Not only a new word for me, but a new concept. Bunyip is, according to the OED, “The Aboriginal name of a fabulous monster inhabiting the rushy swamps and lagoons in the interior of Australia”; Cassell calls it [apparently wrongly—see comments] “the fabulous rainbow serpent that lives in pools,” while this website says:

This is a fierce creature from Australia. Amphibious by nature, it has the appearance of a giant seal or even a hippopotamus, It is greatly feared, for it enjoys the taste of human flesh, particularly the more tender flesh of women and children.

So the details are fuzzy, but the general idea is clear, and the word is very satisfying to say. Bunyip!

It came up in the course of a fine discussion of swearing by Gail Armstrong at Open Brackets:

Even though my ability to swear is relatively unfettered, there are some words I just can’t say, and I rarely use foul language in writing – something to do with seeming permanence perhaps, plus the sense that, on paper, you irremediably imperious bunyip will be more effective than you fucking knob.

And she in turn links to a delightful History of Swearing (in the UK), which begins with 1900:

Shot by an anarchist while standing on a Brussels railway station, The Prince of Wales utters the immortal words, “Fuck it, I’ve taken a bullet.”

I hope I can exhibit similar sangfroid should the unfortunate occasion arise. (You know the translation of Voici l’anglais avec son sangfroid habituel? “Here comes the Englishman with his usual bloody cold.”)


  1. Apparently, BUNIYP is so well-known “dawn and under”, there is even a blog of this name, with picture of the charming creature presented and motto “Wisdom of the waterhole” proclaimed!

  2. I’m familiar with the word Bunyip as being the first name of that fine upstanding young koala Bunyip Bluegum in Norman Lindsay’s “The Magic Pudding”, a copy of which I used to possess as a child, and probably still have somewhere. Lindsay’s probably better-known these days, thanks to the Sam Neill film “Sirens”, as a scandalous bohemian type whose paintings, not to mention household, were full of nude women. “The Magic Pudding”, however, is still the most-frequently reprinted children’s book in Australia, and something of a classic. It follows the adventures of the said Master Bluegum, his friends Bill Barnacle the sailor and Sam Sawnoff the penguin bold, and of course the appallingly cantakerous
    Pudding itself, which is endlessly renewable (“cut-and-come-again”), can turn itself into whatever kind of pudding takes your fancy, and is forever holding things up by demanding to be eaten:
    “Eat away, chew away.
    munch and bolt and guzzle,
    Never leave the table till you’re
    full up to the muzzle,”
    There’s a picture of the cover of the first edition, published in 1918, here.
    A few years ago, an animated film version was made, which I haven’t seen, featuring the voices of, among others, Geoffrey Rush (as Bunyip), John Cleese (as the Pudding), and, ironically enough, Sam Neill (as Sam Sawnoff).

  3. I may be wrong, but I think I’ve heard somewhere that bunyip’s from Woiwurrung (one of the languages formerly spoken in the Melbourne area). In Aussie English a bunyip is something to scare children with. I always think of it as shaped roughly like the gerundive Kennedy leads into captivity. I think it was portrayed that way in “Rose and the Midnight Cat”, another children’s book (not nearly as good as the magic pudding, though). I don’t think most Australians would equate a bunyip with the rainbow serpent, even if that’s what the Woiwurrung word means. With any luck David Nash’ll be reading this and can help me out.

  4. The Macquarie Concise Dictionary attributes the etymology to the Wembawemba (Wergaia dialect) word banib. It also has the phrase “bunyip aristocracy,” defined as “(derogatory) Australians who consider themselves to be aristocrats.”
    Also, the National Library has an online exhibit about bunyips, including legends, pictures, and more.

  5. My Oxford Australian has the same (Wemba-wemba) etymology and defines it as ‘a woman- and child-eating monster said to inhabit some swamps and lagoons.’

  6. Returning to the original discussion by Gail Armstrong, namely – history of swearing, and to the subtopic “The Atlantic – the great divide”, in the article at BBC GA links to I came across this interesting bit:
    …’pratt’ being an old word for ‘arse’ that has come to lose its meaning over the years. The word ‘pratt’ is still, however, used to this day to mean a fool…
    Now I appreciate inherent wisdom of my son when he flatly refuse to apply (among other 6 colleges) to the Pratt Institute on the grounds he doesn’t like the name! I doubt though he has any idea of it’s meaning.
    And another illustration of The Great Divide (although by different ocean)I found here, sorry – no permalink; today’s entry.
    …After the “Road Runner” cable modem system became a success, using the Warner character under license, a company in Japan wanted to develop a competing system. As part of that, they decided they needed a cartoon character as well, so they hunted down the current owners of the classic Walter Lantz studio trademarks and licensed Woody Woodpecker.
    As the story went, they decided that the core slogans in their ad campaign were going to include the phrase “Woody, the Internet Pecker”. Supposedly an American employee of this company heard about that and was aghast, and diplomatically explained to the Japanese a particular way Americans would interpret woody and pecker if that campaign went forward…
    Steven Den Beste proceeds questioning the probability of this story, and – but go there and see for yourself.

  7. Bunyip is very well known in Oz, but I agree that definitely not understood in the sense of “rainbow serpent”. There is an Aboriginal dreamtime legend which relates to the rainbow serpent, but I never knew that this was related to bunyip.

  8. Bazza the Bunyip was/is a mascot for water conservation/environmental issues here in South Australia. My friend wore the Bazza suit a couple of times. He is a big green ‘monster’ who looks a bit like a cross between a dog and a dragon.

  9. It’s beginning to sound to me like Cassell’s blew this one.

  10. The bunyip sounds like a crature that I have come across in folktales, but I unfortunately can’t place the region off the top of my head.
    But I haven’t read very much folklore from Australia, so that makes me think that I have read the name in folklore from other areas.
    Now I’ll have to go home and look….

  11. A book I’ve had since childhood, Dragons, Unicorns and other Magical Beasts (Robin Palmer, 1967) contains the following entry in its “Dictionary of Magical Beasts”, between “BOGIE BEAST” and “CAT”.

    BUNYIP Australia
    The bunyip is a mythical water monster. He has four legs, a large oval body, a head like a small horse, but no tail. He is supposed to live at the bottom of a lake. According to folklore a fisherman once caught a baby bunyip, and although his companions begged him to put it back in the water, he refused to do so. Naturally the mother bunyip was furious. She retaliated by causing the waters of the lake to rise until the whole countryside was flooded and the baby floated back to her.

  12. Some claim the Bunyip was actually based on one of the long-extinct giant marsupials of the areas, the Diprotodon: http://www.pibburns.com/cryptost/bunyip.htm.

  13. Definitely not a serpent, what it actually is has never been terribly clear to me. A monster (though not a terribly scary one), sometimes depicted as furry, but usually as scaley.

  14. A few years ago, an animated film version was made, which I haven’t seen, featuring the voices of, among others
    It was terrible.
    As noted above, bunyips and rainbow serpents are not related.

  15. Bunyips are especially familiar to Australians aged 30-35, because a show called ‘Alexander Bunyip’s Billabong’ ran on the government TV channel from 1978-88. Alexander was a kind of warty red-orange creature who looked suspiciously like somebody in a suit.

  16. But is the bunyip related to the yowie?

  17. heh.

  18. Oh, yeah, G’day! I’m Bun Yip, otherwise known as … William Macleay
    download the real picture of the bunyip if you dare!

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