corroborate, corroboree

I’m sure you know the word corroborate. Generally it’s used for accounts or evidence that strengthen a case. It’s from Latin cor (intensifier) and roborare “strengthen”; you may remember the word roborant, which I tasted about three months ago. So you would expect a corroboree to be someone or something that is corroborated, right?

No. That story is very much uncorroborated. The Latinate morphology may have had some influence on the English form of this word, but the word corroboree is borrowed (with small phonological changes) from an Aborigine word – a word from a group who lived near Port Jackson, NSW, and whose language does not exist anymore.

Or perhaps I should say it doesn’t exist in our here and now. There are other times, other places, other realms, other realities, in which we cannot rule out its existence. We tend to think only in terms of the constitutive framing of our lives: the narratives of our daily lives, the coherent threads we weave out of them. Interrupting these threads are other threads that are in separate frames, separate realities: we dream, and when we wake up we see that that was all in its own separate box. We go to the theatre, and we see a performance that is done by real people in real space, but it is representing an action that we process as part of a separate narrative in a separate reality with separate rules, almost like a waking dream. Even in a religious ceremony, you may in a more or less literal way reenact some happening from the past, from the binding mythos of your credo; its connection and its reality in the moment are matters of doctrinal dispute.

When you have these different stories in their different frames, are they like actors in different inertial frames of reference in relativistic motion, dilated in time and contracted in space but still part of one reality? Do they have traces in our own reality that corroborate them? Or are they more like peeks into other branches of a many-worlds view of reality? And will performing stories corroborate them?

Corroborate, I don’t know. But strengthen them, yes. And what is the occasion of this strengthening by performing? It can be a corroboree.

A corroboree, you see, is (originally) a nighttime gathering among Aborigines for performance – dance, music, costume – of narratives from the Dreamtime. They may be for celebration or similar gathering occasions. They are more than just theatre for entertainment, but they are not exactly religious ritual per se. They are beyond the quotidian – they are extra-daily, to use a performance studies term favoured by, among others, Richard Schechner (I did my dissertation on him) – and the audience for them may be restricted. This restriction can be a question of maintaining not just the frame (the set of rules by which that particular set of narrative threads is interpreted) but also its numinosity, its significance, its perceived power with relation to the constitutive (“real world”) and to group identity and cohesion. By keeping it more of a secret, and thus less corroborable in the sense we would think of, one may strengthen it: stronger because less, not more, widely known – but strongly reinforced in those who know. And these stories relate to things that have left their traces on the physical reality of the here and now. If you know the story, the reality it refers to corroborates it.

The word corroboree has a wider usage now. It can name tourist performances, for instance – cutely packaged representations that have the appearance but not the numinosity or other deep personal and cultural significance for the tourist viewers, who instead project their own fantasies and expectations on it; their search for “authenticity” leads them to something that, by very dint of their being the ones there seeing it, makes it irredeemably inauthentic, the far side of a divide with no ties in between, not two inertial frames of reference but completely different systems. The perceived possibility for corroboration leads to vitiation.

It can also name more general cultural performances where they still do have cultural significance. And it has come to be used more broadly, too, as for instance for a lively party – perhaps a cross between a jamboree and a shivaree (charivari). The sound of the word surely carries some of the rhubarbery of a hurly-burly. But it may be a disservice to its origins to use it so broadly, heedlessly.

And then there is the corroboree frog. You can see one at It gets its name from its striking yellow-and-black striped coloration. As it happens, striking striped body paint is a common feature of the corroboree, and the markings of this frog are reminiscent of that. I won’t say that its markings are quite reminiscent of the look of this word, but there is a certain pattern in the repetitions of letters: corroboree – three r’s, three o’s, two e’s and a c (which is like an e that hasn’t quite closed yet), and the lone b reaching above and giving a solid central support, like a tree with a thick base. The curves of the c, e’s, and o’s give it a repeating cyclic feel.

Repetition strengthens. If the very source of what is being presented is the performance and repetition of it, if that is its interface with our everyday reality, then repetition is its real corroboration, isn’t it? And if it is something we have produced out of our individual and cultural imaginations, then our own minds are not only the corroborators but the corroborees. As it were.

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