I'm rather embarrassed to admit that until I went to the Napoleon Exhibition in Melbourne a couple of days ago, I hadn't given any thought to the origin of 'coo-ee', this typically Australian word.
The Napoleon Exhibition was bound to be enjoyable, because of the fascination of this powerful historic figure. But for Australians it's particularly worth a visit because of the focus on Napoleon and Josephine's interest in the exploration of Australia. To me, as a lover of word origins, it was interesting to read that the first recording of the cry 'coo-ee' was made by a Frenchman.
The Free Dictionary defines cooee as
a call used to attract attention, esp (originally) a long loud high-pitched call on two notes used in the Australian bush vb cooees, cooeeing, cooeed, cooeys cooeying, cooeyed (intr) to utter this call n Austral and NZ informal calling distance (esp in the phrase within (a) cooee (of)) [from a native Australian language]This article on the website of The State Library of New South Wales explains:
Francis Barrallier (1773-1853) was one of the colony's earliest French settlers. Escaping to England with his parents when Napoleon took Toulon in 1793, Barrallier embarked on the Speedy to join the NSW Corps in November 1799, reaching Sydney in April 1800... Napoleon ordered the Baudin expedition, 1800-1804, to conduct a survey of the Australian coastline... Barrallier also took an enlightened interest in the local Aboriginal people and he is believed to have first recorded the Aboriginal call 'coo-ee' which Pierre-Francois Bernier (1779-1803), astronomer to the Baudin expedition (1800-1804), set to musical notation.
I began to wonder which indigenous language was the origin of this word. Various languages are suggested on internet sites, but Richard White at the University of Sydney says it was a surprisingly widespread usage at the time of European arrival in Australia.
Aborigines had used it in various ways, but the remarkable thing is that it seems to have had widespread use throughout Australia, spreading well beyond normal linguistic borders (Hunter had recorded it in NSW, Flinders in Western Australia, Tasman - possibly - in Van Diemen’s Land). Less remarkable when the cooee is acknowledged as a communication and navigational technology, a superbly effective forerunner of GPS, rather than as a word, which Europeans persisted in reading it as.
The article ends by saying that although the word has played a major role in the rise of Australian national sentiment, it is unfashionable nowadays. White adds, 'I was surprised to discover that the vast majority of Australian students in my Australian History class had cooeed in the bush at least once.'
I've cooeed. It's fun. (You have to do it in the bush for the best effect.)
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