Place-names and Australian English: Barcoo

by Amanda Laugesen

 In Australian English a number of terms derive from an association with place names. The Barcoo River in Western Queensland gave its name to a number of terms which became associated with outback life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They include Barcoo rot, Barcoo sickness, Barcoo spews, Barcoo dog, and Barcoo shout.

‘Barcoo’ possibly derives from a word for ‘river’ in the Birriya and Kungkari languages of the area. Henry Kendall wrote a poem in the middle of the 19th century celebrating the river, but through the late 19th century the term came to be associated with aspects of life in the outback, usually with reference to the problems experienced there.

One of the first terms which ‘Barcoo’ became attached to was Barcoo rot, a form of scurvy characterised by chronic sores, and generally considered to affect people living in the outback:

Barcoo rot’ in which the slightest scratches or abrasions of the skin pass speedily into rapidly spreading, freely suppurating, yet superficial and painless, circular ulcers, often of extraordinary persistence. (Intercolonial Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Surgery Vol. I, 1894, p. 218)

Barcoo rot was first recorded in print in 1869 in The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser. By the 20th century, the term was being recorded in many places outside of Queensland; the term Barcoo sore was also used.

Many references to Barcoo rot can be found in advertising for cures, particularly prevalent in Australian newspapers through the 1890s and the first two decades of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, Barcoo rot was linked to inadequate diets caused by poverty during the Depression years:

A popular remedy for Barcoo rot

A request was made to-day to Mr. M.A. Davidson, the Minister for Works, by a deputation of Broken Hill men .. that fruit and vegetables be included in the dole rations. Speakers said that a number of women and children were suffering from barcoo rot, a form of skin disease like scurvy, and also from gastric troubles, as a result of lack of vegetables in their diet. (Broken Hill Barrier Miner, 8 October 1931)

By the middle of the 20th century, the term was only being recorded in a historical context.

The term Barcoo sickness (also Barcoo spews, Barcoo vomit) dates back to the 1880s, and referred to a condition characterised by vomiting. It was possibly linked to Barcoo rot—that is, it was considered a condition brought about by lack of proper nutrition and was experienced by people in outback locations. However, much of the evidence suggests people linked it to flies and periods of excessive rainfall:

Barcoo sickness is an annoying complaint, and is well known in Central Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and N.S.W. The sickness attacks with a sudden violent spasm of vomiting following by nausea, headache, and general disinclination for food, especially sweet substances such as sugar, jam, or honey. The complaint appears only after big rainfalls in summer, and if not treated will last 10 days. It is more severe in some parts than in others. Gydea country is its home, and in western Queensland it is called gydea barcoo. An eminent doctor who visited western Queensland some years ago declared it was due to fly spawn, which becomes active after severe dampness. (Adelaide Mail, 2 July 1927)

Again, by the middle of the 20th century, there was little evidence of the term being used except in an historical context, suggesting the illness was either differently understood, or eradicated by developments in medicine.

A number of later terms appear attached to ‘Barcoo’: Barcoo shout was a term, first recorded in 1912, for getting three one-shilling drinks for the price of two shillings and sixpence (half a crown); and a Barcoo dog, which referred to ‘an improvised rattle used to drive sheep when there are no dogs to work them’, was first recorded in 1936 and continues to be used in some areas. As recently as June 2003, it was noted in the magazine Australian Senior: ‘By the way, a Barcoo dog is a noise-making device for herding sheep. It’s made of wire and bottle tops.’

A Barcoo grunter

There are a number of other uses of Barcoo in Australian English, such as Barcoo grunter for a type of fish and Barcoo grass for a type of grass also known as Flinders grass. As a place name, ‘Barcoo’ has been extremely prolific in shaping the lexicon. The Barcoo River also gave its name to a Royal Australian Navy frigate, HMAS Barcoo, which served from 1944 to 1964.