Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Notes on the origin of  “b**ng”

The pejorative term “b**ng” for Indigenous Australians is generally thought to be a peculiarly Australian offshoot of the ultra-respectful “bung”, an Indonesian/Malaysian word literally translated as older brother.

Until the other day, I hadn’t thought about the word’s origins.  I had long assumed that Australia’s equivalent to America’s n-word – although a case can be made that Australia’s word rather trumps America’s in the offensiveness stakes # – was home-grown and of unknown provenance.  After recently coming across a 1954 account of the word “b**ng” being coined by a posh Pom visiting Alice Springs in August 1924, I looked up Wikipedia and then realised that the real story has become overlooked or forgotten, in favour of a peculiarly Australian bullshit one.  In short, the adaptation of “bung” theory is fanciful, illogical and conveniently benign.

The real origin of “b**ng” is set out in an article by Malcolm Ellis, “From Alice to Albert”, Bulletin 17 March 1954 pp 22-23, with the addition of some background context (not about the b-word specifically) from his 1927 book The Long Lead. 

Passing through Alice Springs in August 1924, on the return leg of “the first complete double-crossing of [Australia] by motor-car from Sydney to Darwin and back” Ellis – and his co-expeditionaries Francis Birtles and JL Simpson, of the Bean motor-car company – spent a few days there (this trip was – unusually for the time – neither a race nor a scientific or other extravaganza). 

Coincidentally, soon after Ellis’ arrival from the north, Lord Stradbroke (1862-1947) and his party made a grand entrance into Alice Springs, by motor-car from the south.  Also known as the Earl of Stradbroke, he lived mainly in the UK, but had a five-year stint in Australia as Governor of Victoria 24 Feb 1921 to 7 April 1926.   
To further welcome Lord Stradbroke, a major Indigenous ceremony took place that August 1924 night (on then-vacant land that, in 1954, was occupied by the “Inland Mission radio-centre”), one that – in the manner of a grand such occasion – was still seemingly fresh in Malcolm Ellis’ mind 30 years later.  But there was also something niggling Malcolm Ellis’ mind in 1954:  a casually uttered snipe by Lord Stradbroke that day in 1924, when he passed by The Bungalow.  

In 1924, The Bungalow was (and had been since 1914) a collection of dilapidated sheds behind the Stuart Arms Hotel in downtown Alice Springs (which at the time had only six white residents), which functioned as a home for “half caste” children.  Recoiling at the sight of its inhabitants, Lord Stradbroke coined it “The B**ng” – a word which then stuck, and spread.

What happened next is important to the nuances of how the b-word evolved.  Firstly, Lord Stradbroke was right to recoil at the squalid conditions in which The Bungalow’s inhabitants then lived.  Indeed, after his return to Sydney in 1924, Malcolm Ellis wrote an influential, nationally-syndicated article which exposed these conditions and four years later led to the Bungalow’s relocation, in better premises ##.  But for Lord Stradbroke, the squalid built environment of “The B**ng” and its location in the backyard of a pub was synonymous with its human cargo.  There was nothing else to say about or hope for them: b**ngs they would always remain.  Whatever else was going on inside Lord Stradbroke's head that day, given the ceremony that night, he deserves nomination, I think, as a candidate for history's Least Honourable Guest of Honour ever.

That a passing cheap-shot from an English overlord has since been so effortlessly laundered of its provenance and enthusiastically absorbed – complete with false, benign paternity – into the lowest rung of the Australian vernacular is an intriguing window into the colonial insecurity and inhumanity that lies shallowly beneath white Australia.
# See the last line of the Alex Buzo play, “Norm and Ahmed”

## Stuart Traynor, Alice Springs:  from singing wire to iconic outback town (2016) pp 236-239, 288. 

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