The ‘wombat’ trail

How English acquired the word wombat is another story which began in early Sydney, after dingo (1788) and before boomerang (1820s). The way that the form and denotation of wombat came together for the colonists is notable for its convolutions, and for the record we have of some of the twists along the way.

The intriguing story of the European discovery of the common wombat Vombatus ursinus was assembled recently by museum specialists Pigott and Jessop, focussing on how “the Governor’s wombat” comes to be in Newcastle upon Tyne.  There was a string of coincidences, with one sequence leading to general adoption of the word wombat for this marsupial.  It spread also through the genus Vombatus (É. Geoffroy 1803) (with the synonym Wombatus (Desmarest 1804)) which was an early incorporation of an Australian word into a biological genus name — and through Family Vombatidae (Burnett 1829), up to Suborder Vombatiformes (Burnett 1830) and superfamily Vombatoidea (Archer 1984).

The first record

We can be fairly sure that the ‘wombat’ word was first written down in 1798 by 19 year old John Price, an “intelligent lad” who had come to Australia with Governor Hunter as a servant. Price’s manuscript journal extract is not only extant, but is marvellously on open view in the online Papers of Sir Joseph Banks at the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW) — see page CY3005/242 in Series 38.21. Here is how Price wrote the word: whom-batt extract clearly whom-Batt. We have only one other word of an Australian language written down by Price: cullawine ‘koala’, which suggests he was using English conventions. From Price’s spelling alone, we would be uncertain whether the first syllable of whom-Batt was meant to be read as English whom, i.e. [hum] not [wom]. As for Price’s final double-t, this could have been his way of signalling an un-English kind of voiceless coronal stop (otherwise he would have simply written the second syllable as English bat) — or perhaps his way of avoiding the suggestion that the animal was a kind of bat (though the OED tells us that the animal bat (and the implement bat) could be spelled batt in the 18th century). No matter, as we’ll see, we have more later evidence for the word’s pronunciation.

Price came to learn this word through an unusual chain of events. While on an expedition dispatched by Governor Hunter to demonstrate the non-existence of an inland colony of Irishmen(!), Price had wombat dung pointed out to him by ex-convict John Wilson on 26 January 1798 in the area of present-day Bargo (100km southwest of Sydney; the route was meticulously retraced by Cambage 1920, with further commentary by Chisholm 1955). Wilson was apparently the first of the colonists to encounter the wombat, and he had learnt of it because after he was freed (about 1792) he had gone bush and “had been herding with the savages in different parts of the country” (Collins 1802). Wilson was declared an outlaw in mid 1797 and gave himself up, and was then assigned by Governor Hunter to guide some expeditions into the hinterland.

What language?

There are a few slim clues as to what language Wilson had been learning while an outlaw, and thus the language from which whom-batt was borrowed. These clues come from (a) the districts over which Wilson had been ranging, (b) an incident where he could not understand a local language, and (c) the one other word Wilson provided.

(a) Collins had earlier reported that

Wilson, a wild idle young man, who, his term of transportation being expired, preferred living among the natives in the vicinity of the [sc. Hawkesbury] river, to earning the wages of honest industry by working for settlers. He had formed an intermediate language between his own and theirs, with which he made shift to comprehend something of what they wished him to communicate; … The tribe with whom Wilson associated had given him a name, Bun-bo-e, but none of them had taken his in exchange. (Collins 1798)

Wilson, among other articles of information, mentioned, that he had been upwards of 100 miles in every direction round the settlement. In the course of his travelling he had noticed several animals, which, from his description, had not been seen in any of the districts; and to the northwest of the head of the Hawkesbury, he came upon a very extensive tract of open and well-watered country, where he had seen a bird of the pheasant species, and a quadruped, which he said was larger than a dog, having its hind parts thin, and bearing no proportion to the shoulders, which were strong and large. (Collins 1802)

That is, Wilson had learnt of what we know as the lyrebird and the wombat, “northwest of the head of the Hawkesbury”, that is, northwest of the navigable extent of the Hawkesbury, at the end of the Nepean River, around present-day Windsor. This is northwest of Sydney and fits best with the country of the language Darkinyung as recorded by RH Mathews.

(b) The day before coming upon the wombat dung, Wilson was apparently able to communicate with the locals (southwest of Sydney):

we fell in with a party of Natives, which gave a very good account of the place we were in search of

However, two days later, and so some tens of kilometres further SSW

… we saw a party of Natives. Wilson ran & caught one of them ^a Girl thinking to learn something from them, but her language was so different from that one which we have with us that we could not understand her.

It may be that Wilson and Price had used the nascent NSW Pidgin to communicate, and this was not yet known to the Aboriginal people further from Sydney. Another possibility is that Wilson and Price had crossed a linguistic boundary, probably into what we know as Gandangarra country, and that Wilson was less able to communicate in Gandangarra. Put beside this the later observation:

A very old Dharook blackfellow … informed us that the Gundungurra and Dharook natives could converse with but little difficulty. (Mathews 1901:155 as quoted by Capell 1970:20).

and we could say that Wilson’s grasp of “Dharook” wasn’t sufficient to allow conversation with Gandangarra, and also it might have been that the language variety of which he had learnt a smattering was further removed, that is to the north, more towards Darkinyung. Furthermore, RH Mathews later recorded a different word for ‘wombat’ in Gandangarra, goolung (the same form as in Wiradhuri to the west of the Blue Mountains). There is no specific record of a Darkinyung word for ‘wombat’.

(c) Price records just one other word he learnt from Wilson, namely cullawine denoting the marsupial bear that we now know as the koala. This fits with Darkinyung guluwayn (Jones 2008:161), and not quite so well with kulamañ (RH Mathews’ Dharuk) which is the sole record of this word for the Sydney Language.

Taken together, these three clues point to Darkinyung as the most likely source language.

Hunter’s record

Governor John Hunter must have been one of the first residents at Port Jackson to hear about the wombat and the ‘wombat’ word. Even if Hunter had not heard the word as part of Wilson’s earlier reports, then he would have heard it from his servant Price in February 1798. A month later by another curious turn of events Governor Hunter was presented with a wombat, the first seen in the Port Jackson settlement, from what we now know as Bass Strait some 800km south:

The navigator Matthew Flinders had contact with the Furneaux Group wombats on the third voyage of the Francis, which brought the live wombat back to Sydney in March 1798. (Pigott & Jessop 2007:210)

Hunter sent this wombat’s corpse to England with his letter of 5 August 1798 to the Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne (per Sir Joseph Banks) in which he commented:

An Animal found upon on an Island on the Coast of New South Wales in Latitude 40°.36′.S. where considerable numbers were caught by the company of a ship which had been wrecked there on her Voyage from Bengal to Port Jackson … This animal has lately been discovered to be an Inhabitant of the interior of this Country also, its flesh is delicate meat — the Mountain Natives call it Wombach – this one is a female & has the false belly for the security of its young. (Banks Papers Series 38.11, CY 3005 / 211 – 212) (NB: with some differences this corresponds to AND‘s second citation)

We can guess that Hunter decided on the spelling wombach from hearing the word said by “Mountain Natives” or someone (besides Price) relaying their pronunciation. It would not have been from the coastal people, as we’ll see. The Hunter spelling indicating final /ty/ can be reconciled with the spellings indicating final /t/ by positing that the word did end in a laminal stop (with articulation indeterminate between dental and palatal), and that this was equated variously with English /t/ and English /tʃ/.

Bass and Flinders

The other early detailed description was by the surgeon George Bass, whose manuscript version can be viewed in the Banks Papers.

When the first that was brought to Port Jackson was shown to the natives all of them were ignorant of it but a mountain native. He declared it to be an inhabitant of the blue-mountains or that range of mountains which lie immediately at the back of the settlement; and that there its name was Wom-bat. This name was applied to the newly discovered inhabitant of Furneaux’s Islands.

Whether or not Bass was present at the interview around the first wombat at Port Jackson (presumably soon after March 1798), his novel spelling (different from Hunter’s) suggests Bass had some direct involvement. Pigott & Jessop (2007:210) tell us that Bass made a dissection in late October 1798 while Flinders charted the southern islands of the Furneaux Group, and “[o]n his return to England he wrote up his findings” — Bass “reached England … at the end of July 1800” (according to his ADB entry).

The wombat of the Blue Mountains (Vombatus ursinus) is in the same species which encompasses the Bass Strait subspecies (Vombatus ursinus ursinus), so the extension of the word has been vindicated zoologically. (Furthermore the Vombatus genus has just the one species; the other two modern wombat species are in a different genus.)

Collins’ publication

Collins made the first published mention of the word, relying most likely on Hunter and Bass, as he had returned to England without seeing a wombat or hearing the word. Collins (1802 II:153-57) included a version of Hunter’s drawing and a paraphrase of Bass’s detailed description of the wombat from which the spelling Wom-bat must have been taken. This spelling (modulo the hyphen) was the one which was to prevail, probably owing to the popularity of Collins’ books.

The mountain natives named this new animal Wom-bat, and said it was good eating; but it was wholly unknown to those who were admitted into the settlement. (Collins 1802 II:99)

The Wom-bat (or, as it is called by the natives of Port Jackson, the Womback). (Collins 1802 II:153)

What about Collins’ alternate spelling indicating final /k/? Collins’ basic source for updates from NSW was Governor Hunter:

After the second volume, which was largely based on Hunter’s reports, was published in 1802, Maria [Collins’ wife] helped to abridge and edit his work in a single volume in 1804. (ADB entry for Collins)

In Hunter’s letter of 5 August 1798 the word is written like this:


Another of Hunter’s renditions was copied by Banks’ clerk clearly as Wombach Hunter-Wombach-4 (“copied in the hand of William Cartlich” according to the Banks Papers archivist). Also, Thomas Bewick engraved Hunter’s sketch and published it in 1800 with the title Wombach (Hunter 1989:26 Fig.10). But others such as Collins may have read Hunter’s writing as “Womback”, Hunter’s k’s being rather like his h’s, or perhaps Collins’ printer might have misread Collins manuscript. Moyal (2002:4) transcribed as “Womback” one “Wombach” in her excerpt from a letter of Hunter’s. Note also that an English reader is used to seeing words ending in “ack” but not “ach”.

There’s another factor bearing on the womback spelling, namely whether the source word could actually have ended in /k/. Words in the Sydney Language generally could end in /t/ (or /ty/) but not /k/. Lt William Dawes was gone years before the colonists encountered the wombat and so we don’t know how he would have represented the sound of the word. His notes (the best source for the Sydney Language) show a final /t/ in some words, such as gaŋat ‘bald’ (b); and so does Anon: yan-bad ‘tired’ (c), and barakãut (b), bar-gat (c) (C) ‘afraid, frightened’. But Dawes recorded a final /k/ only in the onomatopoeic bōōkbōk (b) ‘boobook (owl)’; Anon records only a handful, in a bird name (also probably onomatopoeic) go-gar-ruck ‘friar bird’ (c); and otherwise only in bo-ruk ~ bu-rouk (c) ‘full’; and talla-wo-la-dak (c) ‘where the hospital stood’. The little data on the neighbouring inland languages indicate that final /k/ (or any stop) was also rare or unattested in Darkinyung, while final /k/ was possible in Gandangarra (there are about a dozen such words in RH Mathews Gandangarra vocabulary).

Flinders’ record: another variant

Flinders is another person who might have been present at the interview reported by Bass around the first wombat at Port Jackson (presumably soon after it arrived with Flinders in March 1798). In any case during his time in Sydney that winter Flinders must have learnt the word, and adopted the spelling Whombat, because when writing up his next trip to Bass Strait in October 1798, he used the placename Point Whombat (Narrative p.8 20 Oct 1798; pp.10,11 29 Oct 1798) for where the Governor’s wombat came from. Years later in his book the name appeared as Point Womat (Flinders 1814:cxxviii, Pigott & Jessop 2007:212). The spelling was changed again (by 1830) to Point Wombat, and the official name is now Wombat Point. (I learnt some of these details from The E R Pretyman Index to Tasmanian Place Names NS2809/1/15 Place names – Plas – Rhy.) So Flinders’ original spelling is much the same as his companion Bass’s wom-bat.

The early records of Price, Hunter, Bass, Flinders, and that published by Collins, all point to the word wombat being borrowed from a word wambaty (possibly wumbaty) in a language of the mountains west of Port Jackson, possibly Darkinyung, or Dharuk the inland dialect of the Sydney Language. But a variant pronunciation is indicated slightly later by Matthew Flinders:

The new animal, called Womat, by the natives at the back of Port Jackson, is found in no inconsiderable numbers upon Cape-Barren Island, and probably inhabits several other of these islands. (Flinders 1801:26)

The difference between Flinders’ womat, and his earlier whombat or Bass’s wom-bat, mightn’t seem much, but it fits with the m– ~ –mb– correspondence I have noted whereby the coastal dialect of the Sydney Language (Iyura) has apparently simplified any homorganic nasal-stop cluster to just the nasal. In other words, womat is the form to be expected in Iyura as a cognate of wombat in a related language.

The other record of this pronunciation, as wumot, is from Peter Good, the botanising gardener on the Investigator, in his journal for 23 April 1802 at King Island:

they killed two animals of the Opossum kind which at Port jackson are called Wumots, it has very short legs flat head and rounded body (Edwards, 1981:74) (thanks to Pigott & Jessop 2007:211)

The Investigator was the vessel of Flinders’ famous circumnavigation of 1801-03, Good had ample opportunity to follow Flinders’ pronunciation, or, with Flinders’ long-time associate Bungaree also aboard, both Flinders and Good could more directly follow what may well have been Bungaree’s coastal pronunciation.

Two possible sources occur to me for Flinders’ and Good’s womat ~ wumot : (1) speakers of the coastal dialect who lived “at the back of Port Jackson” had retained the word, by then pronouncing it something [‘womaty] with the simple nasal; or (2) speakers of the coastal dialect, who had previously been “ignorant of” the wombat, upon hearing the inlanders call it wambaty, applied correspondence mimicry (also called loan nativization) and assimilated it to their phonotactics, thus saying wamaty. Now Bungaree “came with the remnants of his Broken Bay group to settle in Sydney” and presumably the Sydney Language was a second language for him; someone in his situation, knowing a similar language, is just the person to apply correspondence mimicry.

When Flinders wrote up his voyages for publication, he summarised his knowledge of the word thus:

Clarke’s Island afforded the first specimen of the new animal, called wombat. This little bear-like quadruped is known in New South Wales, and is called by the natives womat, wombat, or womback, according to the different dialects–or perhaps to the different rendering of the wood-rangers who brought the information. (Flinders 1814:cxxxv)

His phrasing implies that at least some of the variants he learnt through intermediaries, and not directly from speakers of the source language (or languages). He put first his own preferred spelling (which he used a few times in the text of his book), and added in this passage the two spellings which are the ones published by Collins. (Perhaps someone can confirm that Flinders had access to Collins’ 1802 or 1804 edition during his years in Mauritius?)

Freycinet (part of the Baudin expedition) must have been thinking of Flinders when he wrote in his later publication:

Les Anglois écrivent womat. C’est le nom donné à l’animal dont il s’agit par les sauvages du port Jackson; nos naturalistes l’ont appelé phascolomis wombat. (= The English write womat. This is the name given to the animal in question by the natives of Port Jackson; our naturalists called it phascolomis wombat) (Freycinet 1815:100n)

I am aware of no further instances of a rendition of the ‘wombat’ word with simple medial consonant m.

The French connection

An early French record of the ‘wombat’ word is intriguingly different, and I don’t think it has been considered by English lexicographers.

The French exploration commanded by Nicolas Baudin, in Australian waters from 1801 to 1803, also collected wombats. (Pigott & Jessop 2007:211)

The first mention of wombats in the French journals is by Midshipman Désiré Breton (on Le Géographe, transferred to Le Naturaliste at Sydney, 1802). As he noted in his entry of 13 brumaire an 11 (4 November 1802 by the French Republican calendar) at Port Jackson:

Nous Embarquâmes, des Caisses de Botanique Mineralogie, Zoologie, &c ; 67 Bailles de plantes 4 Casoars ; 2 hombacs ; 2 Signes Noirs ; 1 oie du détroit deBasse ; 2 Kangourou ; 2 Chiens des Naturels du pays ; & beaucoup de perroquets & autres Oiseaux pour la mènagerie. Tout le gaillard d’arriere, n’était que parcs ou Cages pour ces Animaux (Source: Journal, série marine, Archives nationales, Paris, 5JJ 57)

Note the spelling hombac. The fate of one of the Port Jackson wombats is chronicled in his journal entry of 17 frimaire an 11 (8 December 1802) at King Island:

Depuis le pt Jackson, il était mort un hombac les deux Kangourou & des oiseaux : un des Chiens était Blessé.

There are two other mentions in this journal, also in Bass Strait; one is dated 16 frimaire an 11 (7 December 1802) at King Island:

Beau tems, le vent joli frais du SSE au Sud. Au jour, les Aspirans ont été Se promener à l’Ile King, dans le petit Canot, armé par eux. Le pousse pied, avec les Maitre, a été à la pêche. Le Comdt envoya une Caisse de Zoologie & un hombac ; à la nuit Le petit Canot est revenu de l’Ile King : on a commencé à tenir Le grément, & on y a travaillé toute la nuit. (This is the context of the TLF entry‘s citation (Bréton 1802:166 per Kidman 1971:152) and note the unexplained misleading dates in the title of the copy Kidman relied on)

Another journal has a variant spelling humbac (which would have much the same pronunciation). Engineer François-Michel Ronsard (on Le Géographe) writes in his journal entry of 2-3 nivôse an 11 (23-24 December 1802) at King Island:

On trouve sur cette isle une grande quantité de chats sauvages, beaucoup de Kangourous, de humbacs et d’Emioux. (Source: Journal, vol. 2, Archives Nationales, Paris, série marine 5JJ 30; cited as Baudin & Ronsard 1803 by Kidman 1971:152).

Thus Kidman (1971:153) ventured that

L’évidence de ces textes donne à penser que le mot a été emprunté par le français à deux reprises, d’abord directement à une langue indigène d’Australie (hombac), et par la suite à l’anglais. (= The evidence of these texts suggests that the word has been borrowed by French twice, first directly from an indigenous language of Australia (hombac), and following that from English.)

That wambaty bypassed English here is an attractive possibility. Baudin famously met Flinders at Encounter Bay in April 1802, and may or may not have heard Flinders on the subject of wombats (such as how he had brought the first ones from Bass Strait to Sydney in 1798). Then that winter the French were in Port Jackson for supplies, and collected two wombats there, and did meet with Flinders, Bass, and Good who were in Sydney at the time. (For instance, Good recorded that on 11 May 1802 “Went ashore and had a walk with Mr Brown & the French botanist [Leschenault] & collected many fine plants.” Edwards, 1981:79.) However we do not know whether the French heard the word said by a speaker of the donor language.

After return to Bass Strait, Baudin’s party “embarked” three live wombats at King Island in December 1802 (Brown 2006:xxi), where Lesueur had drawn them (not in 1801 as stated by Moyal 2002:24). There Baudin’s party would have heard a ‘wombat’ word from sealers they found camped on the eastern shore of King Island, on a hill on the north end of Sea Elephants Bay. A shore party of four naturalists were stranded by a storm:

Vicious gusts ripped Péron’s tents [visible in Lesueur’s drawing] to shreds but, fortunately, the Frenchmen’s plight was noticed by a certain Mr Cowper [sc. Daniel Cooper], the leader of a group of sealers in semi-permanent residence on the Island. … The sealer made the Frenchmen comfortable in one of his four wooden cabins roofed with bark strips. His girlfriend, a Sandwich Islander, served them a meal of cooked kangaroo. In the course of dinner, Cowper told Péron that he and his team of ten men had been living on the island for thirteen months [actually only since June 1802 according to Péron 1971:12n]. They were mainly occupied in preparing seal oil and fur for the China trade. Writing later about this meeting, Péron considered that the most interesting of Cowper’s companions had been two Irishmen who had been transported to New South Wales for their Anti-British political opinions.

Péron was shown around a huge shed … Hanging from hooks inside the shed he noted half a dozen emus, several kangaroos and two large wombats. … [The sealers’] diet was almost solely the meat of wombat, emu and kangaroo. He was told that the wombat, being slow and having no instinct to flee or defend itself, was no problem to catch and that the sealers even tamed several of them. (Wallace 1984:119; a loose translation of Péron’s account as in Guillaumin 1982; see also Cornell’s closer translation)

So the naturalists must have heard the sealers’ word for wombat. The French scientists’ spelling fits with wambaty modulo the initial [w], which is uncommon in French. In a journal entry dated 28-29 brumaire an 11 (20 November 1802) in Bass Strait, Baudin wrote:

A environ sept heure, le Capne de cette goelette vint a bord et me fit seulment present d’un umbat d’une grosseur extraordinaire. (Post-Captain Nicolas Baudin, commander of Le Géographe, source: Journal de mer, vol. 4, Archives Nationales, Paris, série marine 5JJ 39)

The naturalist Péron wrote Ombatte, also probably contemporary:

No. 672 in Péron’s journal no. 65010 gives a description in Latin of ‘Ombatte kingiensis’ (Bonnemains et al 1988:321, caption to drawing 80072)

We don’t know whether the mariners had dealings with the sealers of Sea Elephants Bay. Their spelling hombac ~ humbac appears to have originated during the stay at Port Jackson. That this French spelling begins with h (rather than being *ombac, or *ouambac) could indicate attention to aspiration, which could well have been that of an English intermediary’s [hw] or from the French understanding of written English “whom” (note Flinders’ 1798 Whombat). (Aspiration is not a feature noted in the languages of Sydney and environs.) It may just indicate that the [w] was not prominent as heard by the French (as also in the naturalists’ spelling).

It is the final c of the French mariners that is surprising, given that I have discounted the indications of the source word ending in /k/. A few possibilities occur to me: (1) There really was a variant form wambak, which somehow Collins also became aware of in London before his 1802 book appeared. (2) These French had somehow been influenced by reading an English spelling womback (whether of Collins or some other route). (3) Their final c represents a palatal stop, not a velar stop. (4) The sealers’ camp on King Island had in their isolation modified their pronunciation, following their cook (from Maui, Péron 1971:14) whose native language lacks /t/ and can borrow [t] as [k] (as in Hawaiian pāloke ‘parrot’), and somehow this was picked up by the mariners Breton and Ronsard (but not the naturalists). Possibility (1) doesn’t fit well with all the other evidence, and the only other English indication of final k is Bischoff 1827. My problem with possibility (2) is that I don’t really know how the writers would have encountered a spelling such as womback. I don’t know of any other evidence for possibility (3), and possibility (4) I admit is far-fetched, and in any case cannot account for the prior spelling in the 4 November 1802 journal entry at Port Jackson. So I am left puzzled. In any case, by 1803 the French had adopted Bass’s spelling wombat (Geoffroy 1803).

More variants

Subsequent recorded spellings of the ‘wombat’ word generally fit with the wambaty reconstitution: whombat (of Flinders 1798, used by PG King to Banks 2 Oct 1802, Caley 1806:66), waumbut (Sydney Gazette 1803), wambut (Arden 1841), waambat (Melville 1851), wombat (Rowley 1871 in Ridley). James Graham in the Bathurst district in the 1830s wrote wombach when transcribing a sentence in NSW Pidgin (Troy 1994b:App.8). Some decades after the initial spread of the ‘wombat’ word there are some records which would indicate that the first vowel is /u/ not /a/: woombadt (Booth 1834), woombat (Wilkes 1838), and even woombacks (plural) (Bischoff 1827 published 1832), but these are sufficiently removed from the donor language that I think we can attribute the variation to some combination of changes during oral transmission in English, and the vagaries of English spelling (such as some writer avoiding the letter sequence womb as it might be read [wum] instead of [wom]).

Further afield

1. There are some scraps of possible relevance in the returns from the RASA questionnaires sent out to NSW officials in c1899.

(a) A word akin to wambaty has been recorded in a coastal language of NSW some distance north of Sydney. In a return of 6 Oct 1899, the “Police Magistrate, Home for Aborigines, Grafton” listed as a local word “Bear (Native) Dun-cean-uh – Ombudgee” (Geographical Names Board of New South Wales c2003:182). This can be compared with two entries in the new Gumbaynggirr Dictionary: dunggiirr ‘koala’ and gambaany ‘wombat’ (Morelli 2008). While gambaany looks like a potential cognate of wambaty in a language which allows final nasals but not stops, there is however no support for the correspondence of Gumbaynggirr initial /g/ with Sydney Language initial /w/.

(b) A list from Wyalong assigns to a mid-western NSW placename Womboyne the meaning ‘wombat hole’ (Geographical Names Board of New South Wales c2003:398); this has been equated with the parish name Wamboyne in the district. A second unsourced (composite) list has an entry in a section “From Wyalong station” with Wamboyne ‘Animal that burrows’ (p415). Both these lists are of doubtful reliability, but suggest there was a word like wambañ with a wombat-related meaning in the local language. From the location the local language would be a variety of Wiradhuri, a language which doesn’t allow word-final stops; and in which gulang has been otherwise recorded as the word meaning ‘wombat’.

2. There is a placename Wamback Lagoon ‘Swampy waterhole about 3 km west south west of Wombat’ a village south west of Young in southwestern NSW. Wamback Lagoon is in Wambat Parish, and also in Wiradhuri country. I do not know how these placenames originated, but they would have been established well into the 19th century.

Published etymologies

Here is what some standard references have postulated as to the origin of English wombat. The OED entry (by Craigie and Onions) simply states “[Native Australian name.]” supplemented by quotations which misleadingly point to Tasmania, perhaps misled in turn by the too narrow statement of the animal’s distribution (“native to South Australia and Tasmania”). The first published substantial etymology was by noted lexicographer Eric Partridge who summarised the variant forms, and correctly pointed to near Sydney for the language of origin:

wombat, a burrowing Aus marsupial: Sydney-hinterland Aboriginal wombach or -back or -bat, with occ var woomback and ( ? aberrant) womat. (Partridge 1966, Addenda)

The 1988 Australian National Dictionary (AND) gave the source “[a. Dharuk wambaty]”, namely the form I think is best justified, if not the source language (“Dharuk” is the AND‘s cover term for both dialects of the Sydney language). The form of the source was widened by Dixon in Australian Aboriginal words in English who proposed:

[Dharuk, Sydney region wambad, wambaj, or wambag (possibly dialectal variants).] (1st edition, 1990 page 84) (2nd edition, 2006 page 78)

and more recently, rephrased as:

…this is a loan from Dharuk. The original form in that language was wambad, wambaj, or wambag (these may possibly have been variant pronunciations in different dialects of Dharuk) (Dixon 2008:134).

I think it is more likely that the source word was just wambaty (Dixon’s wambaj), and the unreleased final laminal stop was heard by English speakers as equivalent variously to English [t] and English [tʃ], and possibly English [k]. While the Sydney Language has been recognised to have a coastal and an inland dialect, no-one has proposed there were three dialects; and the expected form in the coastal dialect would have been wamaty (attested as womat).

Troy’s compilation on the Sydney Language includes the word, but with a caveat:

wombat wumbat womat (F), wombat (F), womback (F), wombat (R) This might be an inland word as it was recorded by Mathew Flinders as having been transmitted to the colonists by the inland people. (Troy 1994a:52)

The source abbreviation (F) here refers to Flinders (pace the key, Troy 1994a:33), and (R) to Rowley 1871 in Ridley. The standard vocabulary lists for the Sydney Language lack any version of wombat (or womat); Collins’ record would have been overlooked as it was only in the text (not his vocabulary list), in his 2nd edition. Troy does include the reconstitution in her chapter in Macquarie Aboriginal Words (1994:69).


My current best proposal is that the colonists were taught the word wambaty [‘wombaty] from a language of the Blue Mountains: Darkinyung, or possibly the inland dialect of the Sydney Language, or, less likely, Gandangarra. The Englishmen heard this as equivalent to [‘wombæt], [‘wombætʃ]. Possibly it was also heard as [‘wombæk], but more likely the spelling “wombach” was misread as “womback”, and the resulting spelling pronunciation could have gained some currency for a time (but there is no solid evidence for this). Possibly some early French mariners equated this with [‘õmbak] when they wrote “hombac” and “humbac”. The expected coastal cognate form wamaty must also have been heard, to have prompted the spelling womat. Further information could shed light on the status of the variants with a final /k/ (at least after borrowing), in particular whether there is other evidence that final [ty] can be perceived by English (or French) speakers as /k/.


[1] Spellings in bold above are possible reconstitutions. Voicing is not distinctive; following Troy (1994a) b is used medially (rather than p), and k and t finally (rather than g and d) just to conform with the phonetics implied by the sources.

[2] For references not listed below, see my dingo post, the Select Bibliography of the Australian National Dictionary (AND), and the extensive bibliographies of Troy (1994b) and Wafer & Lissarrague (2008).

[3] Des Cowley and Brian Hubber include an interesting section on the wombat in their ‘Distinct Creation: Early European Images of Australian Animals’, La Trobe Journal 66 (Spring 2000).

[4] A few weeks ago the Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art posted his engaging lecture on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Wombat Mania. He covers the European discovery of the wombat, though with no linguistic comment.


I have benefited from ongoing discussion with David Wilkins about the Sydney Language. I am grateful to Philip Jones and James McElvenny for feedback on an earlier version, and particularly for quotations and advice received from Assoc. Prof. Jean Fornasiero using archival sources which promise to be available soon on the ARC Baudin Legacy Project website.


Bonnemains, Jacqueline, Elliott Forsyth and Bernard Smith (eds). 1988. Baudin in Australian waters : the artwork of the French voyage of discovery to the southern lands 1800-1804. Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Brown, Anthony J. 2006. Introduction, to Voyage of discovery to the southern lands : second edition, 1824. Book I to III, comprising chapters I to XXI, by François Péron ; continued by Louis de Freycinet ; translated from the French by Christine Cornell. Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of South Australia.

Cambage, RH. 1920. Explorations beyond the upper Nepean in 1798. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 6,1-36.

Capell, Arthur. 1970. Aboriginal languages in the south central coast, New South Wales: fresh discoveries. Oceania 41.1,20-27.

Chisholm, A.H. 1955. How and when the Lyrebird was discovered. Emu 55.1,1-15. DOI 10.1071/MU955001 * map based on Cambage 1920

Collins, David. 1802. An account of the English colony in New South Wales. Vol. 2. London. * Project Gutenberg version * 33MB PDF available at Google Books

Flinders, Matthew. 1801. Observations on the coasts of Van Diemen’s Land, on Bass’s Strait and its Islands and on part of the coasts of New South Wales: Intended to accompany the charts of the late discoveries in those countries. London: John Nichols. * PDF available at Google Books

Flinders, Matthew. 1814. A Voyage to Terra Australis. London: G. and W. Nicol. * facsimile reprint * Project Gutenberg version

Freycinet, Louis de. 1815. Navigation et géographie, vol. iii of Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes, exécuté sur les corvettes le Géographe, le Naturaliste et la goëlette le Casuarina, pendant les années 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804. Paris: de l’imprimerie royale. * 26MB PDF available at Google Books

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Étienne. 1803. Note sur un nouveau mammifère découvert à la Nouvelle Hollande, par M. Bass, voyageur anglais. Bulletin des Sciences, par la Société philomathique de Paris 72(Ventôse an 11),185. * 38MB PDF available at Google Books

Geographical Names Board of New South Wales. c2003. RASA manuscripts dated 1900 [CD-ROM]. “Tiff & pdf images of RASA manuscripts 1900”. [Bathurst] : NSW Government, Dept. of Lands.

Hunter, John. 1989. The Hunter sketchbook. General editor, John Calaby. Canberra: National Library of Australia.

Jones, Caroline. 2008. Darkinyung grammar and dictionary : revitalising a language from historical sources. Nambucca Heads: Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative.

Kidman, JM. 1971. Mélanges. Quelques mots français d’origine australienne. Français moderne 39.2(avril),147-153.

Morelli, Steve. 2008. Gumbaynggirr dictionary and learner’s grammar = Gumbaynggirr bijaarr jandaygam, ngaawa gugaarrigam. Nambucca Heads: Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative.

Moyal, Ann. 2002. Platypus. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. * available at Google Books

Péron, François. 1971. King Island and the sealing trade, 1802, translated by Helen Mary Micco. Canberra: Roebuck Society. * available at Google Books

Partridge, Eric. 1966. Origins: A short etymological dictionary of Modern English. * available at Google Books

Pigott, Louis J., and Leslie Jessop. 2007. The governor’s wombat: early history of an Australian marsupial. Archives of Natural History 34,207-218.

Troy, Jakelin. 1994a. The Sydney Language. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Dictionaries Project and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Troy, Jakelin. 1994b. Melaleuka : A history and description of New South Wales Pidgin. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University. June 1994.

Wafer, James and Amanda Lissarrague. 2008. A handbook of Aboriginal languages of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Nambucca Heads: Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative.

Wallace, Colin. 1984. The lost Australia of François Péron. London: Nottingham Court Press.

3 thoughts on “The ‘wombat’ trail”

  1. Well, the inimitable wombat eats roots and leaves a philological trail for our contributor to follow its (multilingual) twists and turns! What a great story, David, thanks for sharing its complexities with us.

  2. Yes: it is hard to conceive a firmer basis for wombat studies.
    Alas, I had mentioned the henceforth discredited source in Dharuk on the page on the Sydney language in the recent Austin ed. 2008 ‘1000 languages’. Progress is just too fast in this field!

  3. Louis Pigott has kindly informed me that Robert Brown, the botanist with Flinders, also used the womat spelling in his diary entries at King Island for 23 and 24 April 1802, which respectively include “Two Womats were killed” and “One Womat we killd & another was shot by Mr Bell.” (Nature’s investigator, 2001).

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