Home  Search  Contact  Library  Staff Directory

It's as Irish as - er - didgeridoo

Flinders Journal: June 10 - June 23, 2002

If someone suggested to you that the word 'didgeridoo' had Irish origins, you could be forgiven for thinking you were being set up for a linguistic leg-pull.

But according to Dymphna Lonergan, a PhD student in the Department of English at Flinders, the source of the word may indeed be Gaelic.

Ms Lonergan said that while the instrument and the sound it produces are quintessentially Aboriginal and Australian, no word remotely resembling didgeridoo exists among the Aboriginal languages of the instrument's homelands in northern Australia. There it has a variety of other names, among them bambi, bombo, illpera and yidah.

Ms Lonergan said that didgeridoo was a surprisingly late entry in Australian dictionaries, making its first appearance in the Australian National Dictionary of 1919. By 1924 it had clearly made its way into the language, turning up in the Bulletin. But by the time of the 1967 edition of the Australian National Dictionary, the author of the entry for 'didgeridoo', FTA McCartney, admitted that the word was probably not Aboriginal: he suggested that the word had been coined in imitation of the sound of the instrument.

There is one major problem with this theory, Ms Lonergan says - the word didgeridoo does not sound anything like the distinctive drone or hum the instrument produces.

A small survey demonstrated this graphically: all those who rendered the sound of the instrument into letters produced long tortuous, words filled with multiple vowels, most beginning with either an 'm' or a 'b'. None came even close to 'didgeridoo'.

So if didgeridoo is not Aboriginal and not imitative, just where did this elusive word spring from?

Ms Lonergan strongly suspects that Gaelic - and Australia's Irish or Scots immigrants - may hold the answer.

Both Irish and Scots Gaelic have the word dudaire, a tri-syllabic word roughly pronounced 'dooderreh' or 'doodjerra'. In the English of Ireland today the word refers to a constant pipe smoker or a nosey person, but in an Irish-English dictionary of 1904 it was translated as "a trumpeter or horn blower, blowing of a horn, or the act of crooning or humming".

Ms Lonergan said that Irish and Scots Gaelic also contain the word dubh meaning black, which is pronounced 'duv' or 'do', as well as the word duth, pronounced 'doo', meaning 'native or hereditary'.

"It may be that Irish or Scots Gaelic speakers gave the name dudaire dubh or dudaire duth (pronounced 'doodereh doo' or 'doojerreh doo') to the person playing the native instrument and that the word became associated with the instrument," she said.

Ms Lonergan's PhD is on the History of the Irish Language in Australia, and her earlier detective work on Australian words included the discovery that the word 'sheila' is more likely to be based on the Gaelic word sile, meaning homosexual, than on a woman's name.

Ms Lonergan also has discovered a reciprocal footnote to the didgeridoo story: if, as it seems, the Irish may have provided the name for the didgeridoo, then Aboriginal Australia solved a musical mystery for the Irish.

For centuries, no-one knew how to coax a sound from the Bronze Age horns of Ireland, until a London professor saw a likeness with other ethnic instruments, including the didgeridoo.

After learning the technique for playing the didgeridoo, an Irishman named Simon O'Dwyer finally employed it to break the horns' silence.

"The Irish may be credited with giving to Australia a universal name for a native instrument, but Australia gave back to Ireland an historically lost sound," Ms Donergan said.