Monday musings on Australian literature: Silly names for the silly season

Burrumbuttock sign

22 kms to Burrumbuttock (Courtesy: Carolyn I)

It’s nearing Christmas, and I’m getting busy, so today’s Monday musings will be short …

Ever since I started this blog series, I have wanted to write about Australian place names. We are not, I know, the only country to have interesting or fun place names – and I’d love it if you shared your favourites in the comments – but we do have some good’uns Downunder.

Names to make your tonsils chatter

(From “Patter”, by Ronald Oliver Brierley)

Oodnadatta and Parramatta are just the beginning. What about Cabramatta, Wangaratta and Coolangatta? And then there’s Woolloomooloo. You have to concentrate to spell that one! (It’s a bit like, I suppose, Mississippi, isn’t it?) Many of these places appear in Lucky Starr‘s tongue twisting “I’ve been everywhere” song. You can listen to it online if you like… I love all these names. They tend to sound silly and poetic at the same time, and because of this many of them have found (and still find) their way into Australian verse and song.

Kurri Kurri Hotel

Kurri Kurri Hotel, Kurri Kurri, NSW

But, there is a type of name that is rather endemic here, and that is the reduplicated place name. The best known one is probably Wagga Wagga – “Don’t call Wagga Wagga Wagga”* – but it’s just one of many. Here are some of my favourites: Bong Bong, Drik Drik, Gatum Gatum, Grong Grong, Kurri Kurri, Tilba Tilba and Woy Woy. You can find more in Wikipedia. English comedian Spike Milligan‘s parents moved to Woy Woy in the 1950s, and Spike wasn’t above making fun of the town. In his novel Puckoon, he wrote

There is, somewhere in the steaming bush of Australia, a waterside town called Woy Woy (Woy it is called Woy Woy Oi will never know).

Finally, in a related but somewhat different vein, is the poem, “The Integrated Adjective” about the great Australian adjective. If you don’t know what that is, you soon will. The poem was written by John O’Grady, who wrote, under the pseudonym Nino Culotta, the 1957 novel, They’re a weird mob, a comic tale of an Italian migrant’s struggles to understand and fit into his new country. Anyhow, “The Integrated Adjective” is set in a bar and is the narrator’s record of the bar-time talk he overhears:

“…. Been off the bloody booze,
Up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos.”

Now the bar was pretty quiet, and everybody heard
The peculiar integration of this adjectival word.

The town of course is really Tumbarumba, but do we let that spoil our story here? Abso-bloody-lutely not!

*Song by Greg Champion and Jim Haynes.

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Silly names for the silly season

  1. The Yarra River was originally, in English, the Yarra Yarra. I checked Wikipedia and found this quote from the man who named it:

    “On arriving in sight of the river, the two natives who were with me pointed to the river, and called out at it “Yarra”, “Yarra”, which at the time I imagined to be its name. But I afterwards learnt that the words were what they used to designate a waterfall, as they gave the same designation to a small fall in the Werribee River, as we crossed it on our way back to Indented Head.”

    In Wurundjeri it was Birrarung. Anyway, on names: I once had a friend who was teaching up at Ramingining in Arnhem Land, and it took me two or three goes before I could say Ramingining with the right number of ns.

    • Thanks DKS, I didn’t know that about the Yarra (not being a Melbournite I suppose). It’s amazing how tricky some words are to get right – particularly when they have repeated sounds. I’d had a few in my time.

    • Thanks Kevin. I guess it’s partly to do with familiarity – the more you come across similar sounds/looks of words, the faster I think you can assimilate them. That said they can still challenge many Aussies – including me.

  2. My grandmother was born at Gogeldrie, NSW. When she presented her passport in Cologne, Germany, in order to enter the country to meet her new granddaughter, the immigration official howled with laughter. Nanna inquired what was so funny; “Mrs. Condon, you were born at Goggle-dry!”

    England, where I now live, has some great place names (Upper Slaughter and its neighbour Lower Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bicester – pronounced Bister, and Slaugham, which is pronouned Slaffem), but they’ve got nothing on the Scots and Welsh!

    • Welcome Yvann, and thanks for commenting. Love your story about your Grandmother. There are a lot of good G sounding names in Australia too. My grandmother lived for a while in Gulargambone. Also the English names. I think the US has some strange ones such as Defeated and Hopeless. At least that’s what I recollect from William Least Heat Moon’s book, Blue Highways. I think I like our tongue-twisters better.

      • There’s a range near us in Arizona called the Superstition Mountains, and the person we’re staying with started an impromptu conversation this morning by saying, “A few months ago, I was walking in the superstitions …” She’s intensely religious, so it took me a moment to adjust. I thought we were going to hear an anecdote about her self-rescue from some heathen belief. Then it dawned on me. Capital S.

        John Crowley uses that American tendency beautifully, I think — his people in the Aegypt books live in or near a town called Blackberry Jambs, among hills named Faraway.

        • Thanks DKS. America does have some poetic sounding names – one of my favourites is Tappahannock on the Rappahannock River. Love it. But they also seem to have a lot of “abstract” word place names too don’t they? Like Superstition Mountains as you say. (We’ve been there too as I recollect – perhaps when we went on the Apache Trail?). And there’s a town named Love that is very popular on Valentine’s Day – I think people like to organise to have their cards mailed from there. (I don’t think I’m making this up!).

          I don’t know John Crowley … but I love the sound of the Faraway Hills.

  3. Those town names are hard to beat! In Minnesota we have a town called Embarrass and it vies with Tower to be the coldest town in the state. We also have Ham Lake and Nimrod. There is a neighborhood in Minneapolis called Dinkytown. And we have a county called Koochiching.

    • They’re pretty good aren’t they? I do like Koochiching though. And, as I commented to DKS above, one of my favourite American ones is Tappahannock on the Rappahannock River. There are also some lovely Native American names too aren’t there?

  4. Hmmm… sudden thought. I wonder what the connection would be between our tendency to have long, complicated, multiple-syllable place names, and our tendency to shorten words in everyday conversation? (You know, like barbie for barbecue, beaut for beautiful, etc…)

    • Good question. When Lithe lianas listed some of the W names it reminded me of how we shorten many of the names too – like the Gabba for Woolloongabba, and the Gong for Wollongong…

      • First I’ve heard of Burranbuttock! There seems to be more aboriginal names in NSW than Victoria unless, of course, I’ve gotten used to them.

        • Wow. I hadn’t until we saw the sign. There may be more in NSA, but then NSW is a bigger state so, while it is also more spread out there are probably more places to name too? A PhD topic perhaps? Which state has the most indigenous inspired names and why!

    • Thanks DKS. That’s wonderful. I did know it was included in Jack Thompson’s latest poetry CD … but I’m glad readers here can now hear it for themselves. Did it make you feel homesick!

      • A little. But the thing that really made me homesick was the CD rack at Walmart. We were waiting for the person we were with to do some grocery shopping, and as I was wandering through the music section I had the feeling that if I turned around I would see the stairs running from the shop floor of J.B. Hi-Fi up into Bourke Street. But there was nothing there except copies of Twilight, Twilight DVDs, and a book complaining about the president, who is apparently villainous in some sort of way.

        • It’s the little things, sometimes, isn’t it? At least an Arizona Christmas won’t be quite as different weather-wise from here as other parts of the US, particularly when you’re from Melbourne and this year is likely to be a cooler Christmas! Enjoy. (As for the politics, that’s a whole other discussion …)

    • Why thanks kimbofo … as soon as I read “Irish” other half, I thought that they would have some good-uns too – and then in the next para you provided some. This has been a fun post for the comments and examples from other countries that have come in.

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