Getting Down Under Australia

Origin and History of the Name – Australia

The name Australia is derived from the Latin australis, meaning southern.

Legends of an “unknown southern land” (terra australis incognita) date back to the Roman times and were commonplace in medival geography, but they were not based on any actual knowledge of the continent.

The Dutch adjectival form Australische (“Australian,” in the sense of “southern”) was used by Dutch officials in Batavia to refer to the newly discovered land to the south as early as 1638. The first English language writer to use the word “Australia” was Alexander Dalrymple in An Historical Collection of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean, published in 1771.

He used the term to refer to the entire South Pacific region, not specifically to the Australian continent. In 1793, George Shaw and Sir James Smith published Zoology and Botany of New Holland, in which they wrote of “the vast island, or rather continent, of Australia, Australasia or New Holland.”

The name “Australia” was popularised by the 1814 work A Voyage to Terra Australis by the navigator Matthew Flinders.

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Despite its title, which reflected the view of the Admiralty, Flinders used the word “Australia” in the book, which was widely read and gave the term general currency. Governor Lachlan Macquarie of New South Wales subsequently used the word in his dispatches to England. In 1817 he recommended that it be officially adopted. In 1824, the British Admiralty agreed that the continent should be known officially as Australia.

Written by Mark

As the founder of Getting Down Under, Mark is passionate about demystifying the process associated with a move to Australia. Having launched Getting Down Under in early January 2006 and made the move to Australia from the UK in the same year, Mark continues to share resources and support for those looking for assistance. If you have a question for Mark, please post in our Community Forums. Please note All information provided on Getting Down Under should be considered in conjunction with our disclaimer. Please seek professional advice if you have any doubts! 

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  1. I’ve also long searched for and been unable to find out the date in 1824. But it was on the December 12, 1817 when Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales recommended to the Colonial Office that the name Australia be officially adopted. And on November 14, 1804 when Matthew Flinders sealed the completed chart of his circumnavigation of the continent which he labelled Australia. This being the first time a map of the continent had borne that name. His reasoning being that as the landmass known as New Holland was not divided in two as many had previously believed. That the entire singular landmass therefore should be named Terra Australis or more appropriately Australia. As New Holland is, according to the Governor’s patent, only that portion of it from 135° of longitude westward; while eastward is New South Wales. My point is that as the 1824 date seems to be unknown at this point. That if ever a change of date for Australia Day is required then either of these would be more appropriate than any politically motivated choices.

    • I have read countless times that ‘Australia’ officially became Australia In 1824 ….. but I can’t find a reliable or credible document giving further particulars of this claim.

      Further, if Terra Australis in Latin means Land South then how do you say in Latin ‘Southland’? Would that be Australia?

      Hope someone out there can assist????

      • LOL, I just found this with a Google search:

        “Even as late as 1837, in official correspondence between the British government in London and New South Wales, the term “New Holland” was still being used to refer to the continent as a whole.”

        Which kinda puts doubt on the 1824 claim????

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