The (in)authenticity of accounts of early Sydney have been in the news recently. The fictionalised account of Lt William Dawes and his pioneering documentation of the Sydney Language in Kate Grenville’s new novel The Lieutenant has had mixed reviews, but the concurrent story about a possible 1770 boomerang has gripped me more.
Ten days ago the Sydney Morning Herald reported
A boomerang claimed to have belonged to Captain James Cook appears to have been withdrawn from sale on the eve of a London auction after advice from the National Museum of Australia that it was probably not the real thing.
The Times reported bluntly that
Arthur Palmer, an Australian ethnographer who independently appraised the boomerang, described it is [sic] an “unsaleable bent stick” which hails from about the 1820s — 40 years after the explorer’s death.
The colourful Arthur Beau Palmer‘s sizeable bucket of cold water can be hefted here; it is worth consulting for the view of early Sydney weapons. The story began in The Times of 21 August (with a photograph) and here in The Age on 22 August; there was an update in the SMH on 10 September.
A component of the cold water thrown on the item’s provenance is the evidence that boomerang-like missiles were not among the Indigenous armaments at Botany Bay or Port Jackson, at least not until many years after the First Fleet established the colony in 1788. So this got me to wondering about the provenance of the word too, as for decades the received knowledge has been that boomerang was borrowed from the Sydney Language — as the 1988 Australian National Dictionary (AND) has it:
[a. Dharuk bumariny.]
c 1790 W. Dawes Grammatical Forms Lang. N.S.W., Boo-mer-rit, the Scimiter.
Similarly Australian Aboriginal words in English
There are several flaws in this etymology.
- The earliest quotation, from a bilingual vocabulary in a notebook, does not establish that the word was used at all in English at the time. The same can be said of the other early record, according to Jaky Troy’s authoritative compilation The Sydney Language, which is Collins’ listing “Wo-mur-rāng”, one of eight (!) “Names of clubs”. (Appendix XII — Language, in Collins 1798, p.554). The AND‘s earliest quotation deploying boomerang in an English sentence is the 1827 quotation from PP King (about events a few years earlier in northern Australia), and by that stage the colonists were in touch with other languages besides the Sydney Language.
- The form of the word is not fully accounted for. A form like the c1790 Boo-mer-rit would be readily borrowed into English retaining the final stop consonant (compare wombat), and Collins’ Wo-mur-rāng would be readily borrowed retaining the initial semivowel (compare woomera). Another w-initial record is womerang by the French explorer Dumont D’Urville (1830:443,451) recalling February 1824 events on the north of Sydney harbour (pp.85,88 in the 1987 English translation). According to Troy (1993:43), a word in the required form is not recorded explicitly for the Sydney Language until RH Mathews’ 1903 publication (bumarang, bumarañ) (The Dharruk language, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales 35,155-160). By the time RH Mathews recorded the word it may well have been a recent loan, from a neighbouring language or from English.
- The meaning of the word is not fully accounted for: the denotation of the boomerang-like words in the Sydney Language appears not to have been used as a missile, nor in hunting or recreation. The earliest records are Boo-mer-rit, glossed as scimitar, and Wo-mur-rāng, as a type of club. As Troy (1993:43) takes care to provide the qualified gloss ‘boomerang for fighting’, elaborated “Sword or scimitar shaped, large piece of heavy wood used as a weapon for hand-to-hand fighting or thrown. Capable of inflicting a mortal wound.”, and reproduces (1993:95) a contemporary illustration of a womarang (~ wumarang ?) which is more of a club than a boomerang to my eye. Boomerangs as missiles, whether or not in returning mode, were first reported in 1802 by the much impressed explorer Barralier (1975:15) in the mountains west of Sydney: “the natives of this part of the country make use of a weapon which is not employed by, and is even unknown to, the natives of Sydney.” The boomerang as missile was first demonstrated in front of astonished spectators at Farm Cove (Port Jackson) in December 1804 by the well-travelled Bungaree (Sydney Gazette 23/12/1804 pp.2-3). The archaeologist Val Attenbrow’s magnum opus Sydney’s Aboriginal past (2002:95-96) has a good synthesis of the historical evidence on this. For a reminder of the wide variety of artefacts falling under the term boomerang see Philip Jones’ (1997) Boomerang and references therein.
These misgivings lead me to stay with the earlier finding of the noted archaeologist (and specialist on the Sydney basin) FD McCarthy as stated in the 1958 Australian Encyclopaedia
From the language of the Turawal tribe of the Georges River, near Sydney, this word was originally recorded as bou-mar-rang. (Vol. 1, p.44)
and reprised by the archaeologist Josephine Flood in her popular book The Original Australians
The word ‘boomerang’ comes from the language of the Tharawal people south of Botany Bay. (2006:54)
McCarthy’s source fits with the form and meaning of the English word boomerang, and accords with the historical information about where and when the colonists encountered the boomerang. I still have some misgivings because I have not found any details on McCarthy’s source for bou-mar-rang, and because the Dharawal word is usually recorded as wara:ngany (Eades 1976:84), but McCarthy’s account does fit with an entry in an 1871 list for the same region
(William Ridley transmitting John Rowley. Language of the Aborigines of Georges River, Cowpasture and Appin. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 7 (1878), 258-62.)
To summarise, my current best hypothesis is that English boomerang ‘a crescent-shaped wooden implement used as a missile or club, in hunting or warfare, and for recreational purposes’ (in the words of AND‘s definition) was borrowed into English by the 1820s from the Sydney Language’s southern neighbour, probably called Dharawal. The form in that language was probably /bumaRaŋ/ or /bumaRañ/ (where R is indeterminate between a glide, flap or trill). There was a cognate or two in the Sydney Language, probably /bumaRaty/, which denoted a type of wooden weapon likened by the colonists to a scimitar, and /wumaRaŋ/ which was possibly a synonym or variant of the word /bumaRaty/ or denoted a similar kind of wooden weapon.
A bent yardstick?
Dixon (2008) has recently described his involvement in the AND etymologies, and appraised how English dictionaries have dealt with the commonest loans from Australian languages. He discusses kangaroo, boomerang, koala, dingo, and wombat
the five most common loans, which can be used as a yardstick against which to measure how dictionaries deal with native Australian words. (2008:131)
His yardstick is his own 1980s work, for which he offers no revision. His story for boomerang illustrates this:
The first settlers at Sydney, in 1788, noted that members of the local Dharuk tribe used a crescent-shaped implement which they at first thought must be a type of sword or ‘scimitar’. Closer observation showed that the boomerang was thrown as a missile in hunting or in war, or just for play. The original name in Dharuk was probably bumariñ, which became adopted into English as boomerang. (Dixon 2008:133)
As we know from my discussion above and the references, Dixon’s story is misleading or inaccurate in these respects:
- the ‘scimitar’ was first noted by Banks at Botany Bay in 1770
- we do not know the Indigenous ethnonym of the people of Port Jackson, though Eora has reasonably been developed; the name Dharuk was applied over a century later to an inland variety of the Sydney Language
- the boomerang as missile was a later development at Port Jackson, not a pre-existing use which required “closer observation”
- the boomerang, in the wider modern sense, did not exist in the Port Jackson area to have an “original name” in the Sydney Language
- the source language was likely to have been the language neighbouring the Sydney Language to the south, and the source form was more likely /bumaRaŋ/ or /bumaRañ/
Dixon (2008) draws on Australian Aboriginal words in English (AAWE) 1990 1st edition as his best account of relevant etymologies. A further piece of information in its boomerang entry is the first citation (the same as in the AND):
c 1790 W. Dawes Grammatical Forms Lang. N.S.W., Boo-mer-rit, the Scimiter.
This is inaccurate in these respects:
- the source document is not one of the notebooks bearing Dawes’ name but the anonymous notebook, Marsden 41645(c) ‘Vocabulary of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney. (Native and English, but not alphabetical).’ (see Troy 1992)
- the spelling is “Scimeter” (as read also by Attenbrow (2002:95) — you can easily check now thanks to David Nathan having provided this scan of the entry
In the 2006 2nd edition of AAWE “some etymologies [were] improved in the light of new knowledge (but not those for any of the better-known words)” (Dixon 2008:149) so there is no change in the information on boomerang.
Troy’s (and Attenbrow’s and KV Smith’s) relevant publications have appeared since the first edition of AAWE, and it is a pity their work has not informed the second edition. Dixon (2008) does not mention Troy, despite claiming the Sydney Language (his Dharuk) as the source of four of his five test loans. It remains to be seen how his stories for other words stand up under scrutiny. The search for the source of a loan into Australian English doesn’t terminate simply upon finding a word with roughly the right form and sense in the Sydney Language.
I am grateful to David Wilkins for all his comments on a draft.
It is a pleasant surprise these days to get any fresh peek at the language situation in the early years of Sydney, and lo and behold my speculations above gain some corroboration from an unpublished additional citation that has been in the files of ANU’s Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC) since 1984: (thanks to Bruce Moore for access)
The corpse having been let down into the grave, they proceeded, as is their custom, to place his spears, waddie, booncooring, net, tin-pot, and, in short, all his worldly riches, by his side, the whole of which was then covered up with him (The Australian Magazine 1.3(2 July 1821),91)
The word booncooring is otherwise unknown in the files of the ANDC (and is unknown to Google — for now!). Although The Australian Magazine seems to have been carefully typeset (by the Government Printer), this particular word could well have been unfamiliar to the printer, and I suggest that a handwritten “mo” could have been misread as “nco”, so I am inclined to take the word to be boomooring.
The quotation is from surgeon and explorer Charles Throsby‘s ‘Description of a funeral of a black native’, “a well-known native called George, who some time since received from the Governor a badge or plate as a reward for some meritorious service”. The burial took place on Sunday 13 May 1821 at Throsby’s farm ‘Glenfield’ at Upper Minto, presumably the site of the Sydney suburb Glenfield, on the George’s River about 40km southwest of Sydney Cove. This is in the area which has been described as country of the Dharawal. In preceding years Throsby had explored the country further south and southwest, sometimes with local Indigenous guides, so he could well have picked up the term boomooring from them, and if so it would be from the Dharawal language.
As to the word’s denotation, from the context all we can infer that it was a personal artefact, and not synonymous with the other named artefacts. David Wilkins has kindly drawn my attention to this parallel:
A dead body, covered by a canoe, at whose side a sword and shield were placed in state, was once discovered. All that we could learn about this important personage was that he was a ‘Gweeagal’ (one of the tribe of Gweea) and a celebrated warrior. (Watkin Tench, 1793, A complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson, chapter 17)
We can infer that the grave reported by Tench was in the same general area as Glenfield, considering the opinion of the linguist Arthur Capell that
On the south of Sydney, Thurrawal reached practically to shore of Botany Bay, possibly limited by the George’s River. Early writers speak of the people about this area as “Gweagal”, which may be interpreted as Gwiyagal. Their speech is probably a dialectal form of Thurrawal, having a distinct vocabulary. (Aboriginal languages In the south central coast, New South Wales: fresh discoveries, Oceania 41.1(Sept 1970),21)
So this suggests the boomooring could well have been a sword or shield — or scimitar, club, or boomerang!
As to the form, it is the only record of a boomerang-like word with a high back vowel [u] as the second vowel (rather than a central or low vowel). The second syllable would have been unstressed so probably not a lot turns on this. The perception of the third vowel could have been influenced by the final consonant, especially if it was really a palatal nasal [ñ] as others have already inferred.
Conclusion: Throsby 1821 is the earliest known record of what is most likely the word borrowed into English as boomerang.