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Summer brings out stories about humour in the media. A right wing commentator complained that Australian cartoonists only lampooned rightwing politicians (ignoring the fact that we have a conservative far-right Government). "How the hell did we get here?" ABC TV 6/1/07 presented the Australian baby-boomers' top 20 TV comedy shows - mostly Australian but including some British (Yes Minister, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers) and American. Number 1 was M.A.S.H., and the show host said, reflecting an irritatingly widespread attitude, that it was surprising to find an American show with such an Australian sense of humour. Look out, however, for the start of a new claim - that the Australian sense of humour (whatever that is) may actually be an Aboriginal sense of humour. I saw it last week in an article, The joke's on us by Shane Brady in the Sydney Morning Herald (2/1/07).

The article's in part advance publicity for a book by Jessica Milner Davis. She argues that "we may have learnt our Australian tradition of taking the micky from our indigenous ancestors, not from our introduced ancestors." ("take the mickey" is an idiom most likely of British origin - Australians aren't the only ones who take the piss).

Brady tries to support Milner Davis's hypothesis by quoting the indigenous writer Tyson Yunkaporta on "the story of the settlement of Goodna, in western Brisbane". Tracking back, this probably comes from Yunkaporta's web article "Aboriginal humour: native wit, Aboriginal jokes, Indigenous pranks and Aboriginal place names. Brady writes:

..it would seem Aboriginal humour has been sharpened by adversity. The indigenous writer Tyson Yunkaporta recalls the story of the settlement of Goodna, in western Brisbane. As the white settlers evicted the Aborigines, they asked what they called the area. "Goona" was the reply. Only later did the settlers discover goona was the Aboriginal word for shit, forcing maps, signs and deeds to be changed.
"The 'founding fathers' decided to insert an extra letter to give the name a new, positive feel, and renamed the area Goodna," Yunkaporta says.

As Yunkaporta points out, many Australian place-names derived from Indigenous languages involve some form of the word goona/guna/koona/kuna (and other spellings). In many Aboriginal languages this is the word for shit or guts. But the Aboriginal people who told the invaders that the place was called goona were probably dead serious about it. In most, perhaps all, cases the original place-names WERE goona/guna/koona/kuna. Many indigenous place-names in Australia are named after the actions of ancestral beings, which may include gutting animals and shitting (for more on this - plug! - see The land is a map). Not a joke at all.

As for the 'dn' - that's very likely just a variant pronunciation of goona/guna/koona/kuna. Nils Holmer records ( [1] p.395) gudna for guna 'excrement' in Nunagal on nearby Stradbroke Island. Adding a 'd' just doesn't seem like something that English speakers would do by way of repairing an embarrassing name.

So, is this a joke? Only a recent one. Like Tyson Yunkaporta, today's Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people who know what English speakers expect of place-names (Fairview..) have laughed and laughed about the shit names. All over the world the powerless are making jokes about the powerful, and comforting themselves with the illusion that a sense of humour makes the powerless special. Cartoonists about the government of the day, Aboriginal Australians about non-Aboriginal Australians, Australians about Americans, and Earthlings about Klingons.

[1] Holmer, Nils, 1983, Linguistic survey of south-eastern Queensland.


hi jane - thanks for this blog. it's good to set things straight. i've always felt a bit of dread about that article being up there, ignoring as it does the sacred aspect of place names. i confess to writing that one purely for the keyword searchability - that article alone pretty much pays for the whole site - when people do searches about aborigines they are about ninety percent of the time searching for racist jokes, according to my site stats.

i cautioned that journalist about the sacred aspect of the place names, and was under the impression he was going to include that info. was a bit embarrassed when i read the article this morning. but felt better when i found this one - thanks for setting things straight.

i've also posted something similar in the discussion attached to the original article.

thanks again


"when people do searches about aborigines they are about ninety percent of the time searching for racist jokes, according to my site stats."
How very very depressing! Good thing your article can act as a gentle counterbalance. Maybe change a few ideas?

"Good thing your article can act as a gentle counterbalance."

Heeey! I wish! You should see some of the angry redneck emails I get - they don't talk as though I've been gentle with them!

The "Aboriginal Jokes" (http://aboriginalrights.suite101.com/article.cfm/aboriginal_jokes) article is good - they go in looking for jokes and find instead a critique. That is the most clicked on page on my site - even more so than the homepage!

i was reading a book by an early historian Daisy Bates on talking with a nyungar person where she asks what a wooden implement he was shaping for inserting into a hole was called and he replies mert. Being nyungar i know this is the name for penis i dont think she figured that one out.

Enjoyed the blog. I was searching for indigenous houmour to include in a school newsletter especially for our indigenous students. Was looking for something 'querky'. Unfortunately there is very little out there. Do not despair - not all searches are by rednecks!

Sometimes the humour is easier to see in visual work. Lin Onus's paintings and sculptures for example (I love the dotty fruit bats hanging from the hills hoist.)

Or Ian Abdulla's gentle pictures of life in the Riverland.

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