The origin of the Didgeridoo

Of the various cultural items that represent Australia to the outside world, one of the most instantly recognisable, both visually and audibly, is the didgeridoo.  What is more unusual and less well known is the origin of didgeridoo.  I don’t mean the origin of the didgeridoo – the instrument – itself but rather, the word. If most people were to guess from what language the word comes, they would be most likely to suggest an Australian aboriginal language of some sort.  In fact, that is not the case.  In the multiple local languages, the instrument has various names, with the yidaki being the most commonly used, that being the term used by the Yolngu people, but other terms include bambu, paampu, ngaribi, gambak, and ngarrriralkpwina.


There are a few stories as to the origin of the word.  The most commonly quoted one is that this is a word of English language origin, as an onomatopoeia based on the sound of the instrument. Smith’s Weekly covers the instrument in 1919, describing the sound made as an “infernal didjerry”


However, there is at least one alternative story as to the origin of the name, with an even more unlikely origin, that it is derived from the Irish Gaelic dudaire dubh or dudaire duth.  Dudaire is a trumpeter, or a hummer, and dubh means black, or duth meaning native.  The story goes that an officer asked his Gaelic speaking assistant “What’s that?” and got the reply “dudaire dubh” meaning a black trumpeter.


Whichever is true – or, if either is true – the term didgeridoo and its idiosyncratic sound is famous around the world and synonymous with Australia.  Visitors to Circular Quay, the main local ferry port in Sydney, are frequently treated to buskers using didgeridoos, and can even have a go themselves.  I decided that trying to fit one into my luggage was not a challenge that I was going to take up on this trip.