While trying to find the solution to the “congat” puzzle at Anggarrgoon, I happened on the word(s) cunjevoi in my Australian Oxford:

cunjevoi1 n. an Australian sea-squirt found on intertidal rocks and used as bait. (Probably from a NSW Aboriginal language.)
cunjevoi2 n. a rainforest plant of NSW and Qld, having extremely large leaves and arum-lily-like flowers, the stem-tissue providing a staple food for Aborigines after it had been carefully treated to rid it of its very high toxicity. (Probably from Bandjalang.)

Naturally, I turned to the OED, which lumps them together into a single entry:

[Native name.]
1. The popular name for the green arum or spoon lily, Alocasia macrorrhiza.
1889 J. H. MAIDEN Useful Native Plants Austral. 165 Colocasia macrorrhiza.. Alocasia macrorrhiza.. ‘Pitchu’ of the aboriginals of the Burnett River, Queensland; ‘Cunjevoi’ of those of South Queensland. […] 1965 Austral. Encycl. I. 221/1 One of the commonest Australian species is the cunjevoi,.. whose large fleshy rhizomes extend for several feet over the surface of the ground.
2. (Also –boi, -boy.) A common ascidian, the sea-squirt (see quots.). Abbrev. cunjie.
[1821 S. LEIGH in W. S. Ramson Austral. Eng. (1966) 121 Conguwa, a kind of living fungus, which at certain Seasons they detach from the Rocks on the Sea Shore.] 1911 A. E. MACK Bush Days 109 Down at the sea’s edge grew the cunje-boy, brown and red, upon the rocks. […] 1966 BAKER Austral. Lang. (ed. 2) xiv. 302 Cunjie, a cunjevoi, used for bait.

I’m hoping one of my Australianist readers will tell me whether this is two different Aboriginal words that happen to fall together in borrowed form, or whether the OED is correct in taking them as two meanings for one word. (It would also be great if someone can answer Claire’s “congat” question.)


  1. The Australian National Dictionary (OUP) doesn’t throw more light either (it has two entries). The Bandjalang dictionary has a quite different word (walam) for cunjevoi (the plant). It appears others have worked at finding the source language(s) and the available evidence only leads so far.
    For background about combining the two senses in one word, see Nicholas Evans ‘Sign metonymies and the problem of flora-fauna polysemy in Australian linguistics’, pp.133-53 in Boundary Rider: Essays in honour of Geoffrey O’Grady, 1995, Pacific Linguistics C-136.

  2. I rather hoped that Dixon et al Australian Aboriginal Words in English would help with this, but it basically says the same as your quotes from the Australian Oxford.

  3. This word looks like a good example of a “regionalism” in English similar to ‘geoduck / gooeyduck’- an edibible burrowing clam – which we have in the Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest.
    The word comes from the local Nisqually Indian “Gwi duq” which means something like “digs deep” or “to dig deep.”
    Salish Indian words rarely had exact English equivalents and this was a problem when the first American settlers in Washington State in the 1850’s tried to negotiate treaties with the Indian tribes living there.

  4. I think it unlikely you’re going to get anything even close to a definitive answer on this one given the number of traditional languages that existed at the time of white settlement and the fact that so few survive today.
    Personally, I’d guess that this was an Eora/Dharug word simply because settlers had the earliest contact with these tribes. I can’t give you any proof as very little of the Eora survives today, although there are attempts to reconstruct some of it via notes left by settlers.
    I’d actually pin the double-usage on a settler (or native guide) using “cunjevoi” as a description for “edible plant” rather than as a name, but that’s wild conjecture on my part.
    If you’re at all interested in trawling through the hundreds of small government-funded organisations involved in traditional language preservation, a good jumping off point would be the NSW Aboriginal Languages Research & Resource Centre ( I started going through some of the regional languages and bogged down about here…,334
    (Click on the large square halfway down the coast for the Sydney region).

  5. Thanks! Yeah, I’m not expecting a definitive answer, I was just hoping someone might know something more about the word or words.

  6. J. Del Col says

    Do the clusters of the sea squirts bear any resemblance to the rhizomes of the plant? I’ve not been able to find an illustration of the rhizomes.
    J. Del Col

  7. If it were Yolngu, it’d mean ‘associated with pelicans’. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely to be Yolngu.

  8. If the two etymologies do trace back to the same language, then I think J. Del Col is on the right track. Land plants and marine creatures on Pacific Islands often have names that recognize resemblances between them. In Hawaiian, for instance, the long-nosed butterflyfish Forcipiger longirostris is named lau wiliwili nukunuku ‘oi’oi lit. ‘long-nosed wiliwili leaf’. Wiliwili is the Hawaiian name for Erythrina sandwicensis, a tree in the pea family.

  9. plot thickens. Blake’s “Aboriginal languages” gives a reference to Threlkeld 1834 and says he writes conguwa, but in the 1892 version (which is searchable on google) it’s given as kunjewai and is said to be what Europeans call a sea slug that is called bunbun in Awabakal. I cannot find conguwa in the 1892 edition.

  10. John Atkinson says

    To answer J Del Col first, I doubt it. I have cunjevoi (the plant) growing in my garden, and cunjevoi (the animal) grows all over the rocks where I walk every day. I just went and dug up one of the former, and its rhyzome looks and feels nothing like the latter. I doubt if it tastes similar either, though I admit I haven’t checked.
    Meg Sharpe’s “Dictionary of Yugembeh” (Yugembe’s a a northern dialect of Bandjalang) has the following entry:
    kanjibuy (?), n. cunjevoi (scrub alum (Alocasia)). Given as budheh by Yal, Yw. NGgr cunjevoi.
    The source NGgr is “J. Gresty, 1947(?), 1951, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia (Queensland), 57-72. (about 200 words)”.
    The “?” in the entry apparently indicates that Sharpe has some doubt as to the phonemisation she has proposed.

  11. snakeface says

    I don’t know why I’d know it, but for some reason I think I know the word by the pronunciation ‘cunjewoi’.

  12. John Atkinson says

    SF: Presumably you’re thinking of the sea-squirt, not the plant? [v] and other fricatives are very rare in Australian languages, but do occur in Bandjalang as allophones of the corresponding stops, between vowels (like in Spanish). But [w] occurs everywhere, including in the Sydney language, which, as someone said, would seem to be the most likely source for “conguwa” (/guNuwa/ perhaps?) for the sea-squirt. “g” –> “j” could then be an error in reading someone’s handwriting — cf “koola”, Dharuk /gula/, the tree-dwelling marsupial, being read as “koala”, with resulting change of pronunciation.
    As you no doubt know, Claire, Threkeld’s writings on Awakabal were heavily edited by John Fraser for that 1892 book — Fraser even invented the language name “Awakabal” — it means “Lake Macquarie people”, presumably the name of one of the local groups who spoke it. It seems likely to me that Fraser might have added the comment “… and is known to Europeans as ‘kunjewai'”, in which case there’s no reason that to think the English word dates back to Threkeld’s time, the early 1830s.
    It would be interesting to know if any version of the word appears in Lieutenant Dawes’ wordlist of the Sydney language (collected about 1790). Does anyone have access to this?
    FWIW, the last speakers of Dharawal, the next language south, have /guruN/ with the meaning “shell on rocks”, according to Diana Eades.

  13. J. Del Col says

    Thank you, Mr. Atkinson. You are quite correct.
    My conjecture was more of a shot in the dark than anything else. I finally found pictures of the Alocasia rhizome in question. To see any resemblance between it and a sea squirt would require a hyperactive imagination.
    J. Del Col

  14. Back to Arnhem Land for a real comment this time. There are plenty of names which apply both to plants and to animals. However, the links aren’t just visual, they’re also mythological. For instance, there’s a word birrkpirrknganing (on public computer, can’t do engma) which is both a sand bird and a type of bush. No direct connection that I know of except mythological.

  15. John Atkinson says

    Fair enough Claire. But the cunjevoi lily is supposed to come from a South Queensland language — though the only reference is very late, and most Banjalang dialects use different words for it. More significantly, it doesn’t grow natively south of the rainforests of northern NSW. While the other cunjevoi/cunjewai (originally probably /guNuwa/) seems to have entered English in the 1820s or before (before the Banjalang were contacted), and arguably comes from Dharug or some other language near Sydney.
    So it seems likely that English is the only Australian language in which the plant and the animal have the same name. My guess is that the two are connected through some traditional whitefeller myth.

  16. Peter Annand says

    We have the plants growing and at a certain point (when a new shoot is coming out of the rhizome) I think they do look quite like the sea squirt. I wondered if both names could mean something like ‘pointy blob’? I guess we’ll never know.

  17. Thanks for reviving this interesting thread!

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