Monday, 8 June 2015

Australian Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. This time we look at Australia which, at least as far as place names is concerned, is very new. Several are named after people, others transferred, and thus some of the explanations are more histories than etymologies.

Sydney is not the capital city but is the largest city, indeed over 20% of Australia's entire population live here. The settlement was officially named on 7th February 1788, recognising the role played by Thomas Townsend in establishing this place. Note it was not named after him directly, but took that of his title. Lord Sydney. This is not actually from a place, as would be the case with most titles, and the history behind it is a little unusual. When offered the title he originally opted for Baron Sidney, itself to honour Algernon Sidney, a member of the family who is better remembered for his opposition to tyranical monarchy. However he feared other members of the family would try to show they had greater claim on this title and so he then went for the village of Sydneham in Kent, very close to his home town, until he opted for the alternative spelling of Algernon's surname.

Melbourne is also taken from a title, Lord Melbourne being the prime minister of Great Britain when the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke, named the newly-founded colony in August 1835. William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, took the title on the death of his father who had adopted the name of a Derbyshire village having a name meaning 'mill stream'. Today the British Melbourne has a population of little more than 5,000 despite having been in existence for over a thousand years. The Australian version, yet to celebrate 200 years, boasts 18.9% of the nation's population with a head count of almost 4.1/2 million in 2014.

Brisbane was officially named after the Brisbane River on which it stands. The river itself is named after is named after the Governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1825, one Sir Thomas Brisbane. Apart from his political career, the Scotland-born Major General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane was also a keen astronomer and built the first observatory in Australia.

Perth is the first place not to be named after a person, but comes from another city. Perth in Scotalnd has a population of some 50,000 today, the Western Australian capital city has over 2 million inhabitants. The Scots version is named from a Pictish word meaning simply 'wood' or maybe the smaller 'copse'.

Adelaide is the only other city in Australia to have a population in excess of one million. As any trivia buff will know it was named after the queen consort of King William IV, Queen Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen.

Tweed Heads takes the name of the Tweed River on which it stands, this purported to be named after its Scottish counterpart and there seems little chance of it being anything else. The Scots version comes from the Gaelic thuaidh meaning 'north'.

Newcastle was transferred from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, itself clearly speaking of a rebuilt fortification. The reason for the choice is easy to see when considering earlier names for the settlement - we can ignore Kingstown as the place was aonly known as such briefly - the original name was Coal River, and Newcastle is famous as having been the great port for coal.

Maitland takes us back to places named after people. Here the city is held to have been inspired by Sir George Maitland, Under Secretary for the Colonies and MP for Whitchurch, Hampshire.

Canberra is the first example of an indigenous place name, although the present version has been greatly Anglicised. The tales of this being named Canberry because of the number of the native Australian Cranberry bushes growing around here seems fanciful, at best. Possibly this is indeed an Anglicised version of the old Ngunnawal word meaning 'meeting place', although other sources point to the two mountains which dominate the skyline and thus the river running between them is the nganbira or 'hollow between a woman's breasts'.

Queanbeyan is a second from an indigenous word, although here there is no doubting this is from quinbean meaning 'clear waters'.

Wollongong is another indigenous name but one where the meaning is disputed. Various suggestions have included 'seas of the south', 'great feast of fish', 'hard ground near water', song of the sea', 'sound of the waves', 'many snakes', and 'five islands'.

Hobart was named after Lord Hobart, the Colonial Secretary. Initially it was styled Hobart Town or sometimes Hobarton.

Geelong, founded in 1827, took an indigenous name of Jillong, itself thought to mean 'land' or possibly 'cliffs'.

Cairns was named after the Governor of Queensland at the time, one William Wellington Cairns.

Darwin was named after Charles Darwin, although when HMS Beagle sailed into the harbour on September 9th 1839 the famous naturalist had not been on board for three years.

Ballarat was named by Scottish squatter Archibald Yuille, he establishing his sheep run here in 1837 and taking the local name of balla arat or 'resting place'.

Bendigo was named after the Bendigo Creek, both first mentioned during the Victorian Gold Rush on November 1851. Bendigo has a population of a little over 91,000 individuals and is named after Bendigo's Hut, where a shepherd of that name once lived. This was not his real name but a nickname, itself coming from the Nottingham bare-knuckle prize-fighter William Abendego Thompson, usually billed as Bendigo Thompson. The shepherd is purported to have earned the nickname as he was something of a pugilist himself and is recorded as also being referred to as 'the fighting sailor'.

Wagga Wagga is a reminder of how the native language has no plural form as such but simply repeates the word to show there is more than one. As the Wiradjuri word wagga means 'crow', the name of Wagga Wagga would mean 'place of many crows'. However the basic defintion is disputed and alternative meanings for wagga include 'reeling' and 'dance, slide, grind'.


  1. I once lived in a place called "Wirrulla" in South Australia. It meant "wild turkey" in the local aboriginal language. Nearby there was a place called "Nunjikompita" which meant "no man's land".

    1. Thanks Cat. There's a Nunjikompita near me - although they rather boringly call it No Man's Heath. I'll suggest a name change.