Interesting Words

I recently overheard an American point to a large lizard of a kind familiar in Australia and say ‘Look at the iguana!’ In fact she was looking at the animal known as a goanna, but the mistake was a very easy one to make (particularly in the light of something I’ve just discovered in editing this post: the spell-checker doesn’t recognise the word goanna!)

The first example the Oxford English Dictionary gives for the word is its use by ‘R. Boldrewood’ in 1891; thereafter it was used by that most Australian of authors, Henry Lawson, and as early as 1903 it was memorably used by someone writing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: ‘my tongue was like a gohanna’s (sic) back.’  While the word may seem dinkum Ozzie, it’s simply a form of iguana, which entered English directly from Spanish, which itself took it over from a word used in the Carribean, iwana.

More interesting is a word for small Indigenous (aboriginal) children all Australians know, ‘piccaninny’ (it is variously spelt), of which the first known occurrence was in 1817; in the same year it was used of a Maori child. But the same word had been used for centuries in the Caribbean and US for black or, in the US, indigenous ‘Indian’ children! It also crops up in Afrikaans. We learn from the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘The word is evidently one of those diffused around the Atlantic coasts through the Portuguese-based pidgins associated with trade (and especially the slave trade) in the 17th cent. A Spanish origin is much less likely; although the diminutive adjective in -ino does occur in Spanish.’ It is extraordinary to think of the lingo of Portuguese sailors, who roamed extremely widely while being few in number, being responsible for words being diffused like this, and it would be very interesting to know exactly how it first came to be used in Australia, and how its initial spread took place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *