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.


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


  1. Nirav K. Suthar
    Posted 12 September 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink


    I am nirav suthar from India.
    I need a boomreng and its theory of working to spread knowledge in my students.

    If possibel please send me.

    Best Regards


  2. Matt Barker
    Posted 21 September 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Hi Nirav

    There is plenty of information about boomerangs online, including what is available on this website.

    Check this web page out:



    Matt Barker
    (BAA Editor)

  3. Richard Thompson
    Posted 9 May 2015 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I would just like to say my take on this is boomerangs and killerangs.I reckon that speaks for its self.You would obviously use killerangs for hunting and warfare.Now a boomerang is a great deal of fun to play with and only for that.
    Hopi Indians and Egyptians also used killerangs/ hunting sticks to procure food.The returning boomerang is probably unique to east coast Aborigines.As a purist I believe real boomerangs are not made from ply wood or plastic.I make mine from a natural crook in a tree branch.

  4. Matt Barker
    Posted 13 June 2015 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi Richard

    In fact, the boomerang is a universal phenomenon that a tribal society eventually discovers either by accident or intentional design after making improvements to the originally discovered shape. Boomerang artefacts have been found among tribes in Africa and the Egyptians were throwing boomerangs way back in 5000bc, and evidence of Egyptians throwing a returning boomerang shape have been depicted in their mosaics.

    It is a fascinating finding that a primitive society located on a different continent than another society which have had no prior contact with each other, eventually discover a tool that through further refinement, appears identical in design to the one developed by the other tribe. I am sure intelligent races like our own elsewhere in the universe discovered the wheel at some point throughout the course of their evolutionary technological development, either well before or after we did, and like us, at some point, they would have made a boomerang.


    Matthew Barker
    (BAA Editor)

  5. Russell Zeid
    Posted 27 June 2015 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    I have been throwing returning Boomerangs here in Canada for the past 3 years and have become quite good at it. I call myself the expert as I have not seen anyone else ever throw a boomerang, other than on Youtube. Surprising what you can learn from Youtube.
    I have many plastic or foam rangs of commercial manufacture and have even made some to my own design but the best I throw are the Australian wood Boomerangs. Not easy to find here, (unless I know someone going to Australia on vacation and bug them to bring one back for me).
    This is a wonderful and Zen like pastime and I have met many interested people while practicing in the park. I have also instructed quite a few adults and kids in the art of throwing. Your article will help me in the explanation and education of the throwing stick.
    And in answer to the often told joke “what do you call a Boomerang that does not come back”. The answer is always, a killing stick.

    Many thanks for the article

    Toronto, Canada.

  6. Rene Breuls
    Posted 6 June 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Could you please give me the source of:

    “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.”

    I would. very much like to read the detailed description.

    Many thanks,

  7. Matt Barker
    Posted 26 June 2018 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rene

    It is a fascinating article that you have found and which is available on this website at:


    Enjoy the read as well as the comments which follow.


    Matt Barker

  8. Rod K
    Posted 9 October 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Anyone know how to get in touch with Mr. Tony Butz? He was my year 5 teacher at Warrimoo in 1992.

  9. Harold Hoogenboom
    Posted 10 April 2019 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mat,
    I think you didn’t get Rene Breuls question, but only refered what he read already in your story above. The phrase: “In 1822 it was described in detail wer recorded as a “bou-mar-rang”, in the language of the Turuwal people (a sub-group of the Dharug) of the Georges River near Port Jackson.” raises many doubts because it is repeated on the internet and articles many times without revealing the exact source. Is it a document from 1822 or around that time? Without any proof it’s not to be taken seriously in my humble opinion. Also the name boomering and boomerang were recorded much earlier then when the name boumarang first appeared in any document. I’ve have done extensive research on this matter and am very interested about the origin of this 1822 document or were this exact phrase comes from originally.

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