Do you know what a ‘Googery’ is?

In this article, reproduced from our latest issue of Ozwords,  Bruce Moore explores an Australian English word from an aboriginal language, ‘googery’.

In Lily on the Dustbin: Slang of Australian Women and Families (1982), Nancy Keesing includes a list of words supplied to her by the poet Les Murray. Included in the list is the word googery:

Googery. a small roofed shed, open on one side, in which a fire was lit to boil water, heat branding irons, etc. Very occasionally a googery had a gesture in the direction of a chimney, but mostly there was just a flat or sloping roof of bark or iron. (pp. 166–7)

In a footnote, Keesing comments on the possible origin of the term:

Les and I speculated whether ‘googery’ might have derived, via googy egg, from a family name for a hen-house or laying-shed, but he now thinks that a likelier derivation is that the first two buildings the old settlers liked to put up were a tent to sleep in and a shed or shelter to keep the rain off their fire. They called this shelter the ‘cookhouse’, and Les remembered, from very early childhood, that this was his other name for the googery, too! From ‘cookhouse’ to ‘googery’ seems a simple progression: cookhouse—cookery—googery. (p. 167)

Les Murray repeats his awareness of this term in a number of later publications, and includes the word, also with the spelling gugri, in a poem published in The Daylight Moon (1987):

The road runs through Bunyah, meaning bark for shelters, or firelighters’ candlebark blown on in a gugri house, a word for fire-hut that is still heard though few farms still use a googery. (p. 82)

In an essay in Quadrant in January 1991, Murray includes googeries in a list of ‘things which have decreased or become less common’, again with the definition ‘small shelter sheds on farms for making fire in’. This time Murray adds: ‘from the local Kattang word “gugri”, meaning house or shelter’. (p. 39) The Kattang Aboriginal language was spoken in an area of the New South Wales coast from Port Stephens to Port Macquarie, which includes the district of Bunyah where Les Murray was brought up.

To this point, our knowledge of the word googery was almost entirely restricted to what Keesing and Murray had to say about it. This situation has changed, however, with our access to early Australian newspapers through the National Library of Australia’s digitised newspapers project, available through Trove. We now have more evidence for googery. In 1861, the Empire newspaper (Sydney) reported on some Australian contributions to the upcoming 1862 International Exhibition:

The Arts and Manufactures’ Committee have selected a design (originated by Mr Hogarth) for workmanship in the precious metals. This design consists of a native ‘googery,’ or hut, of which the supporting pole rests at one end against a fern tree; at the other, against a stump. On the stump rests an aboriginal female, having on her right shoulder an infant, while the arm hanging down by her side grasps in the hand two boomerangs; the left arm bent towards the shoulder, with an opossum resting in the hollow. Opposite to her is an aboriginal man, in an attitude half sitting, half kneeling, grasping in his right hand a spear, while the left encircles a fishing basket. (19 June, p. 4)

Here is clear evidence that in the 1860s googery was understood to mean an Aboriginal dwelling, of the kind represented by the synonymous regional terms humpy, gunyah, mia mia, and wurley. In 1927 the Australian writer Julian Stuart published in the Australian Worker (Sydney) an account of a drought on a farm, and the rainmaking ceremony conducted by an Aboriginal ‘king’ called Ghundjarra:

Ghundjarra dropped the shield and grabbed a spear, which he pointed all round the compass, with appropriate ululations, and the ‘bobberie’ closed with acclamations from the ‘googeries’ and gunyahs. (12 October, p. 13)

Again, googery is used to designate an Aboriginal shelter, and the synonym ‘gunyah’ makes the sense clear. In 1946 we find a somewhat different use of the term in the Dungog Chronicle:

 Mr Walter Redman writes: ‘Mr Crouch has not got it all his own way with tomatoes. I have had ripe tomatoes all this winter and still have some. I did not have to build a “googery” over them, either, to keep the frost off them.’ (3 September, p. 2).

This letter was written in response to a report in the Dungog Chronicle about Mr Crouch’s tomatoes, where the structure here designated a googery is described:

The annual tomato Derby is ‘off’ this year. A dark horse entered the race and showed such form that the others went out of work. Mr P. Crouch has been eating his home grown tomatoes for six weeks. He put in 12 plants, put a spaced ceiling of 4ft. 6in. boards, with bag strips dangling down. The plants get the rain and the sun, but no frost. (30 August, p. 2)

The term googery is used here in a transferred sense, applied to a structure that shelters plants, just as the original googery’s function was to shelter people. And this, of course, is precisely the kind of transfer that Les Murray notes in his use, where the function of the shelter is to protect fire from the elements.

There is no doubt that the word googery comes from the Kattang language. A Grammar and Dictionary of Gathang (2010) by A. Lissarrague gives gugirr the meaning ‘house; camp’ with solid evidence from a range of Kattang sources. The 1861 and 1927 quotations lack geographic particularity, and it is possible that in the early period the use of googery as a synonym for ‘humpy’ was fairly widespread. The evidence for the transferred uses, while limited, comes from an area where Kattang was spoken or from areas adjoining the Kattang people (the Dungog area is south-west of Bunyah), suggesting that the transferred senses, at least, were limited regionally.

Googery is therefore an interesting addition to our understanding of how words from Aboriginal languages found their way into Australian English. It is now no doubt largely obsolete. But it is part of the history of Australian English, and it will be included in the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

Bruce MooreBruce Moore is the former Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. He is the author of Speaking Our Language: the Story of Australian English (2008) and What’s Their Story? A History of Australian Words (2010).

Ozwords logoOur biannual newsletter Ozwords contains articles on various aspects of English, especially Australian English, in partnership with the Australian National Dictionary Centre. If you are interested in reading more on Australian English and hearing news from the Australian National Dictionary Centre, why not subscribe?

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