Mar 14, 2011
Piers Kelly writes:
At Melbourne’s very first Moomba carnival in March of 1955, my father recalls Sir Reginald Dallas Brooks, opening the proceedings from the banks of the Yarra river. In his crown-appointed role as Governor of Victoria, he made a plummy declaration that ‘moomba’ is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘Let’s get together and have fun’. This definition has been repeated to Victorian schoolchildren ever since.
But a long-standing legend has it the moomba means something quite different altogether. In many Aboriginal languages, -ba is a suffix that roughly means ‘at the place of’. And every Koori knows that mum – which rhymes with ‘vroom’ – is the local word for ‘bum’.
So Moomba effectively means ‘up your bum’.
A widely circulated story has it that Bill Onus, a former president of the Australian Aborigines League, suggested the name to the festival organisers as a cheeky joke. A well known unionist, Onus was getting back at the city council for having deliberately upstaged the traditional Labour Day march with a popular carnival.
Newspaper reports from 1954 indicate that Onus did in fact offer the name ‘moomba’ with the meaning ‘a great, happy get-together’. The suggestion met with universal approval. Councillor Maurice Nathan was quoted as saying that “It sounds a great word, and would be easy to publicise. It would link with Melbourne, and I will submit it to the organising committee as soon as it is formed”. The Town Clerk was even more enthusiastic: “It is a good, melodious word. I think it is particularly fitting to use a genuine Australian word to describe the carnival.” As far away as Cairns, a whimsical columinst wondered whether it should be pronounced “with an upward, light-hearted inflection like, say ‘whoopee’, or whether you allow the long drawn out vowels to carry the slightly ominous ‘ooh’ sound”.
Over the years, the slightly ominous sound has swelled to a chorus of guffaws with Victoria’s Koori community claiming the last laugh. By 1969, Luise Hercus included this entry in Languages of Victoria: “Mum, bottom, rump. The jocular Healesville expression mum ba has been given to the authorities in jest with the translation, ‘let us get together and have fun’, hence the Melbourne Moomba festival.” She notes elsewhere that the suffix –ba means ‘and’ in the Kulin languages of Victoria, and that ‘moomba’ is part of a conventional joking phrase that approximately means ‘I can see your bum, and… [the rest of it]’.
In 1981, linguist Barry Blake took up the theme again in his book Australian Aboriginal Languages:
…undoubtedly the most unfortunate choice of a proper name from Aboriginal sources was made in Melbourne when the city fathers chose to name the city’s annual festival ‘Moomba’. The name is supposed to mean ‘Let’s get together and have fun’, though one wonders how anyone could be naive enough to believe that all this can be expressed in two syllables. In fact ‘moom’ (mum) means ‘buttocks’ or ‘anus’ in various Victorian languages and ‘-ba’ is a suffix that can mean ‘at’, ‘in’ or ‘on’. Presumably someone has tried to render the phrase ‘up your bum’ in the vernacular.
On the face of it, this is a tale with all the hallmarks of a classic urban myth. Conspiracy, injustice avenged, and the bare minimum of plausibility. Is it all too good to be true?
Regrettably there’s no smoking gun in the historical documentation to settle the matter once and for all, but the controversy itself makes for an entertaining tale.
Alleged misunderstandings between colonisers and colonised are a common theme for folk etymologists who would have you believe that kangaroo is Guugu Yimithirr for ‘I don’t know’, and that Yucatán means ‘I don’t understand you’. And yet woeful mistakes are sometimes made and perpetuated. Many word lists of Aboriginal languages include classic ‘pointing errors‘ like the word for ‘head’ in place of ‘hair’, or ‘sky’ for ‘cloud’. Then there are the errors brought about by mishearing, such as ‘dung’ for ‘tongue’, that wind up on the permanent record.
Wholesale confabulations are altogether less likely, and the myth-busting website Snopes currently categorises the ‘moomba’ story as ‘Undetermined‘. Yet Barry Blake’s explanation that the combination of moom and -ba means ‘up your bum’ is compelling. Indigenous linguist and educator Jeanie Bell said she would even be willing to put money on it. And even if Victorian languages were in serious decline by the middle of the century, rude words like moom have a way of clinging on forever. Can’t remember highschool French? I bet you can still recall a few primary profanities.
The chief suspect in this alleged linguistic lark, Bill Onus, passed away in 1968, but his daughter-in-law Jo Onus believes she has the key to the controversy. In a short video documentary, produced by Virignia Fraser, she explains how the festival aquired its name, as told to her by mother-in-law Mary. Apparently, Bill and Mary were looking for a general term for ‘corroboree’ when they came across moomba in a Queensland word list. In Onus’ account, moomba was simply a special ceremony with no sacred connotations.
Some time after Bill died, his son Lin (Jo Onus’s husband) gave an an interview with Lorna Lippman in which he claimed that his father had chosen the name moomba as a prank, specifically because it meant ‘up your bum’. But when Lin got the true account from his furious mother, he vowed to go public and correct his error. It was too late. The bum story proved irresistible to the public imagination.
There is reason to take Jo Onus’ recollection of events seriously. Thanks to Trove it’s now possible to learn much more about the circumstances of Moomba’s conception. Only a few years before the idea of a Melbourne parade was first tossed around, Bill Onus had helped to organise a special performance at the Princess Theatre. Billed as Out of the Dark: an Aboriginal Moomba, the show was the result of lobbying on the part of the Australian Aborigines League to have indigenous people represented in the celebrations for the 50-year jubilee of Federation. About forty indigenous men travelled from Queensland to perform a three-hour extravaganza of singing and dancing that brought the house down. It was so popular that repeat performances were slated for other states and there were plans to take the show to Britain for a special staging before the king. The state government even went so far as to patent the name ‘Moomba’ to guard against illicit spin-offs. It is most likely that Onus was referencing this event when he suggested the name ‘Moomba’, a word that already had positive associations for Melbourne.
Out of the Dark included a handful of special guests but the core dance troupe was from Cherbourg reservation in southeast Queensland, where indigenous people from all over the state were forcibly resettled from the beginning of the century. Even by the 1950s the residents of Cherbourg were not permitted to leave without permission and this was not easily granted. Nor was leaving Cherbourg any guarantee of independence. Astoundingly, almost 80 per cent of the income that the performers derived from the show was quarantined by the Queensland Native Affairs authority, a fact which generated a degree of public outrage in Melbourne.
Journalists who covered the production wrote that ‘moomba’ meant either ‘out of the dark’ or ‘camp concert’. One went so far as to explain that it was the nearest Aboriginal approximation of ‘jubilee celebration’. As a key producer, Onus would certainly have had a hand in choosing the name for the show, and it may have been at this point that he and his wife went searching for suitable indigenous word from the sunshine state. So which list did they consult?
Over the decades, speakers of over 30 different languages entered Cherbourg, but it was the Wakka Wakka language, traditionally spoken in the Cherbourg region, that would emerge as a lingua franca on the reservation. Unfortunately, records of southeast Queensland vocabularies are scarce and no single entry announces itself as a likely inspiration. A vocabulary of Wakka Wakka published in 1926 gives ngumba for ‘show’ which may have been interpreted by the couple as ‘performance’. Words that begin with ng- are notoriously difficult for native English speakers so the spelling could have been modified for an English audience. The word moomba appears in an 1886 word list collected on the ‘north side of Moreton Bay’ with the meaning ‘thunder’, and moombarl is given the same sense in the nearby Dal-la language. Rather more promising is the word mumba in the Bidyara and Gungabula languages, traditionally spoken some distance to the west of Cherbourg. The recorded meaning is ‘all, together’, even though no list that includes this word predates the 1950s when Bill and Mary were doing their research. A 1943 book of Australian place names claimed that indigenous name for Tenterfield, just south of the Queensland border with NSW, is ‘Moombah-line’ meaning ‘making a noise’.
It’s also possible that the ‘out of the dark’ meaning, supplied in some news items of 1951, is on the right track and that Bill or his wife elicited this translation from a speaker of a Queensland language. Linguists David Nash and Felicity Meakins have alerted me to the fact that the Gurindji and Mudburra languages of the Northern Territory have a coverb mum ‘dark’. By adding special suffixes to this you can get words like ‘darkness’ or ‘black’. So why not ‘out of the dark’?
A final possibility is that ‘moom’ does in fact mean bum in a Queensland language as well. Jeanie Bell clearly recalls the word ‘moom’ being used in the Aboriginal English of southeast Queensland where she grew up, as well as in Victoria where she lived for many years. The traditional term for ‘bum’ in the languages around Cherbourg is mundi, but there’s no saying where words can end up as a result of human displacement and cultural loss.
That Moomba is derived from a word meaning ‘up your bum’ seems far fetched, but whatever the case, this sense has already become part of the semantics of the event and perhaps it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Moomba is all too often described as ‘a festival in search of a point’ and the linguistic legend adds a touch of colour to an otherwise dull parade of tacky floats and tackier celebrities. After all, throughout history, carnivals have always been subversive occasions when peasants role-played as kings, women dressed as men, the oppressed mocked the oppressor. In other words, the underdogs could metaphorically drop their dacks and moon The Man for a day.
Let’s get together and have fun? Up your bum to that, I say!
Note: In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly identified Jo Onus as Virginia Fraser. My apologies to both.