• 4-minute read
  • 2nd July 2020

Which English Words Have Australian Aboriginal Origins?

In July each year, Australia celebrates Blak History Month, raising awareness of the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And to mark the occasion this year, we thought we’d look at some English words with Australian Aboriginal origins. There are more than you might think!

Wildlife and the Environment

Most of the words we’ve adopted from Australian Aboriginal languages are related to plants, animals, and the environment.

Internationally, some of the best known include:

  • Billabong – An Australian term for an oxbow lake, borrowed from the Wiradjuri term bilabaŋ, meaning “a watercourse that runs only after rain.”
  • Barramundi – A word meaning, aptly, “large-scaled river fish.”
    The Dawson River barramundi (artwork by George Coates).
    The Dawson River barramundi.
    (Artwork: George Coates)
  • Budgerigar – Perhaps better known as a “budgie” in English, this bird’s name is either a mispronunciation of the Gamilaraay term gijirrigaa or a combination of boojery (slang for “good”) and gar (meaning “cockatoo”).
  • Dingo – “Dingo” comes from the Dharug language. The Yarralin people, though, had different names for dingoes that live with people (walaku) and wild dingoes (ngurakin).
    Walaku or ngurakin?
    Walaku or ngurakin?
    (Photo: Jarrod Amoore)
  • Kangaroo – This one comes from the Guugu Yimithirr word gangurru. A common myth is that this means “I don’t know,” based on the idea that the locals did not understand James Cook when he asked them what the animal was in English. But it actually means “grey kangaroo.”
  • Koala – These small marsupials get their name from the Dharug word gula, meaning “no water.” This is because people used to think that koalas never drink water! However, this is not entirely true.
    Not thirsty?
    Not thirsty?
    (Image: craig_watson)
  • Kookaburra – A bird whose name is famed from the children’s song, “kookaburra” originally comes from the Wiradhuri word guuguubarra.
  • Wallaby and Wombat – As well as “dingo” and “koala,” the Dharug language, traditionally spoken in the region of Sydney, also gave us “wallaby” (walabi) and “wombat” (wambad).

There are plenty more, though! And if you’ve been to Australia, you might also know words such as “quokka,” “galah,” “waratah,” “coolabah,” and many other terms for things in the environment around you.

More English Words with Australian Aboriginal Origins

So, what else have Australian Aboriginal languages given English? Internationally, there aren’t too many that have made an impact.

The big one is “boomerang,” which was adapted from an extinct Aboriginal language of the New South Wales area and may be one of the first words people outside the country associate with Australia.

Traditional boomerangs.
Traditional boomerangs.
(Photo: Guillaume Blanchard)

Otherwise, some outside of Australia will know the greeting “Cooee!,” which originally meant “come here” in the Dharug language. And you may have heard the words “yabber” (to speak) and “yakka” (to work hard). But many Aboriginal words in Australian English are slang, place names, or refer to Aboriginal culture, so they’re not widely known elsewhere.

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One word that is widespread is the proper name “Kylie.” Now a popular girl’s name, it may have started as kiley, a Noongar word for a boomerang!

What Is Blak History Month?

Blak History Month was started in 2008 to celebrate and remember the history of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And it is “Blak” – rather than “Black” – because this term has a special meaning:

Blak: a term used by some Aboriginal people to reclaim historical, representational, symbolical, stereotypical and romanticised notions of Black or Blackness.

So while English has borrowed from Aboriginal languages, here, Aboriginal and Strait Islander people are borrowing from English, using it in new ways to express something about their own identities.

Aboriginal Culture
Photo: Steve Evans/flickr

Are there any other English words with origins in Aboriginal languages you’d like to see on our lists? If so, let us know in the comments below.

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