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Claim: The name of the annual Moomba festival held in Melbourne, Australia, was taken from a derogatory Aboriginal term.
Origins: A familiar urban legend plot involves a member of a tribal or ethnic group who decides to put one over on some English speakers by slipping an inappropriate phrase from his native language into their domain. We've previously encountered the tale of a Samburu tribesman who supposedly uttered something quite different than the expected "Just Do It" slogan for a Nike commercial, as well as the claim that someone sneaked a rude Arabic phrase into a bazaar scene in the 1951 Humphrey Bogart film Sirocco.
This motif has also been mentioned in connection with Melbourne's annual Moomba Festival, the name of which is officially said to have come from an Aboriginal word meaning "Let's get together and have fun":
Moomba was, and still is the largest free community festival held in Australia. It began in 1954 and Melburnian’s will celebrate Moomba's 50th birthday in March 2005. The festival was created by Melbourne City Council to inject new life into the city and to provide Melburnian’s with an opportunity to celebrate its vitality. The festival was seen at the time as a progressive and innovative idea to attract tourists and increase visitation into the heart of Melbourne.
The origins of the word 'Moomba' came from an Aboriginal word meaning 'Let's get together and have fun.'
But by the late 1960s, at least, rumor had it that 'Moomba' really meant something else entirely. In 1969, Luise Hercus provided the following definition for 'mum' (i.e., 'moom') in The Languages of Victoria:
Mum: bottom, rump. The jocular Healesville expression 'mum ba' — 'bottom and . . .' — has been given to the authorities in jest with the translation 'let us get together and have fun', hence the Melbourne Moomba Festival.
Linguist Barry Blake provided more detail in his 1981 book, Australian Aboriginal Languages:
Undoubtedly the most unfortunate choice of a proper name from Aboriginal sources was made in Melbourne when the city fathers chose to name the city's annual festival 'Moomba'. The name is supposed to mean 'Let's get together and have fun', though one wonders how anyone could be naive enough to believe that all this can be expressed in two syllables. In fact 'moom' (mum) means 'buttocks' or 'anus' in various Victorian languages and 'ba' is a suffix that can mean 'at', 'in' or 'on'. Presumably someone has tried to render 'up your bum' in the vernacular.
Gary Dean, writing in the Victoria Age in 1993, added to the story the detail that the name 'Moomba' had been suggested by a 'well-known, elderly Aborigine':
Tradition has it that when the city fathers of Melbourne were seeking a name for a new annual festival of arts and entertainment someone asked a well-known, elderly Aborigine if there was a native word that would convey the spirit of the carnival. Well, he is supposed to have said, there's moomba — it means: "Let's get together and have fun."
Anyone prepared to believe that one little word could express such a complex of ideas was really asking for it, but the festival got under way in 1955 and Moomba it has been called ever since. The truth is that the word means something like "Up your bum." "Moom" (or "mum" as it is usually rendered) means buttocks or anus in several Victorian Koori languages, and the suffix "-ba" can mean at, in or on. That old man, or whoever was responsible, made his point about exploitation.
Without knowing exactly who first offered 'Moomba' as a name for the Melbourne festival (and why that person suggested it), we can't positively say that the name came from someone's prankish attempt "to render 'up your bum' in the vernacular." The name might have derived from some other source, and its pronunciation only coincidentally happened to have meaning in various Aboriginal languages. (We've seen a similar process before: the name of the San Diego Wild Animal Park's "Wgasa Bush Line" railway stems from the use of an unrelated and somewhat crude acronym that was retained because it happened to "sound African.")
However, an Australian reader provided us with a starting point by sending along an account containing those very details:
Bill & Eric Onus (brothers of Aunty Sissy Smith/McGuinness, a well known Aboriginal Elder in Melbourne) were approached during the late fifties or early sixties for an Aboriginal word to name a newly developed annual street parade, sponsored by the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce (businessmen's lobby group).
The parade was to be held on the Labour Day holiday, thereby undermining the Trade Unions march and the historic significance of the day.
Bill & Eric ran an Aboriginal artifacts stall in the Dandenongs, but were staunch unionists in their younger days.
Bill had a dry sense of humour. He agreed to provide a suitable name for the parade. Friends were surprised at this, knowing how Bill felt about the City Fathers and their business promotion parade.
When he offered the name Moomba, and the organisers accepted it, Bill gave the Aboriginal community a great gift. It has been the trigger for spontaneous laughter for many years since.
While the Moomba organisers, in blissful ignorance, give the translation as "let's get together and have fun," every Koori knows that "Moom" means backside, and "ba" means . . . well, um, hole . . .
So that's it. The grand festival we call Moomba means a***hole. Bill started a joke. We have the last laugh.
We haven't yet verified this account, but it certainly adds an interesting twist to the tale.
Last updated: 12 July 2007
Blake, Barry J. Australian Aboriginal Languages.
Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1981. 0-207-14044-8.
Dean, Gary. "Did You Know?"
The [Victoria] Age. 27 August 1993 (p. 14).
Hercus, Luise Anna. The Languages of Victoria: A Late Survey in Two Parts.
Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1969.