A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the origin of "kangaroo court"? Is "kangaroo" aborigine for "I don't know"?

January 4, 1985

Dear Cecil:

An Australian friend claims that the expression "kangaroo court" was in fact an American invention of the mid-nineteenth century. What's the straight dope? By the way, how do kangaroos court?

Cecil replies:

Sorry, amigo, but it's ixnay on your last request. Cecil has been informed that if he favors this newspaper with one more essay on lust among the animals his next job will be busting suds at the Dairy Queen. So it's Bourgeois Proprieties 1, the Public's Right to Know 0.

I can offer only the usual speculative mishmash on the origin of "kangaroo court," meaning any extralegal judicial assemblage, such as those established by prison inmates or vigilante committees. There's some argument over whether the term is of American or Australian origin. It appears to have come into common usage around the time of the California gold rush in 1849, when some say miners established kangaroo courts to deal with claim jumpers (get it?). Others argue that the term is a sly metaphorical comment on the frequent leaps of legal logic seen at such conclaves.

Those arguing for the expression's Down Under origins say it sprang up in the Australian outback, where the homesteaders periodically used to convene "hopper's court." This usage derived from the supposed fact that when kangaroos see a man for the first time they typically stop dead and eyeball him for five minutes, then suddenly turn and scoot. The practice of staring idiotically into space for long periods followed by a rash and inexplicable jump to conclusions was thought to closely resemble the behavior of a jury or judicial panel, hence kangaroo court. Trouble is, no published instances of this usage in Australia have ever been adduced. Finally, we should note that kangaroo in English slang at one time meant anything unusual or eccentric, which would obviously lend itself to the application at hand. Take your pick.

You-didn't-ask-but-I'm-telling-you-anyway department: A charming legend has been making the rounds for many years that the word "kangaroo" derives from an aboriginal expression meaning "I don't understand you." Seems the English explorer Captain James Cook was browsing around Australia one day with his naturalist buddy Sir Joseph Banks, when he happened to espy a funny-looking critter with a pouch. Inquiring of a nearby local as to the name of the animal, he received the reply "kangaroo," which was intended to signify "say what?" Cook somewhat stupidly construed this as the name of the beast, and we have continued to suffer for his ignorance down to the present day.

Cute, but is it true? I dunno — the actual aboriginal words for the marsupial in question sound nothing like "kangaroo," which seems to have sprung into existence just about the time of Cook's explorations. However, slangmeister Eric Partridge declares that kangaroo is in fact of aboriginal origin and means "jumping quadruped." Someday we definitely have to get this straightened out.

We get it straightened out a little sooner than we expected

Dear Cecil:

I never imagined that the day would come when I would spot an error in your witty and admirably researched column, but your recent discussion of the etymology of kangaroo, alas, shows you aren't up to date on the research in this area. In the Guugu Yimidhirr language, spoken by the aboriginals of the area where Captain Cook's party recorded the term kangooroo (the original spelling), this word (more accurately pronounced something like kang-ooroo) refers to a particular species of kangaroo, namely the large black kangaroo. The only error Cook's party can be accused of is mistaking the name of one variety of kangaroo for the generic term. I hope you will be able to bring your readers up to date on this question and disillusion them regarding the widespread mythology surrounding it.

Cecil replies:

As you can imagine, Bernie, keeping track of all the world's knowledge is a formidable task, even for a person of my legendary abilities. So you will just have to forgive me if I messed up on a few details of Guugu Yimidhirr. Perhaps I had best recap the whole controversy. The story is that when the English explorer James Cook and his friend Joseph Banks first espied a kangaroo during an expedition to Australia in 1770, they asked a nearby native what it was. They received the reply "kang-ooroo," which they assumed was the name of the critter in question. A later explorer, however, found that the natives seemed never to have heard of "kangaroos," and the legend grew up that what the native had actually said was the aboriginal equivalent of "I don't understand you" — in other words, that Cook and Banks had made an unbelievably dumb (not to mention comical) mistake. Subsequent research has established, however, that this was not the case. The real problem, apparently, was simply that the later explorers mispronounced "kang-ooroo" (it's ng as in sing, and I believe there's a roughly equal emphasis on the second and third syllables). The natives were mystified by the European pronunciation "kangaroo," and besides, whoever was asking was probably pointing at a variety of roo other than the large black kind, which, strictly speaking, is the only official "kang-ooroo." Anyway, lexicographers have since made several attempts to convince the world that "kangaroo" isn't merely the result of British incompetence. As usual, however, legend dies hard.

Mistaken namesakes: The scandal widens

Dear Cecil:

I was quite interested in the continuing story of the origin of the word "kangaroo," and confess I was a little disappointed to have the wonderful myth about its origin dashed by the truth — but the straight dope must prevail at all costs! Besides, the kangaroo story isn't history's only case of mistaken namesakes. The Book of Lists #2 reports that the word "Yucatan," meaning "I don't know," was the response given when a Spanish explorer on the Mexican peninsula inquired what land he was on. Also the city of "Nome," Alaska has an interesting origin.

Cecil replies:

Cecil's rule of thumb for these things, Brad, is that the cuteness of the story is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of its actually being true. The Yucatan = "I don't know" story apparently started with one Gomara, who published The History of the Indies in 1554. The explorer involved was Francisco Hernandez, who reached the Yucatan in 1517. Asking some locals about the name of a nearby town, he received the reply, "Tectatan," supposedly meaning "I don't know," which eventually the Spaniards corrupted into "Yucatan." However, other historians say Yucatan was first mentioned in a report by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher, who had heard about it from some Indians in 1502. Believe who you will.

The origin of Nome, Alaska, is also in doubt. According to the 1943 Guide to Alaska prepared by the Federal Writers' Project, the word is the result of a draftsman's error. "When the manuscript chart of the region was being prepared on board the British vessel Herald, attention was drawn to the fact that [a certain] point had no name, and a mark (? name) was penciled against it. The chart was hurriedly inked in, the draftsman reading ? name as C. Nome, and Cape Nome and Nome they have been ever since. This story is disputed by other authorities, who say it is a local native name."

I am doubly inclined to disbelieve this story because of a suspicious yarn told by Mary Lee Davis in Uncle Sam's Attic (1930). Quoth Davis: "The very name of Nome is an answer to the query, "Whence came the first American?" `Ka-no-me,' said the Eskimos, when white men asked what place this was: `I do not know.' And so the place was called: Ka-no-me, Nome, `I do not know.'" Having now had the "I don't know" yarn turn up in three different parts of the globe, I can draw one of two conclusions: either explorers are incredible saps, or somebody's been pulling our leg.

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