Aboriginal, Aborigines [ 1824 ]

Descriptor widely accepted amongst Australian people of First Nation heritage. To be preferred over "indigenous" or "native".


  • Oxford English Dictionary
    Etymology: A borrowing from Latin, combined with an English element.
    Etymons: Latin ab orīgine , -al suffix.
    - First or earliest as recorded by history; present from the beginning; primitive. Of peoples, plants, and animals: inhabiting or existing in a land from earliest times; strictly native, indigenous.
    - With capital initial. Inhabiting or occupying a country before the arrival of European colonists and those whom they introduced. Cf. aborigine n.
    - Freq. with initial capital. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the Aborigines of Australia or their languages. Cf. aborigine n.
  • Online Etymology Dictionary
    aborigine (n.)
    1858, mistaken singular of aborigines (1540s; the correct singular is aboriginal), from Latin Aborigines "the first ancestors of the Romans; the first inhabitants" (especially of Latium), possibly a tribal name, or from or made to conform to ab origine, literally "from the beginning." Extended 1789 to natives of other countries which Europeans have colonized. Australian slang shortening Abo attested from 1922.
  • See for instance, The Grammarphobia Blog
    Aboriginal meaning

    [According to] standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, ... all but one say indigenous people can be referred to as either “aborigines” or “aboriginals.”  In reference to Australia, the terms are usually capitalized.
    “Aborigines,” the older English noun, comes directly from the Latin aborigines, a plural noun for the pre-Roman inhabitants of Italy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Latin, ab origine means from the beginning.
    When the word entered English in the early 1500s, it was only plural and referred only to the original inhabitants of Latium, the Italian region that includes Rome. But by the early 1600s, according to the OED, the term was being used more loosely to refer to “the earliest known inhabitants of a particular country.” The word “aboriginal,” which entered English as an adjective in the mid-1600s, initially referred to the earliest people, plants, or animals in an area.  When the term was first used as a noun in the mid-1700s, the OED says, it referred to “an original or earliest inhabitant of a land, esp. as distinguished from a later settler.”
    In the early 1800s, according to Oxford citations, the two nouns were first used to describe the indigenous people of Australia. Here’s an 1803 citation for “Aborigines” from the Australian National Dictionary: “Nature not having furnished it with food sufficient to maintain any other race of men than the Aborigines.”  And here’s an 1828 citation for “Aboriginal” from the Hobart Town Courier: “Nothing herein contained shall authorize … any Settler … to make use of force (except for necessary self-defence) against any Aboriginal.”  It wasn’t until the 19th century, according to the OED, that “the singular form aborigine was formed from the English plural.1 ]

Using the right names

As it happens at the time of writing, on Wednesday 29 March 2016 the Sydney tabloid Daily Telegraph attacked a "Diversity Toolkit" on Indigenous Terminology for "Teaching Diverse Groups" published by the University of NSW (UNSW). Under the blasting heading "Exclusive -- UNSW rewrites the history books to state Cook 'invaded' Australia", the newspaper is quoted2 ] to warn that "students are being told to refer to Australia as having been ‘invaded’ instead of settled in a highly controversial rewriting of official Australian history".3 ]

The advisory booklet lists, among other topics, examples of appropriate language on Aboriginal history and culture.4 ] In this context, it suggests to replace the "discovery" of Australia by Captain Cook with the term "invasion", which is what the Daily Telegraph picked on.

For us here more important is the section on "Using the right names", which I would like to quote fully:5 ]

Indigenous Australian peoples are people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and are accepted as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in the community in which they live, or have lived.

Using the right names

More appropriate

  1. Indigenous Australian people/s
  2. Aboriginal people/s
  3. Aboriginal person
  4. Torres Strait Islander people/s
  5. Torres Strait Islander person

These terms stress the humanity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. "Aboriginal", which in Latin means "from the beginning" and other such European words are used because there is no Aboriginal word that refers to all Aboriginal people in Australia.
Less appropriate

  1. Aborigines
  2. The Aborigines
  3. The Aboriginal people
  4. Aboriginal
  5. The Torres Strait Islanders
  6. Blacks
  7. Whites
  8. Yellafellas
  9. Coloured

Using terms such as "the Aborigines" or "the Aboriginal people" tends to suggest that Aboriginal people/s are all the same, and thus stereotypes Indigenous Australians. The fact is that Indigenous Australia is multicultural. Australia before the invasion was comprised of 200-300 autonomous language groups that were usually referred to as "tribes", now more often as "peoples", "nations" or "language groups". The nations of Indigenous Australia were, and are, as separate as the nations of Europe or Africa.

The Aboriginal English words "blackfella" and "whitefella" are used by Indigenous Australian people all over the country; some communities also use "yellafella" and "coloured". Although less appropriate, people should respect the acceptance and use of these terms, and consult the local Indigenous community for further advice.

More appropriate

  1. Murri (Qld, northwest NSW)
  2. Nyoongah (WA)
  3. Koori (NSW)
  4. Goori (north coast NSW)
  5. Koorie (Vic)
  6. Yolngu (Arnhem Land)
  7. Anangu (Central Australia)
  8. Palawa (Tasmania)
  9. Nunga (not always a more appropriate term)(SA)6 ]
  10. Ngarrindjeri (SA: River Murray, Lakes, Coorong people)
  11. Torres Strait Island Peoples
  12. Murray Island Peoples
  13. Mer Island Peoples

Aboriginal language people terms such as "Koori", "Murri", "Nyoongah" are appropriate for the areas where they apply. About 80% of the Torres Strait Island population now resides outside the Torres Strait and as such, local terminology such as "Murray Island Peoples" and "Mer Island Peoples" is also used. There are also local names for particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups, for example "Gamilaroi" (NSW) or "Pitjantjatjara" (NT/SA).

Some people use "Nunga" in general reference to Indigenous peoples who reside in and around the area of Adelaide. Many Indigenous South Australians prefer people not to presume the right to use their word "Nunga". Local Indigenous Australian people can clarify appropriate use of this and other terms.

Further Reading

  • Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Engaging – A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property.  Department of Linguistics, University of Adelaide. Adelaide 2015.  (Download, pdf)
  1. see dictionary links for further details! [ ▲ ]
  2. This "premium" article is available on the Daily Telegraph's website only behind a pay wall. [ ▲ ]
  3. Paul Daley, It's not 'politically correct' to say Australia was invaded, it's history, in The Guardian, 30 March 2016.  Online. -- For two of the many responses, see for instance Alex McKinnon, The Daily Telegraph Accuses UNSW Of “Rewriting History” For Saying Australia Was “Invaded”.  Junkee Blog, 30.3.2016;  Waleed Aly, Why Australia lies to itself about its Indigenous history. Brisbane Times online. 31 March 2016 [ ▲ ]
  4. Extract from "Using the right words: appropriate terminology for Indigenous Australian studies", in Teaching the Teachers: Indigenous Australian Studies for Primary Pre-Service Teacher Education, School of Teacher Education, University of New South Wales, 1996. This publication has also been the basis for similar guides by other universities, in SA for instance Flinders University (pdf). [ ▲ ]
  5. p13 in the book; online. [ ▲ ]
  6. "Nunga" is a popular self-naming by Aboriginal peoples of different language communities in SA.  See for instance "Nunga Wangga Radio" (Radio Adelaide). [ ▲ ]

For reference:

Gerhard Ruediger. Glossar :: Aboriginal, Aborigines, in: Pirltawardli Research Website. Adelaide 2020.
(Created: 15.03.2016. Last updated: 05.04.2016.)
Direct URL: <>. Viewed 06.07.2020.