The problem with yabbies

by Julia Robinson

The surprising and important fact that most Australians do not know is that there are almost 140 species of freshwater crayfish in Australia. (Susan Lawler, The Conversation, 4 February 2013)

Fishing for yabbies (freshwater crayfish) is a happy childhood memory for many Aussie kids living near a dam or creek. The traditional technique is to bait a length of string with a piece of fresh meat, lower it into the water, wait for the yabby to latch on with its claws, and then pull up the string. Yabbies make delicious eating, and are also used as fishing bait.

A recent posting on the forum The Conversation laments the profusion of Australian common names for freshwater crayfish found in our local dams, creeks, and ponds. Susan Lawler, an ecologist at La Trobe University, discusses the difficulty of distinguishing between the common yabby (Cherax destructor) and any of several endangered species that look very similar and may be found in the same location. A person catching freshwater crays may unwittingly take a protected species thinking they are yabbies, and the consequences are serious for their longterm survival: ‘The assumption that an unknown crayfish is “just a yabby” is dangerous for the crayfish.’

The common yabby, Cherax destructor

The difficulty of identification is compounded by the diversity of common names, and this is confusing for dictionary-makers as well as scientists. Various species of freshwater crayfish are known in different parts of Australia by names such as gilgie, marron, redclaw, lobby, koonac, crawbob, lobster, as well as yabby. My crawbob might be your gilgie (especially if you live in Western Australia), and your yabby might be my lobster (especially if I live in Tasmania). Since we are familiar with the particular name used in our local area, we are unlikely to agree on a single, Australia-wide, ‘correct’ name.

Writing a dictionary definition for the common names of these creatures is therefore fraught with difficulty, and not all readers will agree with us. Our decisions are based on quotation evidence gathered in Australian works in print from the last 150 years, so our definitions reflect Australian usage. With some trepidation, then, this is how we define some of these words for our dictionaries. All comments welcome.

yabby  Any of several freshwater crayfish (usually of the genus Cherax), especially the common Cherax destructor, native to south-eastern Australia. The earliest evidence for ‘yabby’ is 1861. [Origin: from the word yabij in Wemba-wemba, an Aboriginal language of north-western Victoria and  south-western New South Wales.]

crawchie A Queensland name for yabby (see above). The earliest evidence for ‘crawchie’ is 1928. [Origin: an alteration of the word crawfish, which is a variant of crayfish.]

lobby A Queensland name for yabby (see above). The earliest evidence for ‘lobby’ is 1910. [Origin: an alteration of the word lobster, a word usually associated with marine crayfish.]

crawbob A name for yabby (see above). The earliest evidence for ‘crawbob’ is 1977. [Origin: perhaps an alteration of the US word crawdad,  meaning ‘crayfish’.]

gilgie A Western Australian name for either of two small freshwater crayfish, Cherax crassimanus and Cherax quinquecarinatus, of south-western Western Australia. The earliest evidence for ‘gilgie’ is 1873. [Origin: from the word jilgi in the Western Australian language Nyungar.]

koonac A Western Australian name for either of two small freshwater crayfish, Cherax plebejus and Cherax glaber, of inland rivers and swamps. The earliest evidence for ‘koonac’ is 1873. [Origin: from the word gunag in the Western Australian language Nyungar.]

marron   A Western Australian name for a large freshwater crayfish, Cherax tenuimanus, of south-western Western Australia. The earliest evidence for ‘marron’ is 1909. [Origin: from the word marran in the Western Australian language Nyungar.]

redclaw A name for a freshwater crayfish, Cherax quadricarinatus, of Queensland and the Northern Territory. The earliest evidence for ‘redclaw’ is 1989. [Origin: from the red markings on the claws of the adult male.]


3 thoughts on “The problem with yabbies

  1. For what it’s worth, crawdad is not directly from crayfish; there is an intermediate form crawfish, which has spawned a denominal verb in American English meaning to twist around, as when a car is sliding on ice. Of course, crayfish has to be the root of the family tree, because it is pretty directly from French écrevisse.

  2. The term “Crawchie” has always been commonly used in the town of Helensburgh which is north of Wollongong, NSW. Not that long ago “The ‘Burgh” was an isolated coal mining town.
    I was suprised to read that crawchie is said to have originated in Queensland.

  3. In the latter 1950s (& all of the 1960) yabbies were alternatively known as “Craybobs” in the area around the Watercourse Road to the west of Moree NSW. I learnt this name from my father, whose family had been in the area since the 1830s. We used to “fish for them” in the dams and boredrains.

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