Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa





Laputan Logic

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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Cuteness Factor

Posted on Friday 9 March 2007

The kangaroo: first noted by James Cook at Endeavour River on 23 June 1770 (engraving by Sydney Parkinson).
It's been said that the cuteness of a story is inversely proportional to the likelihood of it being true. A classic in this genre is the story about the origin of the word kangaroo.

In June 1770, Captain James Cook was charting the eastern coastline of the Australian continent when his ship, the Endeavour, accidentally ran afoul of the Great Barrier Reef. The ship's hull was torn open but his crew managed to beach the vessel on a bank of a river for repairs. This place was named by Cook Endeavour River and it was here that Cook first observed the kangaroo.

That part of the story is true but here is where the myth cuts in: Cook observed these strange animals and then called out to a local native who was standing nearby, "I say, what animal is that?", he asked. The native, who, of course, could not understand a word Cook was saying replied "kangooroo" which meant in his language "I don't know". Cook, satisfied, then wrote in his journal:

"The animals which I have before mentioned, called by the Natives Kangooroo or Kanguru... [it moves] by hoping or jumping 7 or 8 feet at each hop upon its hind legs only... The skin is cover'd with a short hairy fur of a dark Mouse or Grey Colour. Excepting the head and ears which I thought something like a Hare's, it bears no sort of resemblance to any European animal I ever saw."
As with all good stories, this one contains enough truth to be plausible. A later explorer, Captain Phillip K. King, recorded in 1820 a different word for the animal, which he wrote as “mee-nuah” so it was assumed that Captain Cook had been mistaken. However, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, this story has been overturned by linguistic fieldwork which has confirmed the existence of the word gangurru which is used by the Guugu Yimidhirr people to refer to a certain species of kangaroo. Furthermore, it is now thought King may have heard another of their words minha, which means “edible animal.”

There are other cute stories about the naming of the Yucatan Penisula and Alaska's Cape Nome but I'd like to relate a counterexample. A story which is both cute and also true.

For about 150 years there has been a parade held in the city of Melbourne each year on Labour Day. This parade originally grew out of celebrations to commemorate the establishment of the 8 hour working day, a early victory for trade unionism which reduced the length of the working week from 60 hours to 48 (a world-first, as it happens).

Over time, this parade became more of a general pageant than an overtly political event (it's message about worker's rights and solidarity now being commemorated by trade unionists and activists on the international day of worker solidarity, May the 1st) and by 1955 and one year before the parade's Centenary, the conservative government of the day with the support of the local chamber of commerce decided that it was high time to depoliticize the event altogether.

They re-branded the parade and relaunched it with a new (and considerably lamer) theme:

"Let's get together and have fun!"

and then cast about for a brand new name to encapsulate it.

Stories differ about how they settled upon the local Aboriginal word Moomba but, alas for the organisers, it turned out that this word actually meant something else entirely (or was a very literal translation, take your pick).

Moomba is the name of a carnival held annually in Melbourne from 1955. One of its distinctive features is a procession of floats etc. through the streets of the city.

The term is popularly regarded as being an Aboriginal word meaning 'let's get together and have fun'. Thus C. McGregor in Profile of Australia (1966) writes:

    Melbourne's Moomba (an aboriginal word meaning 'Let's get together and have fun') a yearly event during which floats parade through the city.

In 1969 Louise Hercus in The Languages of Victoria sounded a warning:

    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.

Victorian Aboriginal languages with the word mum for 'bottom, anus' include Wuywurung and Wemba-wemba.

In 1981 Barry Blake in his Australian Aboriginal Languages spelt out the etymology in more detail:

    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.

Snopes cautiously adds this snippet to the story:
"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."
I'm not sure how "ba" goes from meaning " 'at', 'in' or 'on'" to meaning "hole" as in this version so I'm not completely certain that the Koories are telling us the full story even now. I guess there's still the possibility that this yarn could fall victim to its own cuteness factor.