Before I start this piece I want to acknowledge the Yalukit-Willam people who are the traditional custodians of the land I live on and on which I am writing this article today. I pay respect to their elders past, present and future for the wisdom they have passed down for thousands of generations.
I grew up spending a lot of time in South Africa and saw that through the reconciliation process there many were places changed back to their traditional names. The Travsvaal became Gauteng, the Eastern Transvaal became Mpumalanga and even though it hadn’t been officially renamed I often saw references to Pretoria being Tshwane.
I am surprised then that after four years of living in Melbourne, the first time I heard a reference to the aboriginal name of Naarm was less than a week ago. And I found it not through a news article, a sign or a conversation but on searching for questions about Melbourne on which to write for this website.
So on that discovery, I decided to do the research myself.
I produce this piece without pretending to be an expert in Australian history or aboriginal culture, but through curiosity about the history of the name Naarm and why it gets so rarely used. If I make mistakes or am unintentionally insensitive at any point I am happy to be corrected, but I thought others may also be interested to learn about what I found.
So here it is, everything I’ve learned about Naarm and Melbourne.
Why is Melbourne also Called Naarm?
Naarm is the indigenous name for the area we now know as Melbourne – or at least the CBD part of Melbourne.
It was the original name given to the Port Phillip area by the original people of the lands here.
The name is thought originally to have come from the Boonwurrung tribe who covered the area from around the shoreline of north and east Port Phillip and all the way out to Gippsland.
It is often attributed to the Woiwurrung people who originally signed the treaty with John Batman, as their territory covers what would now be Melbourne CBD, with the border between the Boonwurrung and Woiwurrung people round about St Kilda.
I’ve read that Indigenous Australians prefer the mentioning of “Kulin Nation” or “Gunditjmara Land” as it acknowledges the tribes who were displaced and are traditional owners. It also sounds better, “Melbourne, Kulin Nation, Victoria, Australia.”
How is Naarm Pronounced?
Naarm is pronounced how you would expect it to be from the spelling, though it the two ‘aa’s seem to get elongated so it feels a bit more like Naaaarm when spoken.
The video above gives an example of the pronunciation at the end.
Why are there Different Spellings of Naarm?
The aboriginal languages were purely spoken, with few written records. When European settlers arrived some were captured using western characters, but this led to multiple spellings of the same words.
Naarm has also been recorded as Narrm, Nairm, Nerm, or Neerim all of which could be pronounced very similarly.
Because the languages were oral, not written, there is technically no correct spelling, but Naarm has become the most common.
Naarm and the AFL
During the 2022 season, the Melbourne Football Clan (nickname the Demons) renamed their club to Naarm Football Club during the Indigenous Round, which has been played annually since 2016.
The club consulted with the local Wurundjeri Worwurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation ahead of the move and released limited-edition merchandise for the round.
What is Naarmcore?
During my research, I found lots of references to ‘Naarmcore’.
Naarmcore is a mix of the words ‘Naarm’ and ‘Normcore’, which is a style of dress that intentionally involves unremarkable or unfashionable clothes.
It became a trend on TikTok with Melbourne creators using it to describe their fashion sense but got a backlash from Indigenous groups for appropriating the word without any reference to the people who used it.
Where Does the Name Melbourne Come From?
The European name Melbourne, was chosen by Queen Victoria (after who the state is named) in honour of the Second Viscount Melbourne who was the British Prime Minister at the time.
There is an almost unbelievable truth though that Melbourne was nearly named ‘Batman’ after John Batman, the founder of the modern city of Melbourne.
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