I Don’t Get It: The 3 C’s of Terminology


Words || Neenah R. Gray

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, terminology plays a huge role in understanding our relationships with one another, and to equip the right tools to delve into political issues. I often find, that although people have their best intentions, often that is put aside because of the use of the wrong words in a conversation or a misunderstanding with my point of view. 

I’ve narrowed it down to the Three C’s: conversational, conventional, and controversial


Mob: Mob is often used as a term to describe where your people are from geographically in Australia. Australia is made up of over 350 different language groups. This might be a way for someone to describe where they come from. Each state also has individual names for Aboriginal clan groups as a whole. For example: I am a Kamilaroi (Moree), Noonuccal (Stradbroke Island) and Darumbal (Rockhampton) woman. Or in short,  I’d say I’m Murri. 

Murri – Qld, north west NSW
Nyoongah – WA
Koori – NSW
Goori – north coast NSW
Koorie – Vic
Yolngu – Arnhem Land
Anangu – Central Australia
Palawa – Tasmania
Mer & Murray Island Peoples of the Torres Strait

Image result for aboriginal map of australia
Image result for torres strait island map

Deadly: is used as slang to imply something is really good. It means ‘awesome’ or ‘great’. If someone calls you deadly, you’re doing something good. 

Migaloo: means ‘white’. Migaloo is used in Dreamtime Stories to describe the albino humped back whales of the east coast, but has also turned into a conversational term to describe non-Indigenous People. 


Totem: Totem is an important term when delving into a conversation about someone’s Aboriginality. A totem can either be an animal, a plant, or a significant geographical place that is seen as your obligation to the land. Your totem is a vital piece of identity to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Person. Often someone’s traditional name will stem from their totem. For example, when I was 6 my Granmeo (grandmother) gave me the totem of Green Tree Frog, Boobah Budaroo Darumbal is my traditional name that I went through ceremony for when I was 19 with my Bina (father). 

First Nations: I often find that the use of ‘First Nations’ instead of ATSI or ‘Indigenous’ might work better in a convention when engaging in political issues. Some people do find ‘Indigenous’ offensive as it still can promote the ideology of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being viewed as ‘Flora and Fauna’ as it still stands in the Australian constitution. First Nations is a more appropriate way when using the umbrella term that stems all of our political issues.

Clan/Family Group, Bloodline: Tribe, like the term Indigenous can also be an offensive term as it still implies strong Social Darwinistic perspective that defined Aboriginal people as the ‘missing link’ during the colonial era. If you are to ask someone of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background where they come from, the use of the term ‘clan/family group’ may be a more appropriate way to describe the specifics of the question you’re asking. 


‘Abo’ or ‘Aborigine’: As mentioned previously with the word ‘tribe’, these terms imply a Social Darwinistic perspective, and stem from the colonial period when the ‘aborigine’ was a simple science experiment to early anthropologists. The term abo has been used over many decades to also be a weapon to insult and discriminate. With rejecting terminology as such, as a collective we move away from the Nationalistic views that first formed this country as a nation: for example, the White Australia Policy and Terra Nullius. 

Tribe: for the sake of repetition, tribe can be a very controversial term to use. Again, this implies the experimental relationship that Aboriginal People had with early colonial anthropologists, creating the divide of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Being aware of the terminology one uses can often be a way to break down these tensions, and create a positive learning space. 

Having the right vocabulary in your pocket is a step in the right direction if you are wanting to talk about Indigenous Political Issues. It is a way for Australia to move forward politically, and to break down social stigmas and tensions that exist between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous peoples. Being aware that some words still carry a heavy history, that in some ways, people are still healing from, is acknowledging past wrongs and a way for us as a whole to move forward on this path.