Memories of childhood have a powerful effect on us. We think back to our family, people we knew, the house we lived in, the school we went to, the pets we had. But there is one memory jogger that often takes us by surprise: some word we used that was special to our place, our community. When we use one of those words in some other place we are brought up short by the puzzled looks on the faces of those around us, and it is revealed to us that we have a word inherited from childhood, so utterly familiar to us and so foreign to everyone else.
This revelatory moment happened to a friend who, at the lunch table, produced the word crawbob and then had to explain what it was. ‘You mean a yabby’ said the rest of the group. My friend suddenly grasped, with a certain amount of astonishment, that she was a crawbob person and the rest of us were yabby people.
That led, of course, to a discussion of where the word crawbob could possibly have come from. Now I love this kind of research so the next day I set about finding out the origin of the word crawbob. Macquarie Dictionaryhad nothing to say on the subject. The Australian National Dictionary offered as an explanation that crawbob was a variant of the American crawdad, their name for a crawfish. The first citation was 1917. My friend, the crawbob expert, said that surprised her. She would have thought it was older than that.
It is difficult to research regionalisms because we have so little data. Even with TROVE at the National Library pumping more and more newspapers into their online database, we can still not get enough texts that are close to this kind of local language. The reason that the first citation is 1917 is simply because it comes from The North Western Courier (Narrabri), a paper which opened in 1913 and closed in 1955. People may have been using the word crawbob decades before 1913 but we have no way of knowing.
The word yabby, a borrowing from Wemba Wemba, an Aboriginal language spoken in north-western Victoria and south-western NSW, has a documented history in Australian English dating back to 1840. It seems unlikely that in northern NSW and southern Queensland the crustacean would have had to wait for a name until the early 1900s.
If we put aside the theory of American origin, we can suspect that it is another item of British dialect. The word crawfish was introduced into Middle English (1200s) as a borrowing of the French crevisse which in turn came from Old High German krebaz. The ultimate origin was an Old German word krebben meaning ‘to scratch or claw’. This same word gives us crab.
The English misunderstood the word. The thought that the –visse ending (pronounced [fees]) was the same as the English word fish. And so crevisse became craw fish.
That gives us the craw part of the word, so where might the bob have come from?
There is a northern British dialect word bob for the style of fishing where you put some meat in a cloth and lower it into the water to catch crabs and the like. This is related to bob meaning ‘a small mass or lump’, the origin of which is unknown. It is possible that the notion of bobbing for craw(fish) gives rise to a transfer from the style of fishing to what is caught in that way. And so we arrive at crawbob for a yabby.
Lots of speculation, but sadly not enough information.