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Kangaroo: the international and regional word

Kangaroo: the international and regional word

In 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip and his fleet of ships arrived in Australia, in the area that would become Sydney, in order to establish a convict colony. Governor Phillip had in his possession a list of Aboriginal words, provided to him by the botanist Joseph Banks (and called ‘the New Holland language’), which it was thought would help him to communicate with the indigenous people. One of the words on this list was kangaroo.

This list had been compiled eighteen years earlier, in 1770, when Captain James Cook was exploring the east coast of Australia, and had Joseph Banks with him as his chief botanist. Their ship was damaged by coral, and was beached for some weeks for repairs, in the far north of what is now Queensland. During this time the Europeans had contact with the local Aboriginal people called the Guugu Yimidhirr, and for the first time saw a strange hopping creature, which the Guugu Yimidhirr called kangaroo. Cook and Banks took this word, along with skins of the animal, back to England with them.

A lexicographer’s impersonation

The artist George Stubbs, famous for his paintings of horses, was commissioned to produce a painting of the kangaroo, from the evidence of sketches made by artists on Cook’s ship and from the evidence of the skins. This painting was exhibited in 1773. Because of the unusual nature of this new animal, the word kangaroo very quickly became widely known. The English lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson certainly knew it. His biographer, James Boswell, reports on a dinner in Scotland when Johnson introduced the topic of the kangaroo, and proceeded to imitate the creature:

The appearance, conformation, and habits of the quadruped were of the most singular kind; and in order to render his description more vivid and graphic, Johnson rose from the table and volunteered an imitation of the animal…Nothing could be more ludicrous than the appearance of a tall, heavy, grave-looking man, like Dr Johnson, standing up to mimic the shape and motions of a kangaroo. He stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and, gathering up the tails of his huge brown coat so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room.

The word kangaroo was therefore well established in international English when in 1787 Joseph Banks gave Governor Phillip a copy of his ‘New Holland language’, which included kangaroo. Phillip and his men, however, were surprised to discover that the Aborigines of the Sydney area were baffled when these Europeans pointed at the hopping animals and mouthed the word kangaroo. The local Sydney Aboriginal language had various names for the different species of this hopping creature, including bandharr, barrbaay, ganuurr, walarroo (which was borrowed to become English wallaroo), and yuluuma. It took some time before the Europeans realised that the Indigenous peoples spoke different languages (we now know that more than 250 languages were spoken at the time of European settlement), and it took them even longer to discover that Cook and Banks had taken the term for a particular species of kangaroo from the Guugu Yimidhirr, and transformed it into the English generic term for all such hopping creatures.

New senses: from kangaroo bar to kangaroo fish

But the die had been cast, and kangaroo had become an ‘English’ word before European settlement of Australia, and before there were any glimmers of the language that would be called ‘Australian English’. Kangaroo is part of the language of all English speakers. It is part of World English, at the same time as it is the most recognizable of Australian words, and one of the most enduring symbols of Australia. What most speakers of World English will not know, however, is that in the two centuries since that first ‘Australia Day’ in 1788, the word kangaroo has developed many more distinctive meanings and uses in Australian English.

Kangaroo bar is a synonym for bull bar (‘a protective metal grille fitted to the front of a motor vehicle’), a very appropriate Australian variant since you are far more likely to have a collision with a kangaroo than with a bull! Kangaroo hop describes the jerking movement of a motor vehicle, especially when starting. A kangaroo jack is a heavy-duty, lever-action jack, used to lift logs, stumps, and so on. A kangaroo paw is a native plant with long, paw-like flowers, and the term has also been used as a synonym for ‘repetitive strain injury’ (RSI), from a perceived similarity between a kangaroo’s paws and the position of a person’s wrists over a keyboard while typing. A kangaroo fish is one that leaps from the water or jumps along mudflats. Eccentricity or craziness can be expressed by the idiom to have kangaroos in the top paddock, and extreme bad luck or incompetence can be indicated by the idiom if he bought a kangaroo it wouldn’t hop. As a verb, kangaroo can mean ‘to hunt kangaroos’, but it also developed a curious sense to describe the contortions of a person who gets stressed about using a public toilet: ‘to squat over a lavatory bowl with one’s feet on the seat’. One toilet notice in the 1960s warned: ‘Please don’t kangaroo the seat, / our breed of crabs can leap six feet’.

Kangaroos around the world

Two interesting kangaroo compounds have been created outside Australian English. The well-known kangaroo court (‘an improperly constituted court having no legal standing’) is first recorded in the United States in 1853, and is not recorded in Australian contexts until the 1940s. The term kangaroo closure (‘an arbitrary cessation of a parliamentary debate; a curtailment of a debate when the chair of a parliamentary committee selects some amendments for discussion and excludes others’) is less well known, although it shares with kangaroo court a notion of rough or arbitrary action. It seems to be a British invention, as this earliest reference to the term (in an Australian newspaper) expresses antipodean puzzlement:

‘Kangaroo closure’ is the latest bit of Westminster slang… Presumably it has been suggested by the prodigious leaps and bounds that are the chief characteristics of the big Australian marsupial… One would have thought that the simile of the kangaroo would have been coined in Australia rather than at Westminster.

Kangaroo is therefore at once the quintessential Australian word (it will appear as a symbol on flags during Australia Day celebrations) and an international word. While it is firmly part of World English, it possesses various meanings that exist only in Australian English – truly it is both international and regional at the same time.

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