The word billabong is first recorded in Australian English in reference to the Bell River in south-eastern New South Wales. In 1836 the explorer T.L. Mitchell records: 'The name this stream receives from the natives here, is Billibang.' It is a Wiradjuri word of southern NSW and northern Victoria. In the extended and current sense--'an arm of a river, made by water flowing from the main stream, usually only in time of flood, to form a backwater'--the term is first recorded in 1853: 'This station is situated about half-a-mile inland, over a "billy-bong" (the native name for a small creek or backwater)' (J. Allen, Journal ... on the River Murray).
The word is not recorded in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary--the letters A and B for the first edition were prepared between 1882 and 1888, before the important contributions of the Australian academic E.E. Morris. It appears in Morris's Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words in 1898. Morris quotes a passage from W. Landsborough's 1862 book Exploration of Australia: 'In the south such a creek as the Macadam is termed a billy-bonn, from the circumstance of the water carrier returning from it with his pitcher (billy) empty (bong , literally dead).' Here is the beginning of a whole series of confusions about the origins of the terms billabong and billy.
Morris did not accept Landsborough's somewhat silly suggestion that the billa- element is our 'billy' or 'pitcher', but he makes a crucial error in his explanation of the -bong element: 'In the Wiradhuri dialect of the centre of New South Wales, East coast, billa means a river and bung dead. See Bung '. Morris believed quite wrongly that the Australian bung (as in the damn telly's gone bung again!) had its origin in British slang, but he also believed that its Australian use had been influenced by the Aboriginal word mentioned by Landsborough: 'In parts of Australia, in New South Wales and Queensland, the word "bung" is an aboriginal word meaning "dead", and even though the slang word be of English origin, its frequency of use in Australia may be due to the existence of the aboriginal word, which forms the last syllable in Billabong .'
The word bung (often formerly spelled bong) comes into Australian English from the Yagara language which was spoken in the Brisbane region. In Yagara it meant 'dead'. It is one of the words that found its way into nineteenth-century Australian pidgin English. This pidgin started in Sydney, so that many of its indigenous words are from the Sydney region. But as it spread out across Australia the pidgin picked up words from other Aboriginal languages. A few of these words found their way into mainstream Australian English, including bung and yakka (also from the Yagara language).
In pidgin and then in Australian English bung originally meant 'dead' and the phrase to go bung meant 'to die'. This sense is now obsolete. The transferred sense 'incapacitated, broken, failed' arose in the late nineteenth century. I suspect it was because of the widespread use of the Queensland-Yagara word bung in the pidgin spoken in all parts of Australia that both Landsborough and Morris made the error of assuming that the word must have been present in the indigenous languages in areas where the pidgin was spoken--if the pidgin spoken in the Wiradjuri area contained the word bung then bung must have been in the Wiradjuri language. But they were wrong. The word bong meaning 'dead' is not a Wiradjuri word, and this cannot be the meaning of the element in billabong . But the erroneous etymology has been very strong. It is restated in the first edition of Sidney Baker's The Australian Language (1945), and the Internet is awash with this egregious nonsense. It is the current view of the Australian National Dictionary Centre that the billa- element meant 'river' and that -bong or -bang was a suffix signifying a continuation in time or space.
Landsborough's suggestion that the billa- element means 'pitcher' is a reminder that the Australian word billy has similarly attracted various etymologies. Morris in Austral English suggested a possible origin in the common pet-name Billy : 'The word comes from the proper name, used as abbreviation for William. Compare the common uses of "Jack," "Long Tom," "Spinning Jenny".' This is the explanation offered by the OED . Morris offered a second possibility: 'Another suggested derivation is that billy is shortened from billycan , which is said to be bully-can (sc. Fr. bouilli ). In the early days " boeuf bouilli " was a common label on tins of preserved meat in ship's stores. These tins, called "bully-tins" were used by diggers and others as the modern billy is.' Sidney Baker dismissed the bouilli story: 'The origin of billy is by no means as obscure as Morris and others would make it. It is academic nonsense to seek an origin in the French bouilli. The source is the aboriginal word billa, a creek or river, by transference to water. Billa makes its appearance in another well-known Australian term, billabong which, as its origins -- billa , a creek, and bong, to die -- show, is a portion of a river that is no longer running'. And so one Baker error lends support to another.
The Australian National Dictionary and the Dictionary of New Zealand English support a Scots origin. The word appears in both Australian and New Zealand English at about the same time. At billy the Scottish National Dictionary gives a list of combinations, including billy-pot meaning 'cooking utensil' from the northern dialect of Aberdeen, with an 1828 citation from P. Buchan's Ballads ('She boil'd it in the billy-pot'). In its Scots manifestation it is probably from the hypocoristic form of William --as suggested by Morris--used, as OED explains, 'for various machines and implements'.
Thus billabong and billy have an entangled history. And they have come together in the development of an altogether new sense of billy. Take these passages:
That's when the cars started to arrive. ... A few doughies, maybe a billy or two, smash a few bottles, play some AC/DC real loud and they'd be gone.
'I'll tell you about rank', he laughed. 'Savage Henry's billy. That was rank. It was surely the rankest billy in the world.'
The first quotation is from the August 2001 number of the surfing magazine Tracks. The second is from John Birmingham's 2003 book Dopeland: taking the high road through Australia's marijuana culture. For innocents not in the know, what is meant by billy in the above quotations would be mystifying. A swaggie's billy? But it is surely unlikely that our bronzed Aussie surfers are brewing up billies of tea, to be taken with pumpkin scones and jam! What it really means becomes clearer in this second passage from Birmingham's book:
The cops had been through and taken his prized ceramic bong. Seventeen, eighteen years he's had that billy.
The word bong in the sense 'a water pipe for smoking marijuana or other drugs' comes from the Thai word baung 'cylindrical wooden tube'. Recently, in Australian English, a play on the Thai-originating bong and the Wiradjuri-originating billabong , has produced a kind of rhyming slang, with the rhyming element (as often occurs in rhyming slang) being removed, and leaving the stem billy. This billy is a container for water, but what flows through it is something stronger than billy tea. Ironically, Australian English has finally produced a billy with the sense and origin postulated by the misguided Landsborough in 1862.