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Articles > English words coming from Australian Aboriginal languages

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

English words coming from Australian Aboriginal languages

When the first settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, they established themselves in the Sydney area where the Dharug language was spoken. Many Dharug words entered English around that time, like waratah (1788), dingo (1789), boomerang (1790), koala, wallaby and wombat (1798). Alongside the further expansion of the settlement, other languages were encountered, and words borrowed: Kamilaroi (budgerigar in 1840, brolga in 1896), Yuwaalaraay (galah in 1862, bilby in 1885), Wiradjuri (gang-gang in 1833, kookaburra in 1834, corella in 1859).

Bilby – Billabong – Boomerang – Brolga – Budgerigar – Bung – Corella – Didgeridoo – Galah – Gang-gang – Gilgie – Kangaroo – Karrikin – Koala – Kookaburra – Wallaby – Waratah – Wombat

Bilby

Bilby, © Kevin503 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The rabbit-bandicoot, a desert marsupial, is a loanword from the Yuwaalaraay language of northern New South Wales in which it means “long-nosed rat”.

Billabong

Billabong, © Shiftchange [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

A billabong is an oxbow lake, i.-e. an isolated pond left behind after a river changes course.

The word is most likely derived from the Wiradjuri term bilabaŋ, which means “a watercourse that runs only after rain” (itself derived from bila, meaning “river”), and bong or bung, meaning “dead”.

Boomerang

Boomerang, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Originally written as bou-mar-rang in the language of the Turuwal people (a sub-group of the Dharug) in 1822, the true origin of this word is not sure.

Brolga

Brolga, © jjron [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Australian crane got its name from a Kamilaroi word.

Budgerigar

Budgerigar, © Guillaume Pillet [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The common pet parakeet, also nicknamed budgie, got its name from the Kamilaroi language.

Bung

This Australian English word means “broken, exhausted, out of action”. It comes from bang meaning “dead”, which was first recorded in 1841 in the Yagara Aboriginal language of the Brisbane region, which then passed through Australian pidgin where to go bung meant “to die”.

Corella

Budgerigar, © Tzali [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This white cockatoo got its name from the Wiradjuri language.

Didgeridoo

Didgeridoo, © Graham Crumb [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Also spelled didjeridu. Even though this music instrument comes from Australia, its name is an onomatopoeia of Western origin.

Galah

Galah, © Rosakakadu Thomas Schultz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The galah, also known as rose-breasted cockatoo, is a loanword from Yuwaalaraay.

Gang-gang

Gang-gang, © Rod Waddington [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The gang-gang cockatoo takes its name from an onomatopoeia in the Wiradjuri language.

Gilgie

Gilgie, © Graysilver [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This small freshwater crayfish endemic to the south-west corner of Australia is named from a Nyungar (or Noongar) word.

Kangaroo

Kangaroo, © Rileypie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The word comes from gangurru in Guugu Yimidhirr, a language of north Queensland.

Karrikin

Chemical structure of the karrikins (KAR1, KAR2, KAR3, KAR4), © Edgar181, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Karrikins are a group of plant growth regulators (or hormones) found in the smoke of burning plant named after the Nyungar (or Noongar) word karrik which means “smoke”.

Koala

Koala, © Diliff [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From the Dharug gula, it was originally written coola or koolah in English.

Kookaburra

Kookaburra, © JJ Harrison [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Wiradjuri name of this emblematic bird, guuguubarra, is an onomatopoeia of its call.

Wallaby

Wallaby © Alexis Ulrich

The name of this marsupial from the same taxonomic family as kangaroos comes from the Dharug word walabi or waliba.

Waratah

Waratah © Louise Docker [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The official floral emblem of New South Wales takes its name from the Dharug language.

Wombat

Wombat © JJ Harrison [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Derived from the Dharug word wambad, wambaj, or wambag, it was originally written whom-batt in English.

You would like to propose another word and its etymology? Contact me!

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