Melbourne’s major street festival is called Moomba. It happens in March, on the Labour day weekend.

Then it’s early autumn in Melbourne, and there is water skiing and parades and clowns sponsored by ice cream companies. On the banks of the river that flows through the middle of town crowds flock to gape at the birdman event, where men strapped into homemade gliders compete at flinging themselves off a platform into the water teeming with e-coli below.

Although all the talk of tradition and festival spirit can feel a little contrived, as cultural things in Australia sometimes do, it is for me a good time of year and the little known near certainty that its official name, Moomba, is actually an insult flung from beyond the grave by those people who were destroyed so that Melbourne could be built, does not detract from my appreciation of the annual fun.

When the Moomba festival started in the 50s the organisers, in an early stirring of political correctness, drove out to the reservation on the fringes of Melbourne where the Aboriginals that had survived the dispossession were still hanging on.

These cultural administrators from the city council told the Aboriginals about this great festival they were organising, how bright and loud and happy it was going to be and how, considering it was going to be held on land that had from millennia immemorial until just a hundred years ago belonged to their ancestors, they were were wondering if they might like to choose a word from their dying language and suggest a name.

The government people said that, ideally, they wanted a word that meant ‘let’s get together and have fun’. That’s still the official translation.

The Aboriginals told them they had a word that was just perfect. Moomba.

Because the old people and their language are all but gone now it’s hard to tell exactly what it was that they meant. The best job I’ve seen of explaining it so far was from a linguist called Barry Blake who, during the 80s, pointed out that in the language of the people who used to live around Melbourne ‘Moom’ means arse while ‘ba’ is a suffix that means in or up.

Another theory is that ‘ba’ simply means hole.

Good on them.


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