Current generations might believe that to be un-Australian and its attendant "ism" were coined in the conservative 1990s, when the values debate raged and the then prime minister, John Howard, spearheaded a failed attempt to get the term mateship enshrined in the constitution. But its ancestry goes back much further. Etymologically, it began life as a literal recognition of things that were not Australian in character; the first recorded use, in 1855, described a part of the landscape similar to Britain.
Cultural commentator Hugh Mackay has argued that anything labelled un-Australian is, in fact, Australian: "Surely it's 'Australian' to do whatever Australians do. It's Australian to drink and drive, to get hopelessly into debt, lie to secure an advantage — whether political, commercial or personal — and engage in merciless and slanderous gossip. It's Australian to give vent to our xenophobia through outbreaks of racism, to reserve our nastiest prejudices for indigenous people, and to worship celebrity … It's Australian to do such things because it's human to do them."And there's also a piece titled "I speak Aboriginal every day", about the surfeit of Aboriginal place names in Australia, most of their meanings all but forgotten to most of the people who use them:
Prahran turns out to be an Aboriginal word — a corruption of Birrarung (mist, or land surrounded by water). Dandenong was Tathenong (big mountain). Geelong comes from Tjalang (tongue). Moorabbin means "mother's milk". Looking up a single page in a street directory now to check a spelling (because I know these words better spoken than written), I find Kanooka, Kanowindra, Kanowna, Kantara, Kantiki, Kanu, Kanuka, Kanumbra, Kanyana … and on and on. Forty-five per cent of Victorian place names are Aboriginal.I didn't know that Prahran was an Aboriginal word; if pressed, I would have guessed that it was taken from India, perhaps in honour of some earlier triumph of the British Empire (by analogy to the area near Flemington which is sometimes referred to as Travancore), or alternately came, badly mangled, from some indigenous British minority language.
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