March 16, 2008
Get Your Own Translations
Sterne relates the history of the name of Melbourne's Festival for No Apparent Reason:
[T]the festival owes its name to a brazen piece of political subversion that has since transcended its context to become one the most durable practical jokes in Australian history:I think I knew this and subsequently forgot it, so I'm glad to be reminded. It puts me in mind of Mungo MacCallum's story about how the Canberra water-police, whose duties at the time largely consisted of fishing corpses out of Lake Burley Griffin on those occasions local flooding washed bits of Queanbeyan cemetery into the river, ran a competition to name their new launch. A local academic suggested Platypus explaining it was appropriate because platypuses are aquatic, uniquely Australian, docile but capable of defending themselves, etc. The police duly chose this as the name for their new boat, at which point the academic explained his real reason for suggesting the name was that it was Greek for flatfoot.
One of the federation jubilee events of 1951 was an Aboriginal theatre production called An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark...The official history relates that the good citizens of Melbourne proceeded to moomba their brains out by the Yarra each March and - a clear indication of how self-assured white middle-class society was in the mid-20C - it wasn't until the late sixties that anybody bothered to consult further on the etymology of "moomba" and it was discovered that the whole thing was a big prank. It turns out that in certain local Aboriginal languages "moom" means "buttocks" or "anus" and "ba" can mean either "at", "in" or "on". "Moomba" can therefore be translated into the vernacular as "up your bum".
When a name was needed for Melbourne’s new festival, Bill Onus, president of the Australian Aborigines League and a performer in the earlier jubilee event, suggested ‘Moomba’ to the Melbourne City Council. The name had been successful for the theatre production and the council believed it to mean ‘let’s get together and have fun’.
Which is precisely the kind of joke you'd expect a Canberran academic to make.