“Barramundi” - The Name

The name “Barramundi” appears to have become well used in Australia by the later part of the 19th century, however, the origins are not entirely clear. 

A number of Barramundi producers advise that anecdotally, the name is Aboriginal and means “fish with big scales”, and that it is also applied to the Saratoga.  It is hard to confirm this through the main sources on Aboriginal languages, but they do confer that the word “Barramundi” is likely to have been of Aboriginal origin.
Certainly the word seems to have had early currency in Central Queensland, particularly in the Fitzroy region, where it was used to relate to fish and events in that area.  The early spelling varied, including Burra Mundi and burramundi and Barramunda. 

Anthony Trollope, an English writer who visited Australia in 1873 wrote: “There is a fish too at Rockhampton called the Burra Mundi – I hope I spell the name rightly- which is very commendable”. The OED notes suggest that early application of the name “Barramundi” applied to a range of large scaled freshwater fishes, with particular application for the Lung Fish (Ceratodus forsteri) found in the Fitzroy River in Central Queensland. 

This seems to be confirmed by great Australian poet Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson, who has a poem entitled “The Lung Fish”.  The poem tells the humorous story of an aristocratic English jackaroo, the Honourable Ardleigh Wyse Rider, who was shipped to North Queensland and told by a boundary rider that instead of using a dry fly for fishing, he could catch the barramundi (lung fish) by knocking them over with a stick, in the big dry.  [This poem appears in his classic collection of childrens verse “The Animals Noah Forgot” published in 1933 and illustrated by Norman Lindsay.] 

The name appears to have rapidly spread from Central Queensland to North Queensland, but at this time it appears that “Barramundi” was still being applied to a range of freshwater fish species. One early source notes that the name Barramundi was being “applied incorrectly to Lates Calcarifer”, the species that is in fact now commonly known as the Barramundi!  

Incorrect or not, Lates Calcarifer is the species now commonly referred to as Barramundi in Australia. By 1938 the Sydney Bulletin described Barramundi as the “King of Australian Fishes”. 

Other Aboriginal language groups use other words for the species now known across Australia as Barramundi. The Gooniyandi people of the Kimberly region of Western Australia use the name balga. The Wik people from the western side of Cape York use the name Minh Wechan. The Murrinh-Patha people also from the Kimberly use the word Tharnu.

Whatever your language, the name “Barramundi” is clearly a very Australian word, applied to Australian fish.  Indeed, when this species is produced outside of Australia it is called something else. Whatever the origins of the name, one thing we know for sure, Barramundi is uniquely Australian and uniquely delicious!

Sources:

OED
Macquarie Aboriginal Words 1994
Australian Words and Their Origins 1989
The Animals Noah Forgot 1933
Steve Mullins CQU (pers.com.) 2005


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