Stack of woroni newspapers

The Meaning of Woroni

On 14 June, 1950, the student journal of what was then the Canberra University College announced a name change. In the search for something “more inspiring” than the original name, Student Notes, the editors decided to pick a title from an Aboriginal language, “because it is far more significant to us, particularly in the Capital City of Australia, than any word of foreign origin.” They chose the word ‘Woroni’, which they stated meant ‘mouthpiece’. Today, 68 years later, Woroni’s Wikipedia page repeats this etymology, declaring that the name “derives from an Indigenous Australian word meaning ‘mouthpiece’.” Over the past 68 years, a key question has remained unanswered. There are estimated to have been 250 different language groups in Australia before European invasion, 120 of which are spoken today. If Woroni is genuinely derived from an Aboriginal language, which of these 250 languages does it come from?

Some past editions of Woroni have claimed that the publication’s name is derived from the Ngunnawal language spoken in the Canberra region. There is no evidence to support this claim, which appears to be based on guesswork. Woroni’s 1950 editorial team were following a long tradition of settler Australians appropriating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words to name a wide variety of things, from place names to literary journals such as Meanjin, as part of a broader search for an authentically Australian identity. A number of books were produced in the twentieth century to assist in this endeavour. One of the most popular was Sydney J Endacott’s Australian Aboriginal Native Words and Their Meaning, which went through ten editions between 1923 and 1973. Endacott praised “the use of musical native aboriginal (sic) names … with advantage to the furthering of the growth of a distinct national feeling.” He hoped to fulfil a “demand for a substantial and reliable list of pleasant-sounding words”. The Woroni editors most likely chose their publication’s new name from Endacott’s widely available compilation, where it is listed as meaning “mouth” – the extension of this to “mouthpiece” may be an example of the editors’ creative licence. Endacott gave no indication of the origin of the words he listed. Their cultural context was of no importance: what mattered was whether they could be used as a “pleasant-sounding” name. Uncovering the true origins of Woroni requires a little more digging.

Endacott claimed his book was the result of “much sifting of lists of words, and a good deal of research among old books and journals.” One of the sources he would have consulted was Edward M. Curr’s four volume work The Australian Race, published between 1886 and 1887. Curr was a major landowner in Victoria, who was intimately involved in the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples on the colonial frontier. As a member of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines, he advocated for the incarceration of Aboriginal Victorians who had survived the frontier wars, likening them to “children” and “lunatics”. Simultaneously, he dedicated a considerable amount of time to recording Aboriginal language and customs, believing he was preserving cultural relics of a people doomed to extinction. A major part of Curr’s work were wordlists of Aboriginal languages he had collected from three hundred correspondents across Australia. It is in one of these wordlists, contributed by a Thomas Macredie, that we find ‘Woroni’. Here it is defined as meaning “mouth”, and is said to come from the geographical area of Piangil, in northern Victoria. According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the language spoken in this area is that of the Wadi Wadi nation. Wadi Wadi country straddles the Murray River in northern Victoria. Despite the effects of the colonial invasion of their lands that began in 1846, the Wadi Wadi people have survived and continue to care for their ancestral country. Descriptions of their innovative land management techniques can be found in Bruce Pascoe’s influential book Dark Emu.

What are the implications of this? The name of ANU’s student newspaper was not chosen as a result of consultation with Wadi Wadi people. It is highly unlikely that the editors at the time were even aware of the Wadi Wadi language. In the words of historian Samuel Furphy, the use of Aboriginal words for naming by settler Australians “has very rarely been the result of sensitive and meaningful cultural interchange.” Referring to the use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words as Australian place names, the Koori novelist and historian Tony Birch writes that “Houses, streets, suburbs and whole cities have Indigenous names. This is an exercise in cultural appropriation, which represents imperial possession and the quaintness of the ‘native’. For the colonisers to attach a ‘native’ name to a place does not represent or recognise an Indigenous history, and therefore possible Indigenous ownership.” Words are a vital part of Aboriginal culture, but many settler Australians have valued them only for their novelty. At a time when government policies aimed to erase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, the Woroni editors of 1950 chose their publication’s name without concern for its origins or cultural context.

Many questions arise when considering this history, including: Given Woroni’s stated commitment to standing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in what ways can it ensure that this careless appropriation is not perpetuated, and that the Wadi Wadi origins of its name are honoured? Given the intimate links between Aboriginal languages and country, what are the ethics of using a Wadi Wadi name for a publication produced on Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands? Would a collaboration with the Ngaiyuriija Ngunawal Language Group, which has been working to revitalise the Ngunawal language, produce a more appropriate name? There are no simple answers to these questions, but they should be carefully considered.

Note on Sources

  • This article would have been impossible without the assistance of Michael Walsh of AIATSIS and David Nash and Harold Koch of the ANU School of Literature, Language and Linguistics.
  • Macredie’s wordlist is on pages 448-451 of the third volume of Curr’s The Australian Race.
  • The quote from Samuel Furphy is from his article “Aboriginal place names and the settler Australian identity” in Melbourne Historical Journal 29 (2001): 71-78.
  • The quote from Tony Birch is from his article “‘Nothing has Changed’: The Making and Unmaking of Koori Culture”, in Meanjin 51(2) (1992), 229-246.
  • There are numerous spellings of Wadi Wadi: I have used that used by the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations group.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.