Moomba Festival – is Melbourne the butt of a joke?*

I’m not sure how many people will be familiar with the Moomba Festival, given that it’s a Victorian thing. Basically, on the Labour Day long weekend, there’s a big festival in Melbourne with a parade, fireworks, a carnival and assorted water sports. Half of Victoria go to Melbourne for it, and the other half watch the televised parts, so it’s all really a fairly big deal (or at least, it is when you’re in primary school and you get given the day off school for it). When you learn about Moomba at school, they tell you that it’s an Aboriginal word that means “Let’s get together and have fun.”

This year, one of my friends very kindly bought this to my attention, on the basis of me being fascinated by both words and toilet humour. The general gist of this blog, and the very many other articles on the same topic (the only other particlarly useful article I’ve found on it was published in The Age in 2008) is that Moomba is actually an amalgamation of the word Moom, which is a slang word for bottom in several Victorian Aboriginal languages (mostly translated as bum or ass), and -ba, which is a suffix that means something along the lines of at, on, up etc. So effectively, the name of the festival would probably translate as “Up your bum”.

I had several thoughts about this. First of all, the blog post on Crikey says that the people who were involved in offering the name to the Moomba comittee “were looking for a general term for ‘corroboree’ when they came across moomba in a Queensland word list”. This strikes me as odd, given that these people were Aborigines from Victoria. Why would Victorian Aborigines be proposing that they use a Queensland word for a Victorian festival, given that they would understand that the vocabulary in Aboriginal languages varies a lot? Given that I’m assuming that they wanted an Aboriginal word so that it had meaning to the Aboriginal community (I suspect that Labour Day isn’t one of the bigger holidays in Aboriginal communities), it seems particularly weird that they would choose a word that would potentially have little to no meaning to most of the people they were trying to include. Also, variations on moom = bum seem to be fairly widely spread across Victoria, based on the article, so you’d think that they would have realised this when they were looking at the word list, regardless of which language they spoke (although, there’s nothing that specifically suggests that they actually spoke a local language, so I could be make incorrect assumptions here).

My second thought is that given that everyone who’s written about this seems to be able to find a credible expert to back up the claims that Moomba is slightly unsavory, I’m somewhat inclined to believe it (and I also really want it to be true, because I’m mature like that). This brings me to another thought – what if it does, in fact, have that literal translation, but idiomatically, it has some sort of meaning about coming together to have fun? I’m not sure how this would work, but I also don’t really understand why saying someone has “kicked the bucket” means they’ve died. Idiom is weird like that. Mind you, given that Moomba started in 1955, I would imagine that someone would have pointed this out by now if it were the case.

I also note that Crikey quote Barry Blake (a linguist) as saying that it seems naive to assume that you could fit the entire meaning of “Let’s get together and have fun” into two syllables. Granted, this was in the 80s, so I guess linguistics could have progressed a fair bit since then, but this actually struck me as a quite naive thing to say. It seems perfectly plausable to me that a language would have one word that means “Let’s get together” and other that would mean “Have fun”, which could easily be comine. In fact, I believe that both English and German achieve this with the word “party”, and the Spanish do it in three syllables with “fiesta”. Why would an Aboriginal language be any different?

*If you’re the sort of person who appreciates neither puns nor toilet humour, I apologise for this title, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Ceiridwen Redman, LING366

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