Why Aussie animals have unusual names

When the first immigrants from Europe arrived in Australia in the 18th century they were exposed to a whole new menagerie of aussie animals they had never experienced before.  The old dialects from working class London and rural Britain just didn’t have the words for the unique marsupials and birds they found here. Consequently many native Aboriginal words were adopted for the unique aussie animals they had never seen before. There are also used words that they took from other rather unexpected places.


Bandicoot originally described several species of large rat from southeast Asia. Early settlers mistaking Australia’s marsupial Peramelids for the Asian rodents mistakingly called them bandicoots. It is a Telugu word from central India, which means pig-rat.

The rabbit bandicoot is also known as a bilby; which comes from the Yuwaalaraay Aboriginal language of northern New South Wales.


Barramundi is said to be word from a Queensland Australian Aboriginal language meaning large-scaled river fish and probably referred to the lungfish (Ceratodus forsteri) of the central coastal areas.

The name, once picked up by the Europeans, spread across northern Queensland and was used to refer to a range of large freshwater fish. It is now used to refer to the Asian Seabass species, Lates calcarifer and has become a powerful brand!


The budgerigar, Melopsittacus undulates, was given its scientific name in 1840 by John Gould (Australia’s great ornithologist). Melopsittacus comes from Greek and means melodious parrot while the species name, undulates, is Latin for undulated or wave-patterned.

Several possible origins for the English name budgerigar have been proposed but it seems to be a compound between the Gamilaraay language gidjirrigaa (perhaps gijirr yellow or small and head) and a word of unknown language, budgery or boojery meaning good.


Cicadas are a family of insects that are not native to Australia so the word was already known. The name is directly derived from the Latin cicada, meaning buzzer. In classical Greek, it was called a tettix, and in modern Greek tzitzikas. Wonderfully imitative!


The word cockatoo dates from well before Australia was settled by Europeans, and is a derivation from the Malay, kakatuwah. There are several explanations: it means vice or grip, that is, from its strong beak; it is a representation of the birds call; or it comes from the Malay kakak for elder brother or sister and tua for old.

Seventeenth-century variants include cacato, cockatoon and crockadore. Cokato, cocatore and cocatoo were used in the eighteenth century.


Dingo, comes from the Dharruk language, originally spoken in the area around Sydney. It referred to the tame dogs of the Aboriginal people although the English also used it to describe wild dogs. Some bushmen continue to call the wild animal by the Dharruk term: warrigal.


The echidna is an egg-laying, hedgehog-like mammal. Its name is usually explained as coming from the Greek word, echidna, meaning snake or viper but this makes little sense. It is much more likely to have come from the Greek, ekhinos, meaning hedgehog. Ekhinos may be translated as snake eater, and as hedgehogs eat worms it may be a more sensible explanation.


The derivation of the emu’s name is uncertain. It may come from Portuguese explorers who used ema to describe large birds such as cranes and ostriches. They may have picked it up from the Moluccan word eme. The language of the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, in Indonesia was heavily influenced by Arabic traders in the 12-13th century.


The galah, the pink-breasted parrot, is derived from gilaa, a word found in Yuwaalaraay and neighbouring Aboriginal languages.


A widely held belief is that when Captain Cook (the first Englishman to discover Australia’s east coast) asked a native what a kangaroo was called; the Aboriginal answered “I don’t know” thus giving it the name. It is a nice story but untrue.

Cook first reported kangaroos, the most iconic of aussie animals, in 1770 when he landed to make repairs at the Endeavour River in northeast Queensland. The word gangurru is a word for kangaroo in the northeast Aboriginal language of Guugu Yimidhirr. See our blog post on Worldly words ending in “oo”.


The word koala, for one of our favourite aussie animals comes from the Dharuk language’s word gula. There is a mistaken belief that koala means doesn’t drink.

The scientific name of the koala’s genus, Phascolarctos, is derived from Greek phaskolos pouch and arktos bear. Its species name, cinereus, is Latin and means ash-coloured.


Kookaburras are large kingfishers native to Australia and New Guinea; the name comes from the Wiradjuri language, guuguubarra, which is an imitation of its call.


The platypus’s genus, Ornithorhynchus, is derived from a combination of the Latin word, ornitho, for bird-like and the Greek, rhunkus for bill. Platypus, the original scientific name, comes from the Greek for flat-footed. The scientific name had to be changed as it had already been allocated to a genus of beetle.

In case you ask, there is no agreed term for the plural of platypus, with platypus, platypuses and even platypoda being used.


Possum is a shortened form of opossum. Opossums are marsupials of the Americas and the name, wapathemwa, comes from the native American language, Algonquian.


The brightly coloured parrot we call the rosella, genus Platycercus, was often seen at Rose Hilll near Parramatta (in western Sydney) by the early migrants and so was called the Rosehill Parakeet. This became the Rosehiller and was eventually pronounced Rosella. Platycercus means broad-tailed or flat-tailed.


Taipans belong to a genus of large, highly venomous snakes native to Northern Australia and New Guinea. The inland taipan, endemic to Northern Queensland, has the most toxic venom of any snake in the world. Taipan comes from the Wik-Mungkan Aboriginal language of central Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.

The word taipan also describes a foreign businessman or a trader in China, often the chief executive of a business. Taipan, in this sense (and surprisingly), has no relationship to the snake and is derived from the Cantonese: tái, meaning big or great and bān, meaning class. A near synonym is tycoon, a Japanese word for great lord or prince that originated from the Chinese: tai meaning great and kiun, meaning lord.


This most delightful of aussie animals, is the smaller cousin of the kangaroo picked up its name from Dharuk, the local Aboriginal dialect of Sydney, where they were called walaba.

witchetty grub

Witchetty grubs are the large insect larvae of several moth species, they are traditional Aboriginal bush tucker (foraged food). The word witchetty comes from the Adynyamathanha language: wityu meaning hooked stick and vartu, meaning grub. The word originally referred to a hooked stick used for foraging for the grubs but then was given to the grubs themselves.

Ten witchetty grubs per day are sufficient for survival in the bush. The flavour is almond-like and similar to peanut butter.


Wobbegongs are a species of carpet shark that can grow up to three metres long; they have razor-like teeth and are said to be moody and short-tempered. They are not generally dangerous. Wobbegong is believed to come from an Australian Aboriginal language, it means shaggy beard, which refers to the growths around its mouth.


The word wombat, for our large burrowing marsupial, was recorded in 1798, from the Aboriginal Australian womback, wombar. The Oxford Dictionary describes it as having a general resemblance to a small bear.