What’s a Warrambool?

‘What’s a Warrambool?’ asks one Rob Brennan in Westprint Friday Five 2011.6.24 (Replies from others are now in Westprint Friday Five 2011.7.1.) The usual English dictionaries are no help, not even the AND. Warrambool is a good example of a word borrowed from an Australian language into local English, but which, although well-known in its region, has not spread through Australian English (or beyond!).

The Westprint editor actually has the answer for her correspondent:

Wikipedia wasn’t much help either except it shows a map featuring the Namoi river with a number of different warrambools’ that appear to be akin to breakouts from, or small creeks running into the Namoi.

The best published answer is the entry in the Gamilaraay, Yuwaalaraay & Yuwaalayaay dictionary (2002:139)

warrambul (YR, YY, GR)1 noun
1 watercourse (overflow channel) (YR, YY, GR). The name is used to refer to overflow channels which have water only during flood times. The name is used on road signs, e.g. Big Warrambool.
2 Milky Way (YR, YY).

The word was published as early as 1875 in William Ridley’s Kámilarói, and other Australian languages

p.26: watercourse : wārumbūl
p.141:  worrumbūl : grove with a watercourse running through it, Milky Way

There’s a bit more to it. The topographic features to which the word refers are not spread across all the Gamilaraay/ Yuwaalaraay/ Yuwaalayaay (GY) region, but are confined to the western part, primarily the Yuwaalaraay area.  This can be seen in the range of the 34 placenames involving ‘Warrambool’ in the Geographical Names Register (GNR) of NSW plus the one over the Queensland border2:

View Warrambool in a larger map

Compare the range of the named places with the map of GY country in the dictionary (2002:2), or the location of Yuwaalaraay in its Austlang entry. Of course, a lot of Gamilaraay country comprises slopes and ranges and lacks overflow channels.

Note that there is an outlier to the south, Warrambool Watercourse to the south of Warren, outside the GY area and more in Ngiyampaa territory. It would be interesting to know how this name was recorded.  One wordlist of the neighbouring language Wiradjuri (but only one of the many) has warrambool ‘Swamp’ (Richardson Science of Man 1899,11 21). In the Wiradjuri area, the landform is called a cowal — but that’s another story …

Update (3pm):
1. In the course of their June 2002 paper on the ‘Geomorphology of the Namoi alluvial plain’3, the authors use a number of Warrambool placenames, including three additional to the Geographical Names Register (GNR): Dead Bullock Warrambool, Mirrie Warrambool, Camp Warrambool. Twice the authors use the plural, such as

those [palaeochannels] in the Millie and upper Cubbaroo Warrambools 

Just as with the use with the indefinite article in the title question above, the combination of the capital letter and the plural shows that the term Warrambool has a status intermediate between proper name and common noun.

2. The earliest newspaper record I’ve found is 18 years before Ridley’s publication: Dead Bullock Warrambool is listed in the Liverpool Plains District  ‘ACCEPTED TENDERS FOR RUNS.’ The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 13 Jun 1857, page 4 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18643883


  1. The two-letter codes denote the three named varieties ‘— in the linguistic sense they are all dialects of a single language’ (2002:21)
  2. The Big Warrambool, from the Geoscience Australia Gazetteer
  3. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences 49.3,509–523 DOI:10.1046/j.1440-0952.2002.00934.x

15 thoughts on “What’s a Warrambool?”

  1. While ‘watercourse’, ‘swamp’ and ‘Milky Way’ (perhaps a watercourse in the sky) are the meanings mostly given for ‘warambul’, the suffix -(m)bul suggests ‘bula’, commonly denoting ‘two’. If so: two what?

    Searching for possible inland meanings for ‘wara’ produces:
    “Uarah” wara = “yellow box tree” box yellow: SofM 1896 09 12 [JJB WIRA] [:12.3:12] [WIRA]
    “Warra” wara = “the edge or hemming; the end; the brim.” edge end: Günther WIRA (Fraser) [:104:47] [WIRA]
    “Warra” wara = “left-handed, i.e., on the way from Murrurundi” left-handed : AL&T Greenway (Ridley) [KML] [:239:10] [KML]
    “warra” wara = “Laughing jackass” kookaburra : Curr, E.M.: 3 [:318.1:8.2] [KML]

    The first two are Wiradhuri and the final two Kamilaroi. From these, the most likely interpretations seem to be ‘two yellow box trees’ [item #1 above], and ‘two kookaburras’ [#4].

    It is conceivable that some indigenous person uttered the word (warambul) because of a circumstance such as ‘two yellow box trees’ and the word was recorded. But this is speculation.

    This is but the beginning a speculative trail, if one is inclined to pursue it. For example:
    “warraba” waraba = “turtle” turtle : KAOL Ridley [KML] [:22:27] [KML]
    “warraba” waraba = “Turtle ” turtle : Mathews KML/Dwl [:278.4:7] [KML]
    “Warramba” waramba = “a turtle” turtle : Günther WIRA (Fraser) [:105:2] [WIRA]

    Ridley, R.H. Mathews and Günther give ‘turtle’ for a form closer to ‘warambul’, but in which the ‘two’ (bula) idea is perhaps lost.

    The trail can continue long beyond this.

  2. Thanks very much! I’m the bloke who asked the question. (I’ve also seen the term cowal on a signpost, but not as often as warrambool.) The answer you’ve provided certainly tallies with my observations.

    Does your commenting on this on your blog imply that the matter will come to the attention of the powers that be at AND and Macquarie in due course? Or should I do something to initiate this? It surprises me that of the thousands of people who drive past warrambool signs and don’t know what the word means, apparently very few choose to pursue the matter. Otherwise the word would have found its way into the major dictionaries by now.

  3. For the bloke who asked the question. ‘Warrambool’ is one of the new entries for the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary. On our first run through the evidence a few years ago, apart from the Ridley-like word list, the earliest evidence we could find for its use in English, as a ‘thing’ rather than as a place name, was in the Western Herald and Darling River Advocate, 23 November 1892: ‘The punt being underwater, the party had to proceed round by the North Bourke bridge, to gain which they had to cross a flooded warrambool’. The National Library Archive of Australian newspapers has slowed down our editing, since everything is being rechecked. We have not yet reached W on this new sweep through the citation evidence, but when I checked ‘warrambool’ today, it does not seem to be used before the 1880s, but suddenly in the 1880s it is everywhere in the newspapers.

  4. @Jeremy: Here’s why I think the (admittedly speculative) possibilities you raise are in this instance quite unlikely:

    1. The word warrambul is well attested as a common noun in the GY language. The record quoted from Ridley is from the context of his language study, not just a lone word from one utterance. The word Warrambool ‘swamp’ is corroborated by Mrs Langloh Parker (Science of Man 21 February 1898, p.13) who spoke the language.
    2. There is no suffix -(m)bul listed in the publications on the GY language. Yes, GY has the word bulaarr ‘two’, but this is not a suffix in this language.
    3. In attempting to match words from records such as those from 19th century NSW, even from the relatively good sources, we need to allow for the increased chance of bogus correspondences arising from the collapse of distinctions: the two kinds of ‘r’; the retroflex distinction in pairs of stops, nasals, and possibly laterals; and a lumping of unstressed vowels. So, seeing warrambool as waRVNbul (where R could be either rhotic, V matches any of the three vowels, short or long, and N could be any of several nasal consonants) a match with a waRa or waRV(N)ba is less compelling. (This is apart from the morphological and semantic stretches required.)

  5. David,

    Thanks for your really interesting post — glad to hear that yet another Gamilaraay word will be recognised by AND. A couple of minor corrections to your response to Jeremy: Gamilaraay does not have retroflex stops, nasals or laterals (indeed it only has one lateral) so there is no collapse of distinctions there. Also, comparison of cognates between Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay can sometimes help resolve the collapse of the two r sounds in amateur recordings since Gamilaraay trill rr corresponds to a trill rr in Yuwaalaraay while Gamilaraay continuant r corresponds to y or nothing in Yuwaalaraay (under specified conditions). Thus, Gamilaraay mara ‘hand’ is equivalent to Yuwaalaraay maa. The existence of spellings in sources for both languages with ‘r’ incontrovertibly identifies the ‘r’ as a trill not a continuant, ie. warrambul. The word for ‘turtle’, on the other hand is waraba in Gamilaraay and wayamba in Yuwaalaraay. Note also that Ridley is very inconsistent in his vowel spellings, and especially the use of the macron over vowels. Sometimes this represents a long vowel but more often than not it indicates syllable stress as in his “wārumbūl” which actually has three short vowels of which the first and final one are stressed (according to a regular alternating stressed-unstressed pattern).

  6. PS. The form for ‘left hand’ in Gamilaraay is waragaal and in Yuwaalaraay it is wayagaal, so Jeremy’s “Warra” wara = “left-handed, i.e., on the way from Murrurundi” left-handed : AL&T Greenway (Ridley) [KML] [:239:10] [KML]” has to be a red herring.

  7. The Macquarie gives “billabong” an almost identical meaning, and says it derives from the Wiradhuri language. Can the two be regarded as synomyms?

  8. @Rob Brennan: Well, you are the one well acquainted with warrambools, so back to you!: is there any way in which a billabong differs from a warrambool?:

    Macquarie Dictionary, 2nd ed.:

    billabong, n. 1. a waterhole in an anabranch, replenished only in flood time. 2. a waterhole in a river or creek that dries up outside the rainy season. 3. an abandoned stream channel. [Aborig.; Wiradhuri: lit., a watercourse which runs only after rain, from bila river + -bang]

    My inclination is that there aren’t three separable senses here (even though the range of referents is well described). I would go more with the AND which has a single (non-figurative) sense:

    ‘An arm of a river, made by water flowing from the main stream, usu. only in time of flood, to form a backwater, blind creek, anabranch, or, when the water level falls, a pool or lagoon (often of considerable extent); the dry bed of such a formation. Also attrib.

    I’ve taken your question to be about the meanings of these words in English, which we can allow might differ a little from meanings in the source languages.

    I said at the end of my post that ‘the landform is called a cowal’ in the Wiradjuri area, from the Wiradjuri word borrowed into English as cowal, for which the Macquarie Dictionary, 2nd ed., entry is:

    cowal, n. Qld. a small swampy depression typically found in red-soil country. [Aborig.; Kamilaroi guwal gully]

    However the GY dictionary does not confirm guwal; it is a Wiradjuri word (recorded for instance by Günther in the 1830s). The AND adopts CEW Bean’s 1910 definition ‘a small tree-grown, swampy depression often met with in the red country’ and there is also CEW Bean’s 1911 remark ‘a swamp left in a depression of this low undulating red country’. The cowals I know in central NSW are in greyer soil and next to the Lachlan or Bogan Rivers. Someone who knows warrambools may reckon they are a bit different, a reasonable possibility given that they occur in different districts. Perhaps someone can tells us about any subtle differences between a warrambool and a cowal?

  9. Thanks for the clarifications Peter. I should have checked your ‘Proto central NSW phonology’ in Boundary rider (1997:21-49), where you present the *r > y change (1997:27). (Is it behind the variation evident in the ending forming the three dialect names?)
    So, to amend my comment above, we can reconstitute take warrambool as warrVNbul, where rr is the apico-alveolar flap, V is a vowel of some kind (probably not i), and N could be any of several nasal consonants depending on which can occur in a cluster before b.
    I note that in the 1950s Ian Sims (Giacon 1998:19) recorded the word as warrumbal ‘larger type of shallow watercourse; Eng derivation Warrambool; a name of the Milky Way’.

  10. David — yes, indeed the ‘having’ suffix shows the two forms -araay and -ayaay as represented in the dialect names.

    In your formula warrVNbul the values for N can only be n or m (so if “several” can equal two for you, then your formulation is correct).

    The 1950’s source is Ian Sim, not Sims.

  11. Thanks again Peter.
    This is straying a bit, but I wonder whether N could also be ny the lamino-palatal nasal (or nh the lamino-dental, for that matter). I realise that the publications on these languages, not least yours, don’t countenance ny-b clusters, but they are not uncommon in other Pama-Nyungan subgroups. Their apparent absence in the central NSW subgroup could be due to 19th century recorders having not distinguished them, and then the recent speakers having merged them with nb or mb. What could throw some light on this is reconstruction of such a cluster in Pama-Nyungan, but I don’t see any in Barry Alpher’s ‘Proto-Pama-Nyungan etyma’, Appendix 5.1 to Bowern & Koch (2004).

  12. No, I haven’t found any proto-Pama-Nyungan *nyp or *nyk clusters — but I inclined to think they are/were there.

  13. I’ve now come upon a different interpretation, published in a chapter by Heather Goodall, Professor of History at UTS. Prof Goodall thinks that the recorders of the language have it backwards. After mentioning the borrowing of the word ‘billabong’ to fill a gap in colonial English, Goodall (2002:38) continues:

    Yet the colonisers did not always correctly interpret these names as descriptors of the watercourses they were struggling to comprehend. Yuwalaraay people from the Narran explain that ‘warrambool’, a commonly used adoption to mean a flood overflow channel, referred primarily to the Milky Way, which is understood to be the myriad camp fires of the dead, who live a parallel existence but are able to watch over the lives of those remaining on earth. The concept links the people, in both the present and the past, with the earth and the sky. Early European borrowers may have seen an aesthetic resemblance between the flooding overflows and the Milky Way but present day white rural residents have lost contact with the rich sources of the language they use in such pragmatic ways. Yet this misapprehension of the word’s meaning has added another dimension to the linkages, enfolding water into the mirrored relationships between the living, the dead and their land.

    In other words, Goodall (and the Narran people she talked with around 1995-99) claim that there has been a misunderstanding, that ‘Milky Way’ is the primary (or only?) sense of warrambool, and not a secondary sense extended as a frozen metaphor from the sense ‘flood overflow channel’, contra Ridley, Mrs Langloh Parker, and the GYY Dictionary. In this revisionist view, the ‘flood overflow channel’ sense was an ‘adoption’, presumably at the time the word came into English. However, it is not uncommon in Australian languages for the Milky Way to be named by a watercourse word. But does the metaphor here really run backwards?!
    Reference: Heather Goodall. 2002. The river runs backwards, pp.31-51 in Words for country: landscape & language in Australia, ed. by Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths. UNSW Press.

  14. I am open to correction, but the celestial names that come to mind from YR are clearly derived uses of other names. miyaymiyaay is the Pleiades/Seven Sisters, but the more basis use is [miyay ‘girl’ and so] ‘girls’; the name also applies to the Mallee Willow. Similarly for other names. The direction of derivation is similar in other languages, as Nash points out. I never saw much evidence of detailed knowledge of such matters in 12 years in Walgett, so would also have some question about the knowledge of the informants. I would also find more likely that Europeans used a local name for a geographical feature that they did not have in their system, rather than identifying a previously unnamed feature, and then borrowing a local celestial term to identify it.

  15. We’ve just driven from Brewarrina to Coonamble and passed some road signs with Warrambool. We were curious and so all that we have just read above is very much appreciated. All seemed quite dry by the way.
    Many thanks.

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