Works in the Herald 1935

Since the raw edges of the rabid Australianism of my youth have been abraded to a seemly smoothness by contact with a wider world, I may have become just a little over-critical, perhaps, of my fellow countrymen, as one is apt to be in all cases of disillusionment.

It is part of the process: first we fiercely and fervently believe, then begin to doubt and, finally, with the over-swing of the pendulum, to criticise too harshly. With the later readjustment comes of the dawning of whatever wisdom we are likely to achieve.

But in one respect my opinion of fellow Australians will, I think, never alter; for I am convinced that the Australian bushman, particularly the early pioneer, was, and is, woefully lacking in imagination, in inventiveness, in poetic feeling and originality in giving common names to the flora and fauna of this land. It was inevitable, probably, from the very nature of his employ.

Even so, the evidence of regrettable stupidity glaring from every stretch of farm-land or open plain is not easy to contemplate calmly; and I am still able to work myself up into a pretty state of indignation over the idiotic naming of bird, animal and plant.

Our crow, we find, is a raven; our magpie, a crow-shrike; our possum is not a possum; our squirrel not a squirrel; our bear most decidedly nothing like a bear. Nor have our scientists done very much better.

Witness, for example, the Sharp-tailed Stint, the Warty-faced Honey-eater, the Red-rumped Acanthiza. What chance, I ask you, has the poor nature poet amongst monsters such as these? Other and wiser lands have their Mavis and their Merle, their Philomel, Bobolink, Throstle and Jacky Winter. We have our Leather-Head, Cranky Fan and -- ye gods! -- our Laughing Jackass.

Amongst the flora it is much the same. Lack of originality is evident everywhere. Walk and talk with a bushman along any stretch of mountain forest country, and you will find him familiar with Plumwood, Dogwood, Sasafras, Myrtle, Beech, Mountain Ash, Hazel, Cottonwood, and possibly a score of others, every single one of them with a borrowed name, and not one true to name.

But at times even worse sins than these are committed, for not only have sane and reasonable names been filched from older lands, but they have been altered and distorted with a perversity that would seem impishly deliberate.

Thus, up and down the land the humble weed Centauri is invariably known as the Century Plant, the tetratheca (at present a-bloom in the bush), which is neither blue nor Scottish nor a bell, is known as the Scottish Blue Bell, while Prickly Mimosa -- in this neck of the woods at least -- becomes Prickly Moses.

But I think I took my severest shock from a well-informed bushman with whom, some time ago, I was discussing plant names. Plucking a minute bloom of that lovely but ubiquitous trespasser, the Scarlet Pimpernel, I asked him if he knew the name of it.

"Why," he said in some surprise, "I thought everyone knew the name of that little chap. That's Pimply Nell."

Herald, 30 October 1935, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2004-05