Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Isn't it always the way - you truck happily along for nearly 40 years, confident you knew the origins of something - then ka-pow, someone comes along and blows it all up into a 'controversy'. And so it is with Nagari - the name.

And all because some trendy Japanese car stylist working for a very large car company decides to use a name that bears a striking resemblance and (apparently) has a similar meaning. Zoom zoom, just like that, someone is trying to pull the skids out from under your beloved Aussie icon.

I'm talking of course about the Mazda Nagare. This Johnny-come-lately concept car/showcar arrived on the scene last year and immediately became known not so much for its future-shock design (actually it's pretty nice) but more for the tornado of public debate it created over the the origins of the word Nagari.

For some extraordinary reason, normally sane people sided with Nippon on this one. Suspicious fingers were pointed at Bolwell - could they have just 'adapted' a Japanese name, called it 'Aboriginal' and made it an instant Aussie icon?

A few factors were conspiring to promote this bizarre conspiracy theory. First, it was an'amazing' coincidence that Nagare (Japanese) and Nagari (Aboriginal/Australian) could both mean 'flowing'. Next, since the Japanese written culture was embedded with plenty of references, surely it had to have come first? There again, Campbell Bolwell, when quizzed on it, had only a vague memory that he 'got it out of a book of Aboriginal words' at the time. (When I pressed him on this, he admitted the reference book 'had long since gone'). Another unhelpful factor was the apparent absence of any word Nagari in the most popular Aboriginal Dictionaries (this subject alone is worth an encyclopaedic treatise). On the other hand the Japanese designer could quote chapter and verse on the origins of 'his' Nagare. (Interesting that nobody bothered to check him out).

For the record, this is what van den Acker (the designer) actually said: 'Nagare is one of a hundred or more Japanese words that describe the embodiment of motion - such as how wind shapes desert sand, the way currents stir the ocean's floor or the way waves lap at the shores of a lake'. He didn't describe it as 'flowing', but some of the Mazda PR flunkies - in the interests of brevity - apparently did.

In truth, there does not appear to be any word Nagare in Japanese that means 'flowing'. To check it out we input nagare into eight different on-line translators and most produced 'stream', while some added 'current'. Not too far a jump to 'flowing' but not actually 'flowing'.

We also checked out some Japanese language coaching schools (two in Australia, two in Tokyo), and the Sydney Japanese School - all said 'stream'. When we reverse-searched (using 'flowing'), there was no nagare. However when we asked the schools they said 'Ah so, someone is adding another syllable or word such as nagare-ru - that could mean 'flowing'. Nagare-ru or Nagareru is indeed a Japanese word which, when translated into English means 'free flowing'. However it is not used in the physical sense, but in the abstract sense, such as in martial arts (free flowing movements) or spiritual (the flow of spirit/s).

Since you probably have a headache by now, I won't go much further down the Japanese road except to note that (a) there are three different forms of the language and (b) words tend to be formed phonetically (that is by their sounds) rather than by their spelling (so a word that sounds like 'Nagari' could be spelt in many different ways, some of which wouldn't resemble 'Nagare' at all). Finally, to confuse things further there is a character in the popular and controversial Japanese Manga cartoon series called 'Nagare'. It also appears in a Manga-style video game where it is used to communicate the concept of 'Ki' or 'energy'. Again - could be interpreted as 'flowing'.

Now let's rewind a few millennium and look for some 'origins'. If you Google 'Nagari' you will get a few million references and hundreds of thousands of them are Indian. You will find Villages and Towns, Counties and States, you will find a type of dance, you will find Christian (?) and surnames, music, highways, rituals and festivals. In fact, if you want to do BIG NAGARI try this one on - the largest religious festivals in the world are held in India where temporary cities for between 5 and 70 million pilgrims (yes, that is MILLION) are set-up in selected areas every 4 years. One of them, the Kumbh Nagari had 25 million Pilgrims. Almost as many as a Bolwell Car Club meeting....not...

The reason for the prominence of the word Nagari in India is the fact that it is derived from an Indian language or script - Deva-Nagari, which is derived from the Neo-Brahmic scripts of central Asia, with geneses in Nepalese, Tamil, Thai, Laotian, Javanese, Balinese etc. Deva-Nagari can be traced to the 8th Century, but its predecessors can be tracked thousands of years in written forms with much of the alphabet, vocabulary and grammar similar to original Sanskrit.

Nagari in Brahman is a singular feminine adjective meaning 'urban' or 'city'. Deva-nagari means Royal City. OK, a long way from flowing, but try to stay with me here...

If you go back to the end of the last ice age (which ended about 10,000 years ago) the Asian continent was joined to much of Indonesia, to New Guinea, and to northern Australia (Tasmania in the south was also part of the mainland). It was rising sea levels from the icemelt that divvied them up into the island structures we know now.

If you track 'Nagari' in Asia, you will find it occurring right across Nepal, Tibet, down through Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia (AndraPradesh-Tamil) and across into Indonesia (Nagari is a system of government in West Sumatra). In Mingagnkabau culture it is a large village with satellites.

Prior to the end of the iceage, there was land passage from Asia to Australia and many anthropologists believe that the aboriginal people migrated from somewhere in Asia until the iceage put a big moat around Australia and the Aboriginal people were cut off, creating their own unique culture. So if aboriginal languages owe anything to any other culture it is more likely to be the middle-Asian ones (and anyway, even Japan probably got some of its language and culture from middle Asia).

So that means we ought to be able to find our chosen word (Nagari) in some aboriginal language.

OK, but before we go there, let's consider something else. The aboriginal people didn't actually have libraries and dictionaries and they didn't even have tablets and stone lettering and such. So none of this stuff (words, sounds) got written down.

We all know what happens when you play 'Chinese whispers', just with a small group in the same room. How about 'Aboriginal Chinese whispers' played out over thousands of years, across a land of millions of square kilometres, with hundreds of languages (over 270 Aboriginal languages have been identified).... Get the picture?

Then along comes white man. Communication with the black man immediately became a priority in many communities, and if you look at our slim and sparse history, you will find hundreds of attempts by white man to document aboriginal language.

Now think about this. You are sitting around the campfire, you have your little notebook and you are pointing at things, getting strange and unfamiliar aural responses from your dusky colleagues, and you are trying to write them down. Lets say someone points at a river and you get something like 'Nah-gar-ree'. So how do you write it down? Here's some suggestions...
(Actually - these are All real aboriginal words).

And that's before you have another drink or get whacked in the ear with a nulla nulla. Speaking of which, some authorities assure us that this is how the aboriginal weapon is spelled. Others assert that it is absolutely, positively spelled nula...or is it nala or....

OK, so now you probably wish Bolwell had just stuck with numbers and called it the Mk8. But you may also be getting a bit of a handle on the situation...

So how about those 'authorities'....

One of the most popular reference books is the Macquarie Aboriginal Dictionary. Its authors assert it is 'authentic' but for all that it only covers a handful of the 270 aboriginal languages and hundreds of dialects. And - surprise, surprise - it does NOT have the word Nagari. Not as such. So does this mean Nagari doesn't exist? Hardly. Here's an example of some other 'well known aboriginal words' that DO NOT EXIST at all in the Macquarie Dictionary (at least not in aboriginal form)...
(etc - there are scores of examples).

So if Macquarie doesn't have Kangaroo and Boomerang, fat chance of Nagari or (worse) Ikara huh?

There are scores of reference books on aboriginal languages and I have skimmed through many of them. I once went through 38 at a single sitting and didn't find one 'Nagari'. But then I still hadn't covered more than about 50 of the 270 languages. I did find some extraordinarily similar words with some amazingly varied meanings. Here we go...
Ngare - white ant/termite (Kabi - South Queensland)
Ngari - dance (Yugumbir - South Queensland)
Ngarri - name (Yugumbir - South Queensland)
Ngari - mine (Wakka - South Queensland)
So there. Four different versions of 'na-gar-ree', all completely different meanings and all from tribes just in south-east Queensland. Gives you an idea of the size of the problem.

But wait, there's more...

The Paakantyi people from out near Cobar use Ngari as a 'mine' and Nguri (similar pronunciation) as 'grease'. Some other words, from other languages...
Ngarra - corners of the mouth
Ngarrai - sleep
Ngarri, ngarri - breathing fast (as opposed to you, who are now almost asleep)
Ngarrie - honey
Ngaria - black swan
Ngarri - rope
Nakarri - black swan
Ngaree - awake
Ngarri - casuarina
Ngare - duck
Ngarri - to sit
Ngare - to give
Ngarri - half sewn
Ngarree - childish
Ngairi - sky (oh yes, and Ikari and Ikara are also 'sky' in other languages)

Lots of Nagari look-alikes and sound-alikes but still no 'flowing'...
Somewhat suspiciously we found several hundred words beginning with ngarr, many of which belong to the 'Dreamtime'. Difficult to imagine accurate translations from something that comes under that sort of heading...

But where there's life there's hope, and just short of giving up, there it was...

NAGARI - flow

The reference is
Australian Aboriginal Words and Place Names and Their Meanings.
Compiled by Sydney J Endacott
By Acacia Press
(Ref: Page 249)

The first editions of the book were 1949-1959.
But it also appears to have been reprinted in the late 60s when it was popular as a tool for people to name outback properties/farms, houses, even children. And just about perfect timing for one Campbell Bolwell to lift from a local bookshelf, scan through 3000-odd entries and settle on...Nagari. (By the way, Campbell can't remember if he picked it for the sound of the name itself or the concept of 'flowing'). and does it matter?

As you probably know, there were no Henry Fords amongst the aborigines, and they certainly weren't tearing around the countryside in jalopies. So it was quite interesting to find another genuine automotive connection with the name...Woy Woy, on the Central Coast, north of Sydney, has its very own Nagari Road.

So there.

What about Ikara? Campbell Bolwell says it was named after the missile program at Woomera. He is well supported by the Feds who describe Ikara as 'an Australian designed and manufactured anti-submarine guided weapon system' and 'named after an aboriginal word meaning throwing stick'.

There is no such word as Ikara in the Macquarie Aboriginal Dictionary or in dozens of other aboriginal reference works, but let's look at the possibilities....

OK. OK, let's not.
Maybe next time.

*Rob Luck


Anonymous said...

Just to throw another spanner in the works. Nagari also spelt nigari is food grade magnesium chloride used as a coagulent in the production of firm tofu. Imagine that, the Bolwell Tofu.

John L said...

Just wanted to point out that Rob has put about 2 years research into this, covering all facets. He says the bottom line is that there is no doubt Campbell did use a real aboriginal word, Nagari, for the car and there is equally no doubt this was the first such named car in the world - and by a large margin (at least 3 decades), "so another one for the goodies!!"

John L said...

Chris Gascoigne writes "You also reference it in your links - that authority of all authorities 'Grandpa Pencil finds some Australian Aboriginal words and their meanings. Nagari = flow'."

Anonymous said...

What extensive research, I think Rob is more "anal" than either John or I, nevertheless a great post anyway.
Bottom line its a great name and we're stuck with it.
By the way the original Nagari is 40 years old in 2010, are we going to celebrate this fantastic milestone, or just let it pass, if so we could rename the club the Apothetic car club.

Colin said...

Wasn't the white prototype flat bonnet picure taken in 1969? With those beautiful (Ok ugly) ROH steel 6 x 14 sports wheels.

Anonymous said...

I don't actually know the release date of the original, the photos of the prototype or #1 may have been taken in 1969 (Sept 1969 SCW), but the car wasn't a runner in that config. the carb. had to be removed to close the bonnet. I remember seeing that car at a special plastics exhibition at the newly opened Doncaster Shoppingtown in January 1970. The first car to appear in print after B8/1 was B8/3 in the August Motor Manual. As a matter of dubious fact Bolwell Factoy records list production of B8/1 - B8/49 as having occured in 1971, nothing listed for 1970. (See what I mean about Anal)