Aussie lingo: kangaroo

By Frank Povah 7 November 2013
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We love these graceful, hopping marsupials, but where did the name kangaroo come from? Frank Povah tells us the yarn.

Many Australians came to believe our first fair-dinkum word meant “I don’t understand”. That was supposedly the answer given to Captain James Cook when he asked Aboriginal people the name of the creature he likened to a greyhound. A great yarn, but untrue.

When, in 1770, Endeavour was careened in the Queensland river that now bears its name, its crew most likely became the first Europeans to see a macropod. Involuntary hosts, the Guugu Yimidhirr people, told Cook the animal that “jump’d like a hare or deer” (now known to science as Macropus robustus) was a gangurru. To untrained ears, it sounded like “kangaroo”.

Governor Arthur Phillip sailed for Botany Bay in 1787, carrying with him Joseph Banks’s vocabulary of the “New Holland language”, thinking it would suffice for the entire continent. However, when the First Fleeters used “kangaroo” to describe what the Iora people called badagarang, the locals may have assumed the strangers were referring to an edible animal, for they asked if their cattle were also kangaroos.

And there’s a fascinating twist. When Europeans settled along the Darling River in NSW, “kangaroo” entered the Paakantyi language as gaanggurruu, meaning horse. To them this four-legged animal was as exotic as the word the whitefellas used to describe the bounding creature they knew as kirpatya.

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 100 (Oct – Dec 2010)

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