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Where does the word “koala” come from?

This article was produced by Common Ground. We’re working with Common Ground to amplify First Nations voices, and spread awareness about the Australian environment and its wildlife. Learn more about our journey together here.

It’s no secret that we have an obsession with Australia’s fave tree-hugging friend here at Koala HQ. An Australian icon, cute, cuddly AND sleeps 18 hours a day?! Dream. 

For the past five years, our goal has been to create and support koala habitats through our mattress adoption program ensuring that koalas not only survive for future generations, but thrive.

But our love for koalas goes a lot deeper than our namesake — actually, it starts with theirs.

Exploring the origins of where the name Koala comes from 

Many words commonly used in Australia are from First Nations languages or have been derived from them. Non-Indigenous Australians use these words every day without knowing where they come from or which language they belong to. 

Over 250 First Languages were spoken in Australia before colonisation, but only around 120 are still spoken. The loss of these languages is a serious threat to First Nations identity and wellbeing. 

There are many First Nations words found in the common labels for Australian animals. Koalas are one such famous animal, and a popular symbol of Australia. 

The name “koala” is derived from the Dharug word “gula” or “gulamany” meaning “no drink”.  Koalas don’t often need to drink water because they get enough moisture from the eucalyptus leaves they eat. However, koalas are increasingly being seen drinking water to try and survive heatwaves, deforestation and bushfires. 

Koala habitat stretches along the eastern side of Australia. In the north past Yidinji Country in Gimuy (Cairns), out west along the longitude of Wiradjuri Country, right down to Gunaikurnai Country (Gippsland) and Gunditjmara Country (Portland) in Victoria, and west across to Tarntanya (Adelaide) in Kaurna Country.

While the koala population is declining, these animals have historically covered the Country of hundreds of different First Nations and language groups. So there are many different words for koala in different languages. Some of them include:

Guula, gulawayn

Nation(s): Birrbay (Biripi), Guringay (Gringai), Warrimay (Worimi)

Language: Gathang

Barrandhang, gurabaan, naagun, ginaagun

Nation(s): Wiradjuri

Language: Wiradjuri

Borobi

Nation(s): Yugambeh

Language: Yugambeh

Doombearpee, dumirripi

Nation(s): Quandamooka

Language: Jandai

Goala

Nation(s): Kabi Kabi (Gubbi Gubbi)

Language: Kabi Kabi

We are working with our friends at Common Ground to amplify First Nations voices, and spread awareness about the Australian environment and its wildlife. Learn more about our journey together here

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