Posted on 21 August 2019

Creative ways to talk about getting fired

It's an unfortunate situation to be fired, but luckily, the Australian language contains a variety of words and phrases to help make talking about it (always a healthy thing to do) a little easier. Please note, if you have been fired or know someone who has been fired and want to make sure they are doing okay, please seek support through your community and/or local organisation. The most common terminology for this phenomena is to dismiss or terminate, however the term we are using for the purposes of this blog is fired. Meaning "to dismiss (an employee) from a job", this pretty much sums it up. And from here, the ways we talk about this only get more creative. Think about getting the sack. This interesting term originates from the Middle Ages, when a very particular punishment of being sewn into and drowned in a sack was doled out for the crime of murdering a parent. Obviously a very different meaning, but the gist is similar. It crops up with the current meaning around the 17th century and has retained this meaning ever since. Of course, it doesn't stop there. English speakers have embellished this sense of getting the sack and expanded it to include getting the boot (or the somewhat charmingly phrased order of the boot), the axe, the spear and even, in Australia in particular, the arse. This last one is also used on its own, so instead of getting the arse, you can simply be arseholed, or fired from your job. A phrase with a bit more of a fluid motion to it is to give someone the flick. This also means to dismiss, sack or send someone packing and has been Aussie slang since at least the 1980s. Little known to most people is that this is actually from rhyming slang flick pass for 'arse' – thus, to give someone the flickpass is to give them the arse, which we've already discussed. As an alternative, some have suggested that the phrase derives from the advertising slogan of the Flick Pest Control company: 'One flick and they're gone'. Surprisingly, these are not all the words used to describe this experience. What others have you used and/or heard about? Comment and let us know.
Posted on 15 August 2019

Loan words from Australian languages: Tales of myth and misunderstanding

Words that have been borrowed into English from Australian Indigenous languages have often followed a circuitous path, beset by failures in communication between the Indigenous peoples and the colonisers. The legend of kangaroo has become a kind of symbol of this narrative, but we see it to varying degrees in the etymology of many words. Like dingo, which comes from din-gu, the Dharug name specifically for domesticated dingos (warrigal is the general term for dingos or wild dogs in Dharug). But there are other words that have taken a similar path of misunderstanding. Katoomba More extreme is Katoomba (the name of a town in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney), which is commonly translated as ‘falling waters’ but actually most likely referred to ‘a place where the kadoomb fern grew’ in the local Gundungurra language. It is thought that this was either a generic term or referred to a specific site about 15 kilometres from modern-day Katoomba. Ningaui Sometimes borrowings were more arbitrary, like the name of the genus Ningaui, a group of very small, adorable marsupials (seriously, look them up – you won’t be sorry!). The genus was described in 1975 by Mike Archer, who took the name from an unspecified Indigenous language, apparently referring to small, mythical nocturnal beings. From what we know, this is probably the Tiwi nyingawi: mythical little spirit people. Kuring-gai Similarly, Kuringgai (also Guringai, Ku-ring-gai, Kuring-gai) was actually coined by ethnographer John Fraser as part of his hypothesis about a group of Aboriginal peoples of Sydney and the Central Coast of NSW. He hypothesised that they spoke dialects of a larger language, Kuringgai. While some speculate that people with this name may once have existed in the region, and others believe it was an alternative name for Awabakal, the word as we use it today was effectively made up by Fraser. Moomba Another etymology that has achieved a mythic status almost equal to that of kangaroo is that of Moomba. Since the first Moomba festival in Melbourne in 1955, the official line has been that the name is an Aboriginal word (the language was never specified) for ‘Let’s get together and have fun’. However, there is a widespread alternative story: that moomba actually translates to ‘up your bum’, or something of the sort – mum meaning ‘bum’ or ‘anus’ in a number of Victorian languages and -ba being a common suffix translated as ‘at the place of’ or ‘in’. The story goes that the former president of the Australian Aborigines’ League, Bill Onus, suggested the term as a cheeky practical joke. According to family, Onus’s wife claimed that this was not the case. Apparently, the couple found moomba while looking through a Queensland wordlist (though exactly which list is still not clear). Bill had also previously helped organise a cultural showcase called An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark, at Melbourne’s Palace Theatre which had been successful and led the state government to first patent the name Moomba. However, no-one has been able to definitively confirm or disprove either story. That the myth could very well be true goes to show the difficulty in sorting fact from fiction when it comes to English’s history of borrowing from Australian languages.   Do you know any other words like this? If so, please let us know in the comments below.  
Posted on 8 August 2019

The origin of kangaroo – getting to the bottom of an Australian furphy

It is a myth that is, despite being debunked in the 1970s,  still rampant – still passed smugly between schoolchildren in playgrounds all over Australia. It was certainly something I believed for a long time, and is still circulated in popular culture, including in the 2016 blockbuster Arrival – a film with a linguist protagonist, as well as several high-profile linguistics consultants.  I am talking about the Australian furphy around the etymology of kangaroo – that it actually means ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand you’ in language. The story goes that while exploring an area of far north Queensland, near modern-day Cooktown, Lieutenant James Cook and Joseph Banks encountered an unfamiliar creature and tried to ask a local Guugu Yimidhirr man what it was called. He responded, ‘I don’t know’ and the Englishmen took this to be the creature’s name.   As it may not surprise you to hear, this is not the case. In reality, kanguru (pronounced ‘kang-uru’), or ganguru (‘gang-uru’) since k and g are in free alteration in Guugu Yimidhirr, refers to the male of a large black or grey kangaroo species – one of at least eight varieties of kangaroo distinguished in the language. The myth can be traced back to Captain Phillip King, who visited the area in 1820. He established good relations with the Guugu Yimidhirr people and compiled a vocabulary for the language that agreed with Cook’s on all words except one: He recorded a different word for ‘kangaroo’ – menuah. It is thought that King was actually given the word minha, a generic term for ‘edible animal’, but still, King’s account led people to speculate about the actual meaning of kangaroo in Guugu Yimidhirr.  Another interesting chapter in the story of kangaroo is that when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney in 1788, they used the word kangaroo with local Dharug people, not realising at first that they spoke a different language. The Dharug people adopted kangaroo, thinking it was an English word for ‘edible animal’ and apparently even inquired as to whether cows were kangaroo. This is a common pattern in the history of contact between English and Australian languages – words spread between Indigenous languages through contact with English. In fact, several decades later, speakers of the Baagandji language of northern New South Wales also acquired the word through contact with European settlers. Baagandji people started using the form gaaŋgurru in order to describe a strange new animal – the horse.  Perhaps, then, the myth is so pervasive because it does represent something true about the story of kangaroo, and in fact many other loan words from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages: That the process of borrowing from Australian languages is so often characterised by miscommunication.
Posted on 1 August 2019

The etymology of 'echidna' – why wasn’t it just called Spike?

We recently received a letter asking about the derivation of the word echidna. Was our iconic spiny anteater connected to the terrifying goddess Echidna of Greek mythology? Echidna comes from New Latin from the Greek word ekhidna meaning 'viper'. The Greek mythological being was so named because she was half-woman and half-serpent. She was also known as 'the mother of all monsters', so not the nicest creature to be near. One theory is that our spiny anteater was so called because its tongue resembled that of a snake. While this resemblance may be true, the theory is a little simplistic and doesn’t quite bear up. When the echidna was discovered by European naturalists in Australia, they noted that it had some characteristics of mammals and some characteristics of reptiles. A mammal that lay eggs? There was great confusion about how to classify it and questions about its taxonomic placement remained unresolved for a number of years. As monotremes (the platypus and echidna) are found only in Australia and New Guinea, this was the first time naturalists were faced with this problem.     French naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier proposed the name echidna to reflect the animal’s possession of both mammalian and reptilian characteristics, likening it to the woman/serpent nature of the Greek mythological creature, Echidna. While numerous other terms came and went for the animal, echidna is the one that it is known by today. Our spiky little friend is not as terrifying as its name might have suggested to an ancient Greek. In contrast, the name of a baby echidna is a puggle, but that's a story for another time.