Remembering Freddie

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Little did I know when growing up in New Zealand that one of the words I used every day came from an Australian language, let alone that it was from Gamilaraay, the Aboriginal Australian language I am now working with in rural New South Wales. We all knew that ‘kangaroo’ and ‘koala’ were Australian words of course, but they were only seen as pictures in nature books or as souvenir toys. I called my doll Rosella knowing that she was named after an Australian parrot, but I do not think we had any idea that the ancestors of our budgie Freddie came from Australia.

Freddie lived in a cage hanging from the kitchen ceiling, just far enough away from the table to prevent him flicking seeds husks into our food. We did not really like keeping him in a cage so we used to let him out to fly around, always hoping that the cat would not creep in while no one was looking.

I have now learnt that budgies come from Australia, and that the full name ‘budgerigar’ has a rather complicated history, coming into English from the adapted Gamilaraay ‘gidjirrigaa’, in turn from ‘gidjiirr’ meaning yellow and wattle tree, and probably influenced by other words as a ‘loanblend’. David Nash, a linguist at the Australian National University, mentioned this to me before one of my trips to Gamilaraay country last year. There had been different theories about the origins of the word, but he searched out the old records to put a pretty convincing case for the Gamilaraay loanblend theory.

Budgies have spread all over the world as pets, and the title of David’s paper, ‘The smuggled budgie’, refers to that other more recent Australian global export, the budgie smuggler. This item of swimwear is less popular in our cooler (perhaps more conservative) climate across the Tasman, and usually only regarded as appropriate when submerged in swimming pools.

Freddie seemed happy enough in our kitchen. He knew he would be fed regularly so he may not have made a dash for freedom even if we had left the window open. I wonder if he had any atavistic memory of his ancestors flying over the dry Australian plains? I thought about him the other evening in a restaurant in Gunnedah when I noticed two cheery little birds in a cage by the water feature. Gunnedah is on traditional Gamilaraay land, so possibly these two can sometimes hear their wild cousins in the distance, flying in flocks of up to thousands of birds, and dream of a different life.