Finding the meaning of an Aboriginal word

A guide which steps you through the process of finding the English meaning of an Aboriginal word.

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Kate Monypenny
Senior Librarian, Information Services Team

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Visitors should be aware this Research Guide may contain images or documentation relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are deceased.

This guide helps you to find the English meaning or interpretation of an Aboriginal word. Click on the tabs across the top of this page for more detailed information. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages have been evolving for over 60 000 years. Bear in mind there may not be equivalent translations in Victorian Indigenous languages for words we use today (VACL)

It is helpful to understand the scope of your search if you are looking for the meaning of an Aboriginal word. 150 Australian Indigenous languages are spoken today and historically there were up to 750 dialects (ABS census 2016). There is no single dictionary which covers all Aboriginal language groups and their words.

Many Indigenous word dictionaries are arranged according to locations, such as state, and within this, according to the Traditional Owners of that area and their language group. Knowing where a word originated or which Traditional Owners used the word will help you to narrow down your search.

If you cannot find a word, it may be that it is not in a dictionary. Keep in mind that some Indigenous languages have been passed on orally, rather than written down, so pronunciation and spelling may vary. An Indigenous word also may have different meanings across different dialects (Reed, 1977).

For words that cannot be found, it may be useful to approach the source of the word. For example, if the word is used as a suburb, street name or building name, then check with the body responsible for naming it.  

Answering an inquiry


Please note that the Victorian Aboriginal Corporations for Languages advises: 'If you would like to use Indigenous words to name a public place, facility or program it is protocol to use words from the Indigenous language of the land where the place to be named stands, or where the program is run. It is then appropriate to seek permission from the Traditional Owners of that language area to use their words in the name.'

From our Pictures collection

A drawing of figures of Aboriginal people performing a ceremony

Aboriginal ceremony William BarakH29640