What is a boomerang?

An investigation of the word boomerang in Aboriginal and English languages

by Tony Butz (former history teacher and linguist, past editor of the Boomerang Bulletin, and the founder of the Boomerang Throwing Association of New South Wales)

Myths and Misconceptions

There are several myths and misconceptions about the origin of the word boomerang that need dispelling before we investigate its use in the English language and in the modem world. The following should clarify some issues at the outset.

First, there is no such thing as “the Aboriginal language”; there were in fact between 500 and 600 different Aboriginal languages at the time of European settlement in 1788, each with its own terms for tools and weapons.

Second, the returning boomerang was unknown to Aboriginal peoples in most of the Northern Territory, all of Tasmania, half of South Australia and the northern parts of Queensland and Western Australia. Roughly 60% of Aboriginal peoples used both returning boomerangs and non-returning hunting sticks, and therefore had words for them; a further 10% had only non-returning hunting sticks, and the remaining 30% used neither.

Third, Aboriginal peoples had no writing so could not record their words before the arrival of Europeans, who soon discovered that the returning boomerang was called a ‘birgan’ by Aborigines around Moreton Bay, and a ‘barragadan’ by those in north-western New South Wales.

It is a myth that it was Captain James Cook who recorded the name ‘boomerang’ for the first time. In fact, there is no record that he ever used the term or even saw a returning boomerang being thrown, though he did take one back to England, thinking it was a primitive wooden sword. When he arrived in Botany Bay in 1770, he recorded that the Aborigines were ‘all arm’d with darts and wooden swords’. His botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, also likened the devices to ‘Arabian scymetars’ when he saw them in their hands and fibre belts, as William Dampier had done when he saw them on the west coast of Australia in 1688. All of these early explorers thought that boomerangs were swords and none of them ever saw a boomerang being thrown, nor did any of them ever record the term boomerang.

Indeed, boomerangs continued to be referred to as ‘wooden swords’ for a couple of years after settlement, in the journals of Governor Arthur Phillip (1789), Captain Watkin Tench (1789) and surgeon John White (1790). It took an ensign of the New South Wales Corps, Francis Louis Barrallier, a French-born surveyor and engineer, to make the first written record of a boomerang’s return flight. His journal entry, dated 12 November, 1802, and written in French, mentioned the boomerang in a footnote, as he attempted to find a way across the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney:

They throw it on the ground or in the air, making it revolve on itself, and with such a velocity that one cannot see it returning towards the ground; only the whizzing of it is heard.

Barrallier did not give it a name, but referred to it only as a ‘piece of wood in the form of a half circle’. Although it is often claimed that Bungaree, an Aboriginal befriended by the First Fleet settlers, was the first person to be seen throwing a boomerang in Port Jackson (Sydney), many colonists had in fact reported seeing the boomerang in action west of Sydney in the first few years of the colony, before Bungaree was doing his demonstrations in Sydney proper. Not surprisingly, this strange object captured their attention, and soon there were rumours that Aborigines could throw a boomerang out, to hit a kangaroo and then return to the thrower (this physical impossibility was the result of a failure to distinguish between two very different types of throw-sticks). There was much talk about the boomerang in the colony, but still no recording of its name.

The Origin of Boomerang

A year after Barrallier’s journal entry, and possibly because of it, the Sydney Gazette published the first known printed description of a boomerang’s flight path, but even then it was not given the name boomerang. Indeed, it was not until 1822 that this fascinating device was described in detail and recorded as a ‘bou-mar-rang’, from the language of the Turuwal people of the George’s River near Port Jackson. What is immediately apparent is that this same people had other words for their hunting sticks but used ‘boornarang’ to refer to a returning throw-stick. The Turuwal people were a sub-group (the word ‘tribe’ is inappropriate in speaking of Aboriginal peoples) of the Dharug language group which extended from the shores of Sydney (between Port Jackson and Port Hacking) in the east, to nearly Katoomba in the Blue Mountains to the west. Many of the Aboriginal words we use in English are from the Dharug language, including boomerang, waratah, wallaby, dingo, kookaburra, koala and woomera. The first fifty years of the colony were a time of intense recording of Aboriginal languages in New South Wales, yet mistakes were made, including the recording of boomerang as wommerang — a confusion of boomerang and wommera or woomera (a spear-thrower).

The Confusion Persists

When Sir Thomas Mitchell was given the task of assessing the fighting capabilities of Aboriginal tribes during his many explorations, he wrote, in 1846, a detailed account of how a boomerang returns, describing it as the effect of air pressure on the two opposed surfaces (produced by the twist in the wood at the tips of the boomerang) combined with the spinning motion produced by the throw. For more than the first half century of British colonisation of Australia, the term boomerang was used, in its Aboriginal language and in official British documents at least, to describe only the returning boomerang; but, as we have seen, there were already some popular misconceptions about boomerangs circulating in the colony and back to England. John Fraser, writing for an American audience in 1893, noted, concerning the Aborigines of New South Wales:

The fighting weapons of the Australians are few in number and simple in construction; they are spears, clubs, shields and the ‘bumarang’. Of the last there are two kinds, but it is only the one of these that is used in fights … The Sydney names ‘bora’, ‘bumarang’, ‘karaban’ are already established … I have said that there are two ‘bumarangs’ … the other of these is commonly called the ‘come-back boomerang’, from the strange peculiarity of its flight, but while that name may be descriptive enough, yet it is not convenient to handle, and in one view the name is in itself contradictory, and therefore absurd, for it really means the ‘play-fighting’ weapon … The ‘come-back’ variety is not a fighting weapon. A dialect name for it is ‘bargan’ which word may be explained in our language to mean ‘bent like a sickle or crescent moon’. I will, therefore, say ‘bargan’ when I mean that variety. It is important that two different words should be used, for much confusion has been produced in the past by both varieties being called ‘bumarang’.

Although Fraser was aware of the problem in confusing these two types of throw-sticks, he had, himself, succumbed to the popular use of bumarang for hunting sticks.

In Spencer and Gillen’s classic 1898 book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, there is a list of over 400 Aboriginal words; but no use of the word boomerang and no other word for a returning throw-stick appear in the list. (The authors themselves refer to five different types of non-returning hunting sticks as boomerangs, showing that the word was still being misused by Europeans, even if the Aborigines themselves didn’t make that mistake.) This is not surprising since the Central Australian peoples did not use returning boomerangs at all, further supporting the notion that, until the end of the nineteenth century at least, Aboriginal peoples used the term boomerang only of throw-sticks which returned, and had several other names for different types of non-returning throw-sticks.

Boomerangs in Speech and Sport Today

Today, it is not only non-Aboriginal Australians who continue to confuse the terms. Most people overseas, if they are even aware of two different types of throw-sticks, speak of them all as boomerangs; and even most contemporary Aborigines today use the terms ‘returning’ and ‘non-returning’ boomerangs when speaking English. Perhaps it’s so as not to be argumentative; perhaps it’s because the confusion is now so ingrained that insistence on boomerang for returning sticks only is seen as pedantic. But many boomerang enthusiasts today would agree with Fraser’s comment from over a century ago: ‘It is important that two different words be used’. The BAA and the BTA of New South Wales have consistently referred to only returning devices as boomerangs when setting rules for competitions, and have used the term hunting stick for competitions with non-returning throw-sticks. We have regarded it as important to preserve the Aboriginal origin of boomerangs in our sport, and to this end maybe an insistence on the correct terms is an education that most people need. If we are going to promote the sport of boomerangs with its history and pre-history accurately, then perhaps we need to insist:

If it doesn’t come back, it’s not a boomerang.

Reference

Butz, T., Boomerang Throwing – notes for instructors, 1973, unpublished booklet

Fraser, J., ‘Aborigines of New South Wales’, in Pamphlets issued by the NSW Commissioners for the World’s

Columbian Exposition — Chicago 1893, volume two, Sydney Government Printer

Hawes, L. & M., All About Boomerangs, 1975, Paul Hamlyn, Sydney

McCarthy, F.D., The Boomerang, 1969, Australian Museum Leaflet No. 48

McCarthy, F.D., ‘The Boomerang’ in The Australian Museum Magazine, volume 13, number 11, September 15, 1961, Sydney

Murray, R., & White, K., Dharug & Dungaree — The History of Penrith and St. Mary’s to 1860, 1988, Hargreen Publishing Co., North Melbourne, and the Council of the City of Penrith

Smith, K.V., King Bungaree — A Sydney Aborigine Meets the Great South Pacific Explorers, 1799–1830, 1992, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst.

Spencer, B., & Gillen, Fi., The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 1898, 1968 edition by Dover Publications, Inc., New York

Thieberger, N., & McGregor, W., (eds.), Macquarie Aboriginal Words, 1994, Macquarie Library Pty. Ltd., Macquarie University, New South Wales

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