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Every Place By Its Right Name

By Thommo Saunders-Sheehan on July 29, 2014 in Other

Photo: Waverley Library

Photo: Waverley Library

Every day along the Eastern Beaches of Sydney we speak words that continue to connect us with the Cadigal, the Traditional Owners (TOs) of Cadigal Country.

Aboriginal place names are spread across Australia from coast to coast, derived from the various local languages and dialects that once dominated their respective landscapes. Some of the names were adopted by the colonisers and have been subsumed into mainstream Australian culture, others are still used by TOs, some are no longer used at all but have been recorded historically, and there are too many that have been lost from memory.

When you lay asleep at night and hear the sound of the ocean, of waves breaking on the shore, that sound that we need a sentence to describe is expressed by the Cadigal in one word: ‘Bondi’.

Historically Bondi was spelt variously as Boondi, Bundi, Bundeye and Boodye. With such a beautiful and poetic meaning, it is surprising that it is not more commonly known.

Alternatively, the Australian Museum has a record that Bondi means the ‘place where a flight of nullas took place’. It has been suggested that this latter meaning may derive from the dull wet crack a nulla (an Aboriginal weapon) would have made as it hit someone in the head in warfare or payback ceremonies; a sound analogous to the wet crack of waves breaking on rocks.

Tamarama has two distinct historical spellings as ‘Gamma Gamma’ and elsewhere as ‘Cramarama’. Its original phonetic pronunciation must lie somewhere between the three variations. Despite Maroubra folklore, historical evidence suggests that it is Tamarama that means ‘thunder’ or ‘thunder clap’ or ‘thunder storm’.

Unfortunately for Coogee, its name doesn’t have quite the poetic sensibility that Bondi does, though it is great for sledging Coogee residents in sport or pub banter. The name Coogee has been derived from the Aboriginal word ‘Kudjah’ (kudjii), meaning ‘smelly’ or ‘a bad smell’. It is believed that the name derived from the smell of large deposits of rotting seaweed that once built up along the shoreline. There is a good historical record that the true name of Coogee Bay is ‘Bobroi’.

‘Boora’ is the name of Long Bay. The traditional word for a pathway was recorded as ‘mo-ro’, and elsewhere as ‘maru’. Maroubra is believed to be a combination of the words ‘maru’ (pathway) and ‘boora’ (Long Bay). Long Bay was an important camping and ceremonial ground for the Cadigal, and the traditional pathway that led there passed right through present day Maroubra.

For TOs, the importance of place names is obvious. It would be difficult to find significant geographical features in Australia that don’t have an original name that forms part of greater narratives of Creation and Lore, which us whitefellas have called Dreamtime. These stories weave their way across country along songlines often so vast in distance that even distinct language groups are custodians of only part of the full story.

Since 2001 the NSW Government has committed to recognising Aboriginal cultural heritage by registering original place names so that they sit side by side with existing names. Already twenty locations around Sydney Harbour have been formally gazetted as dual names under the NSW Geographical Names Board Dual Naming Policy.

But the significance of Aboriginal place names is not just important for TOs. They are a defining element of the cultural identity of Australia. Many are so commonly used, subsumed into our daily life, and others so subtle that we fail to recognise their significance. However, to foreign ears these names clearly distinguish themselves as exotic; they are uniquely our own. As such defining characteristics of our nation in the growing cultural monotony of globalisation, they are features we should celebrate.

The Cadigal have left the Eastern Beaches of Sydney a greater cultural legacy than the place names we speak daily, and next month The Beast will explore the greatest gift inherited from the Saltwater People.