So you’re walking along a road, and you come across a cave. It definitely wasn’t there the last time you were here! Or you’re trying to find this dam your friend has been telling you all about. But where is it? Oh, right. That explains it. So, what’s in a name? You wouldn’t think twice about the names of most places. Some are just a bit harder to pronounce, like which in Pitjantjatjara roughly translates to And others might cause you to raise an eyebrow. But the names we give to places — even the seemingly weird ones — convey their significance and history and, more often than not, a sense of identity. The first non-Indigenous names came from early marine explorers. Sailing south from Indonesia, Dutchman Willem Janszoon gave Queensland many names. Some that still survive today include the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape Keerweer — where he “turned again” back to Indonesia. After further exploration from fellow countrymen, the Dutch named this new land New Holland. Then came the English. In 1770, on his first Pacific voyage, James Cook assigned more names to the east coast. Some were straightforward, some honoured various high-ranking people, and some reflected the ship’s personal trials. Another English explorer, Matthew Flinders, came along a few years later and circumnavigated the country. Flinders referred to the whole country by the name Europeans had been using for centuries for a hypothetical continent to the south — Terra Australis Incognita. But not really unknown anymore. His preference, though, was a shortened version. “Australia”. And after formal European settlement, groups of surveyors came through, giving names to rivers and mountains, and other landmarks. Like Cook did, a lot of places were named
after people. Lake Eyre was named after the explorer, Edward John Eyre, who was the first person to lay eyes on it. And most of our capital cities are named after people — Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart. But, well, some names are just strange. If you’ve got nowhere else to go, well, you could try Nowhere Else? Speaking of Tassie, if your postcode is 7112, you’re living in Eggs and Bacon Bay in Tasmania. While naming places after breakfast foods might seem an interesting choice, it’s actually named after these flowers, found in the area. On the NSW coast, north of Newcastle, you’ll
find Yes I Know rock. Yes. A rock called Yes I Know. Said to have been named after the last words of a fisherman who was washed from said rock. Orange and Banana don’t grow either of those fruits — one was named after the Prince of Orange, and one was named after a bull. When two explorers failed to glimpse the ocean from a summit of the Great Dividing Range, they dubbed the poor mountain they were standing on Mount Disappointment. Victoria also has a Mount Terrible, Mount Despair and Mount Hopeless, so make of that what you will. And if you’ve ever wanted to go to the Other Side of the Moon, you can! All it takes is a ticket to WA. Then there’s the names that seem rude, but really are quite innocent. Off the coast of WA you’ll find Intercourse Island. No, not that type of intercourse. Captain Phillip Parker King had what must’ve been a great chat with some native islanders. Some other strangely named islands include Shag Island and Booby Island, but it’s not really that strange at all. They’re named after the birds which frequent them — you know, shags and boobys. It may seem like we’re a country of knobs. But only if you mean knob as in “a rounded hill or mountain” — then yes, for sure, we’re full of knobs. Down south in the Bass Strait you’ll find
Prickly Bottom, and a whole lot of other bottoms. Again, not what you’re thinking. A bottom is low-lying land adjacent to a river. Several of these names are a marker of white European settlement. But a lot of the names we still use today
can be traced back to their Indigenous origins. So for example, the city that I’m in now, Canberra, is derived from a Ngunnawal word, “Canberry”, which was “meeting place”. Noosa is from a Kabi Kabi word which means “shady place”. Geelong is drawn from a Wathaurong word, which is the word for “tongue” because that’s the shape of the bay. Kununurra means “Big Water” in the local Miriwoong language. Coogee comes from koojah, meaning “place of stinking seaweed”. The name for the Yarra River came from surveyor John Helder Wedge. A Wathaurong speaker, after being asked what the cascading waters were called, simply said “yanna yanna”, meaning “it
flows”. But there’s also some more serious history behind some names. People ask themselves, well why is that street called Boundary Street? And come to understand that that was the boundary beyond which Aboriginal people were not permitted to pass. They’ve become really important points of learning for people. So can we still change the names of places? Yes! There’s some strict guidelines in place, but essentially any community member can submit suggestions for name changes, or even to name a geographic feature which doesn’t have an official name yet. In the last few decades, there’s been a push to recognise more Indigenous names around the country by giving places dual names. It’s a way to recognise their validity and acknowledge their importance. This big rock is known as Uluru / Ayers Rock. And Lake Eyre is officially known as Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. So, what’s in a name? Turns out, quite a lot.