The Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers in the United Kingdom are working on the third edition of the dictionary. This is a massive undertaking, with a projected completion date of 2010. They have been working on the letter M, and came across a problem with the etymology of the Australian word mia-mia. A mia-mia is ‘a temporary shelter of the Aborigines, usually a simple frame of branches covered with bark, leaves, or grass’. It is also used in Australian English to describe ‘a temporary shelter erected by a traveller’: 1855 ‘We received a volley of shots from a sort of mia-mia on the side of the road’ (G.H. Wathen, Golden Colony, p. 153); 1924 ‘Here I erected a mia-mia, which consists of a pole placed horizontally between two trees with long dried strips of bark from the red gum or eucalyptus tree resting against it. These slabs are shifted from one side of the pole to the other in accordance with the direction from which the wind is blowing’ (A.B. Peirce, Knocking About, p. 13).

Aboriginal peoples in different parts of Australia had different words for such a shelter, and a number of these words were borrowed into Australian English. Soon after settlement at Sydney the word gunyah was borrowed from Dharuk (it is first recorded in 1803). With settlement in Queensland, the word humpy was borrowed from the Yagara language of the Brisbane region (it is first recorded in 1846). In South Australia the word wurley was borrowed from the Gaurna language (it is first recorded in 1839).  

So where does mia-mia come from? In the Australian National Dictionary (1988) we are told that it comes from Wathawurung and Wuywurung. Wathawurung was the language spoken on the western side of Port Phillip Bay, including the present city of Geelong and the town of Bacchus Marsh, and extending inland probably as far as the city of Ballarat. Wuywurung was the language spoken in the area of present-day Melbourne, and extending as far north as Seymour, and to the north of Westernport, and from the Goulburn River across to Bendigo. However, in Australian Aboriginal Words in English (1990), a book that also emanates from the Australian National Dictionary Centre, we are told: ‘Although this word was much used in Victoria (the earliest Victorian instance is 1839) it appears to have originated as maya or maya-maya in Nyungar, the language of the Perth–Albany region’. The Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers were puzzled by this change, and sent us a friendly ‘please explain’.

The earliest evidence for the word mia is from Nyungar in Western Australia. R.M. Lyons, ‘A Glance at the Manners, and Language of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Western Australia’ (Perth Gazette, 13 April, 1833) gives: ‘Mya, a house. ... The term is applied indiscriminately to a small piece of bark of the Melaleuca made to hold small fishes, and frogs; or to a shelter made from small sticks, rudely stuck into the ground, and covered, with large pieces of the same material’. There is much later evidence of this form from Western Australia in word lists of the Nyungar language, but the reduplicated form (i.e. mia-mia) appears in only one late-nineteenth century source. Moreover, the Western Australian word does not appear in Australian English contexts until the twentieth century. Katharine Susannah Prichard uses miah in Coonardoo (1929) and other novels, and Daisy Bates uses mia in The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). A recent article in the Western Australian magazine Landscope (Winter 1998) continues to use the non-reduplicated form: ‘The party is pictured with their digging sticks at the site of a mia—a traditional Aboriginal shelter’.

In the Victorian records the word is variously spelt, often with a final m, and most commonly in the reduplicated form: mai-mai, miam-miam, myam-myam, mya-mya, etc. Jane Simpson recently alerted us to the fact that the earliest evidence for the word in Victoria is in the journal of George Augustus Robinson on 29 December 1836 (in N.J.B. Plomley, ed., Weep in Silence: A History of the Flinders Island Aboriginal Settlement, Hobart, 1987). Robinson gives miam miam for ‘house’ in the language of the ‘Port Phillip Aborigines’. Another Aboriginal vocabulary from the area, C.J. Griffith’s ‘A Glossary of a Few Native Words in the Language of the Port Philip Corio-Weirabbee-Barrbul Tribes’ (1840, Latrobe Library manuscript), gives the form mimi. But the word does not appear in other collections of the vocabulary of the Wathawurung and Wuywurung peoples. And yet from 1837 it appears in many Victorian newspapers, journals, and books. It was a term, it seems, known to all people in the new settlements of Melbourne and Geelong.

Here are some examples (in the first quotation, the speaker is the escaped convict William Buckley, who lived among the Wathawurung for 32 years): 1837 ‘The children of the tribe were very fond of me and often came to sleep in my miamiam’ (Historical Records of Victoria, 2A, p. 182); 1838 ‘Are you sure then the blacks have not done anything which may be considered in the light of an improvement, and which would by the law of man give them the priority of right?’ ‘Nothing; unless you include their meam-meams or gooneahs under that head’ (Port Phillip Gazette, 10 November); 1839 ‘The poor fellows retired to their “Myam Myams” (native huts) with additional confidence in their protectors’ (Historical Records of Victoria, 2B, p. 451); 1840 ‘They walked in regular order, each carrying his spear, & a cockatoo’s feather in his head; the women and children followed, & made their miam miams close to the house’ (Clyde Company Papers, vol. 2, p. 400).

The editors of Australian Aboriginal Words in English came to the conclusion that mia-mia must have originated in Western Australia, and was brought across to Victoria by non-indigenous people. B.J. Blake, I.D. Clark, and S.H. Krishna-Pillay in their recent study ‘Watharwurrung: The Language of the Geelong–Ballarat Area (in Wathawurrung and the Colac Language of Southern Victoria, ed. B.J. Blake, 1998) concluded that where it appears in the Victorian vocabulary of C.J. Griffith, it is in fact the Western Australian word borrowed via English.

The basic question is whether this is credible. A small penal settlement was established in southern Western Australia at what was to become Albany in 1826, and settlement on the Swan River began in 1829. In Victoria, settlement at Port Phillip began in 1835. It is most unlikely that these early settlers could have borrowed the word from Nyungar, taken it to Port Phillip, and passed it on to the local Aborigines in such a short time (recall that miam miam occurs in an 1836 word list). But from early in the nineteenth century, whalers and sealers moved regularly along the southern coast of Australia, from Western Australia to Victoria and Tasmania, and if there is any credibility in the story that mia-mia comes from Western Australia, it is only these whalers and sealers who could have passed it on.

But there are further problems with the Western Australian story. In addition to the fact that in Western Australia the reduplicated form appears only in one late example, in none of the Western Australian examples is there the final m that is so common in the Victorian examples. Moreover, why would a group of Victorian Aborigines have the need for a new word to describe an object they had no doubt used, and already had a word for, for thousands of years? English has borrowed or coined many words for different kinds of houses—mansion, bungalow, villa, cottage, etc.—but the basic word ‘house’ has remained rock solid. The word has been in the language since Germanic times (the same word occurs in German, Dutch, Swedish, etc.), and probably goes back to Indo-European times.

The similarity between the Western Australian mia and the Victorian mia-mia is certainly interesting, but our current judgment is that is probably just a coincidence. Our advice to the Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers is that in the light of our present knowledge they should retain the etymology as given in the Australian National Dictionary.

[Thanks to Jane Simpson and David Nash for help with our work on mia-mia—though they would not necessarily agree with our conclusions.]