ngarrriralkpwina’ and ‘artawirr’.

Tim speaks to ABC Kimberley about Australian animals’ unusual name origins.

Tim Low is the author of the award-winning book Where Song Began. Follow him on Twitter @TimLow5.