‘a beautiful war-ra-taw’

Australia’s fauna is replete with names from Indigenous languages: kangaroo, wallaby, pademelon, potoroo, dingo, wombat, koala, kookaburra, brolga, budgerigar, galah, quokka, numbat, bunyip and drop bear. Trees are moderately represented by names from Indigenous languages: kurrajong, coolibah, mulga, mallee, karri and jarrah.

Conversely, Australia’s flora is sparsely represented by names from Indigenous languages, at least among the more common flowers and names. The first and best known is undoubtedly ‘waratah’. The first record of this word is in volume 2 of the account of the early years of the colony by Judge-Advocate David Collins, while writing of the funeral of Yeranibe, a young man ‘much beloved by his countrymen’ and well-known among the British. He was buried in the settlement’s graveyard, ‘by the side of the public road, below the military barracks’. (‘the public road’ is now George St and ‘the military barracks’ are not the later World Heritage Hyde Park Barracks (which were not military, anyway, but accommodation for convicts). Barrack St still runs between George St, approximately opposite Martin Place, and Clarence St.)

Collins records: ‘Bennillong assisted at the ceremony, placing the head of the corpse, by which he struck a beautiful war-ra-taw, and covering the body with the blanket on which he died.’

The interesting thing about Collins’s use of this word is that it is the only time that he, or any other First Fleet writer, uses an Indigenous word with no explanation.

By any standards, the waratah is a spectacular flower, reflected in its botanical name Telopea speciosissima (‘seen from afar’ (Greek), ‘most beautiful’ (Latin)). It is the state floral emblem of New South Wales, and a stylised version forms part of the logo of the state government and public service. In addition, the New South Wales  rugby union team is nicknamed ‘The Waratahs’.

The only other Australian flowers I can think of which bear an Indigenous name are the Gymea lily and the lillipilli. I’m sure there’s more, but after several days pondering and several searches of the internet (eg here), I can’t think of or find any.

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2 thoughts on “‘a beautiful war-ra-taw’

  1. I can think of two more – jarrah (a sort of eucalypt/timber) and yacca – although a quick internet search reveal that the latter is only called “yacca” in South Australia and is probably called “blackboy” everywhere else. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xanthorrhoea.

    I think the problem is that European settlers *needed* words to describe the various animals they saw, but people are generally happy not to know the names of plants except the exceptional-looking ones. I’d be hard-pushed to name a lot of the plants around me in English, but I know what they look like and whether they’ll kill me if I eat them.

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  2. My first draft also mentioned trees, with kurrajong, coolibah, karri, jarrah, mulga and mallee, and I’m sure there’s more. For most practical purposes then and now, it is quite possible to say ‘tree’ without having to specify further. (It is also possible to say ‘flower’ without having specify further!) The web page http://www.allcreativedesigns.com.au/pages/speciescommon.html lists 276 native trees and shrubs, with a mixture of Indigenous names, scientific names and common, descriptive names (eg paperbark). (It doesn’t have a corresponding page for flowers.)

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