WILD HORSES RUNNING WILD

CHASING OUR BRUMBY

Frederick Ludowyk

In previous issues of Ozwords, Dymphna Lonergan has suggested that a number of Australian words have unrecognised origins in Irish. She has looked at sheila, didgeridoo, and clauber . Elsewhere Dymphna has suggested that the Australian word brumby 'a wild horse' is also from Irish, from an Irish word that still exists in Irish English as bromach 'a colt', and that in Irish inflected forms also appears as bromaigh . Is this Irish origin convincing?

The first point to note is that brumby appears relatively late in Australian English. The first evidence for the term in The Australian National Dictionary (AND) is from the Australasian (Melbourne) in 1880: 'Passing through a mob of mulga, we saw, on reaching its edge, a mob of horses grazing on the plains beyond. These our guide pronounced to be "brumbies", the bush name here [in Queensland] for wild horses.' Yet by 1885, in another magazine, Once a Month (Melbourne), it is suggested that brumby is a New South Wales, rather than a Queensland, term: 'I came to the conclusion that he was a "Brummy"--the New South Wales name for wild horses.' It has always interested me that the spelling brummy is used in this second appearance of the term in 1885, for only five years later the Australian word brummy meaning 'counterfeit; sham and often showy; cheaply made' appears in the Sydney Truth : 'It is down on the "brummy" parsons and shark lawyers.' This brummy is traditionally derived from Brummagen, a form of 'Birmingham', a city attracting various negative stereotypes, including the production of counterfeit coins. Brumby in the sense 'wild horse' was very quickly used figuratively in the general sense 'wild', and the AND lists the following passage from the Sydney Truth in 1890 as the first such transferred use: 'It is wonderful to witness the number of sky-pilots [a priest, who guides people to heaven], devil-dodgers [another nineteenth-century term for a clergyman] and brummy parsons who visit the House.' It is interesting that there seems to be some blurring of brumby and brummy here, and it may well be that the first citation given for the transferred sense of brumby (though with the spelling brummy) in AND really belongs under brummy .

There have been various theories about the origin of the word. Some have suggested that it is from an Aboriginal language. E.E. Morris in Austral English (1898) notes: 'In its present shape [the word] figures in one aboriginal vocabulary, given in Curr's "Australian Race" (1887), vol. iii. p. 259. At p. 284, booramby is given as meaning "wild" on the river Warrego in Queensland.' This is the language of the Pitjara (or Pidjara or Bidjara) people of the region at the headwaters of the Warrego and Nogoa Rivers in southern Queensland. This origin was popularised by Banjo Paterson inan introduction to his poem 'Brumby's Run' (printed in the Bulletin in 1894 and in Saltbush Bill, J.P., and Other Verses in 1917): 'Brumby is the Aboriginal word for a wild horse. At a recent trial a New South Wales Supreme Court Judge, hearing of Brumby horses, asked: "Who is Brumby, and where is his Run?" ' The first two stanzas of the Paterson poem attempt to answer the judge's question:

It lies beneath the Western Pines
Beneath the sinking sun,
And not a survey mark defines,
The bounds of 'Brumby's Run'.

On odds and ends of mountain land
On tracks of range and rock
Where no one else can make a stand
Old Brumby rears his stock.

A letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1896 repeats the Warrego connection: 'Among the blacks on the Lower Balonne, Nebine, Warrego, and Bulloo rivers the word used for horse is "baroombie", the word "a" being cut so short that the word sounds as "broombie", and as far as my experience goes refers more to unbroken horses in distinction to quiet or broken ones.' There is clearly a traditional view that brumby has its origin in an Aboriginal language, but tradition is not evidence for the origin. No other words were borrowed into Australian English from Pitjara, and although this does not prove that boramby is not the origin of brumby, I think it likely that what we have is a chance similarity between brumby and an Aboriginal word meaning 'wild', a word that appears in only one word list.

Another Queensland connection, this time with a place name, was proposed in an article in the Bulletin in March 1896:

  'Brumby' ... is derived, writes a Bulletin correspondent, from Baramba, the name of a creek and station in the Burnett district of Queensland. In the early 1840's this ... station was formed, and a choice lot of mares with three or four stallions were sent to stock the place. ... The total abandonment of the station and most of the stock ... occurred within two or three years. It was from remnants of this stud that the wild horses on the Lower Burnett and the head of the Brisbane descended from being the 'Baramba horses', got by easy stages to be called 'Barambas, and finally 'Brumbies'.

While the place names are certainly real, if the story were true I think we would expect to see some evidence of the intermediary forms, but there are none.

A common suggestion is that brumby derives from the proper name Brumby . This theory was also notedby E.E. Morris in Austral English in 1898: 'A different origin was, however, given by an old resident of New South Wales, to a lady of the name Brumby, viz. "that in the early days of that colony, a Lieutenant Brumby, who was on the staff of one of the Governors, imported some very good horses, and that some of their descendants being allowed to run wild became the ancestors of the wild horses of New South Wales and Queensland". Confirmation of this story is to be desired.' Morris leaves little doubt that he is highly suspicious of stories of this kind. Coincidentally, the ANDC received a letter from New Zealand recently claiming a New Zealand connection through the proper name: 'Years ago my mother knew Rex Brumby who lived in Richmond NZ near Nelson. She sent me with a message to him, and when speaking, I said "Isn't a brumby an Australian wild horse?" He replied "yes, it's named after my father who used to capture them for remounts for the Australian Army.' But if these horses were for the Australian Army, this would have to be much later than the first appearance of the word brumby in 1880. In any case we can't allow the Kiwis to pinch more of our words--they've already tried it with pavlova !

But there are many potential eponymous Brumbys. I have seen mention of a Colonel Brumby who bred horses in Victoria, some of which escaped and became brumbies . I have heard anecdotal evidence of a similar Mr Brumby who lived in the Brindabella Range outside Canberra, and the story goes much the same. But it is the early Lieutenant (or Sergeant or Major) Brumby who pops up most often. Even so, there are some uncertainties in the historical record. In the Bulletin in March 1935 'Hobartian', a resident of Hobart, reported as follows: 'Digging up the early history of Tasmania recently, someone rediscovered the origin of a familiar Australian word. In 1803, a certain Major Brumby, interested in horse-breeding--he brought the first thoroughbred sire to the island--settled near Cressy, in the north. Some of the horses he bred got away in the bush; these were dubbed "brumbies", and the term presently became applied to wild horses all over Australia.' This story was 'corrected' in a May 1935 issue of the Bulletin : ' "Hobartian" is not quite correct in saying that the word "brumby" originated in Tasmania. Major Brumby arrived in N. S. Wales in 1795, and there started horse-breeding. In 1803 he went over to the Speck, and in moving his horses naturally failed to muster them all. Those left behind were referred to as "brumbies", and the name sticks to their wild progeny. So really the term originally came from the plains of N.S.W.' I think there is no doubt that this military Brumby existed, that he had cattle and horses on his land at Sydney (as did all the early landholders), and that he moved to Tasmania in 1803 (see <http://www.brumbywatchaustralia.com/Brumby_facts.htm>. But as far as I can see, there was nothing especially distinctive about his interest in horses. I smell a neenish tart here (see my article in the   November 1996 issue of Ozwords, where I discuss the attribution of the neenish tart to a purportedly eponymous Ruby Neenish of Grong Grong). The worrying feature here is the huge time gap between the wandering horses of 1803 and the first appearance of the term brumby in 1880.

There are, therefore, uncertainties about all the suggested etymologies for brumby . The Irish bromach / bromaigh is certainly another candidate, especially since its inflected form is very close to the Australian word. But this is one of those examples where it will probably be impossible to catch the ruddy horse, to come up with a definitive answer.