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David Nash

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A boomerang claimed to have belonged to Captain James Cook appears to have been withdrawn from sale on the eve of a London auction after advice from the National Museum of Australia that it was probably not the real thing.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

[Dharuk, Sydney region, probably bumariny.] (1st edition, 1990 page 175)
[Dharuk, Sydney region, probably bumariñ.] (2nd edition, 2006)

There are several flaws in this etymology.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Boomerang, būmarin
(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:
  1. the ‘scimitar’ was first noted by Banks at Botany Bay in 1770
  2. 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
  3. the boomerang as missile was a later development at Port Jackson, not a pre-existing use which required "closer observation"
  4. the boomerang, in the wider modern sense, did not exist in the Port Jackson area to have an "original name" in the Sydney Language
  5. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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

Boo-mer-it, from SOAS Library. See www.hrelp.org/dawes
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.
Update 14/10/08:

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.


Sarah Ogilvie (an ANU export in the middle of a DPhil at Trinity College, Oxford, and who works at the OED) has pointed me to the original OED (New English Dictionary) entry. (Aside: Sarah is giving a keynote 'World Englishes and the Historical Dictionary' at next month's Australex conference.) Consider the Boomerang etymology, first published by the OED's legendary lexicographer James Murray in March 1887 (also in the 1933 complete edition):

[Adoption or modification of the native name in a lang. of the aborigines of N. S. Wales.
Collins (Judge Advocate of the colony when founded in 1788) collected a short vocabulary of Port Jackson words, in which wo-mur-rāng occurs among 'names of clubs'. (He has also wo-mer-ra the throwing stick, which some later writers erroneously identify with the boomerang.) In a short vocabulary of the extinct language of George's River, Botany Bay, printed by Ridley, Kámilarói 103*, are womrā 'throwing stick for spear', būmarin 'boomerang'. Boomerang was given as 'the Port Jackson term' by Capt. King in 1827; its exact relation to wo-mur-rāng and bū-marin, and the relations of these to each other can perhaps not now be determined. A very graphic account of the use of the weapon described as 'a bent, edged waddy resembling lightly a Turkish scimitar') is in the Sydney Gazette of 23 Dec. 1804 : the name boomerang has not been found in that paper up to 1823.]
As Sarah observes, "given the resources that existed at this time, Murray's etymology is remarkably comprehensive", and as can be seen from the main posting there is really not a lot we can add to it today.

In his recent discussion of Murray's etymologies, Dixon (2008:136-7), presents a distorted account of Murray's etymology:

James Murray included several dozen Australian loans in his large work, but the information about their origin was poor and inconsistent. Consider the following six words, all of which came from Dharuk, the language spoken at Port Jackson (now called Sydney):

boomerang as ‘adoption or modification of the native name in a lang. of the aborigines of N. S. Wales’

The OED quotes Collins as one source for boomerang. The vocabulary in Collins (1793) is clearly identified as Port Jackson.
Dixon's commentary on Murray is misleading in these respects:
  1. just the introductory phrase of Murray's etymology is quoted, and not the following 16 lines
  2. Collins is not given as a source by Murray; rather Collins' wo-mur-rāng is part of the background in the etymology, and the Collins 1798 citation is given in square brackets, because Murray (quite reasonably) believed its relation to boomerang "can perhaps not now be determined"
  3. "The vocabulary in Collins (1793) is clearly identified as Port Jackson." — well, Collins 1798 (not 1793) labels his vocabulary column "NEW SOUTH WALES" and writes in the preamble of "The dialect spoken by the natives at Sydney"
  4. As discussed in the main posting, we cannot say that the word comes from the Sydney Language, which was not called Dharuk, and in any case the name Dharuk was not published until many years after Murray composed his etymology.
From these and other distortions, Dixon (2008:137) continues
It is interesting to speculate on the OED’s poor treatment of the origins of loans from Australian languages, at a time when detailed information was being provided for those from American and African languages. Two factors may be responsible. First, the condescending attitude which the English adopted towards Australia, looking upon it as a culture-less colony. Secondly, the disdain which white Australians evinced for the Aboriginal inhabitants, regarding them as ‘scarcely human’.
It is plain wrong to state that the OED's treatment of the origin of boomerang was "poor", and I expect much the same applies to the other five Dixon chose to consider. From a false premise anything follows.

Note: * This is actually a reference not to the Kámilarói language but to Rowley's vocabulary published in 1878, cited in the main post.

"The word for boomerang appears to have come from a combination of the Aboriginal words bumarit and wumarang." -- page 73 of Where the ancestors walked: Australia as an Aboriginal landscape by Philip A. Clarke (Allen & Unwin, 2003), available at Google Books.

Clarke (p233n14) gives his sources as AAWE 1992 and AND, so the notion of a blend origin must be due to him.

The topic of Sir James Murray's contacts who supplied him with citations for Australian English is covered in Sarah Ogilvie's recent article 'Australian Words in English Dictionaries' in the current issue of Australian Style 16.1 (the first available online).

The International Journal of Lexicography Online current Advance Access edition has published my essay on the etymology of boomerang doi:10.1093/ijl/ecp012
[formatting fix: on page 3, 7th line up: unindent and insert paragraph break before "Troy's"]

My response to Dixon's 2008 commentary is followed by Dixon's brief 'Australian Aboriginal Words in Dictionaries: Response to Nash' doi:10.1093/ijl/ecp011. Following usual journal practice, this ends the exchange, so I'm using this forum to rebut Dixon's response.

Dixon outlines two of the "number of errors of fact and of interpretation" he thinks are in my reaction.

First, Dixon takes issue with my statement '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'. He does not tackle any of the evidence I adduced for this, rather he quotes two secondary sources, which he has misinterpreted. Troy (1994: 43) adds 'or thrown' to her definition of bumarit I presume to cover the extension of meaning it acquired in the 19th century, when the missile use did spread to Port Jackson. Attenbrow (2002: 88) does apply the term boomerang to the 'swords' and 'scimitars' of early Sydney, but it does not follow that they were all missiles, and Attenbrow's (2002: 95) amplification gives no reason to think these early Sydney weapons were missiles (rather, that they were used as a sword or club). One can extend the term boomerang to include these non-missiles, but this doesn't turn them into missiles.

Second, Dixon asserts that his favoured boomerang etymology was commissioned around 1980 and "available right through work on the AND". Dixon does not state to whom the etymologies were available from around 1980, or whether the ANDC actually had a copy. But more to the point, Dixon has not disagreed that a key weak point of the method was that "the linguists did not get to consider all the other early published citations" (that is, citations from non-vocabulary sources).

If these are representative of the "errors of fact and of interpretation" in my 'Reaction', then I have yet to be convinced there are any.

As Sarah Ogilvie says in her article cited above:

Petherick's researches enabled Murray […] to provide detailed and exhaustive etymologies for Australian words such as boomerang.
Murray's Preface stating this has now been made available online at the OED site, among the Prefaces to the First Edition Fascicles (1884-1928). See the mention of Boomerang in the note on page vi of the 1 January 1887 'Prefatory note to part III' over JAH Murray's name. (Tip of the Language Hat)

In his deservedly popular textbook Introduction to historical linguistics, Terry Crowley used boomerang to illustrate the copying (Terry's improvement on the term 'borrowing') of words for culture-specific concepts. In doing so he unfortunately spread a few furphies:

In fact, the English word 'boomerang' was copied from an Australian language after Captain Cook first reported seeing these over 200 years ago. Not surprisingly, he recorded the original word /bumaraɲ/ incorrectly, and it is Captain Cook's incorrect spelling that we follow when we pronounce the word 'boomerang' in English today. (3rd ed. 1997:172)
This passage was introduced in the 2nd ed. 1992:169; it wasn't in the 0th ed. 1981 and 1st ed. 1987, and I don't expect it will be in the posthumous 4th ed. due out later this year.

Update: Just out is the 2nd edition of Val Attenbrow's Sydney's Aboriginal past. Attenbrow (2010:96) adds a reference to my account of the etymology of boomerang and summarises that '[m]any items called swords and scimitars in the historical documents are probably what would now be included in the group of objects referred to as clubs or boomerangs of the non-returning type'.

Another expert agrees about the weapon observed in 1770. In her careful account of the seven days that the Endeavour was at Botany Bay, the historian Maria Nugent comments:

A 'scymeter', or scimitar, is a sword that is short and curved. A common assumption is that Banks used the comparison in an attempt to describe a boomerang, but it was more likely that the object he observed was a type of curved wooden club, sometimes known as a waddy.
Captain Cook was here, 2009, page 8

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